“Bobcat tracks in the snow. Tell me, Mister Bobcat, where is it that you go?” ~Old Crow Medicine Show
The smallest wild cats in the Mitten State are enigmatic and elusive animals. Here are some amazingly awesome attributes of those beautiful, bobtailed bandits, the bobcats.
The Name Game
The bobcat’s scientific name is Lynx rufus. The genus lynx originates from an Indo-European term meaning “light” and was bestowed on bobcats and other members of the lynx family because of their reflective, luminescent eyes. The Latin rufus means red and refers to the cat’s reddish-brown fur. They were first described by German naturalist Johann Schreber in 1777. The origin of the common name is undoubtedly the cat’s stubby, bobbed tail. Other monikers around the U.S. include red lynx, bay lynx, bobtailed cat, and wildcat.
Sizing Them Up
Of the three wild cat species found in Michigan – the others being cougars and Canada lynx – bobcats are by far the most common. They’re also more diminutive, and on average, are about twice the size of a house cat. Adult lynx rufus range from 30-50 inches long, with 6-inch bobbed tails, and tip the scales at up to 30 pounds. Males are larger than their female counterparts by an average of 10 pounds.
Where a northern bobcat population lives – in Michigan or further north in Canada – dictates what their main food source will be. Cottontail rabbits or snowshoe hares are the main cuisine in cats found in the Mitten State, or in the land of Tim Horton’s and hockey, respectively. Other food items bobcats devour include birds, small rodents, squirrels, and insects. In David versus Goliath proportions, these cats are also extremely adept at killing white-tailed deer. Although they generally hunt fawns, a single bobcat has been known to take down a deer weighing 200 pounds!
According to MDNR wildlife biologist Adam Bump, accurately estimating bobcat numbers in Michigan is a difficult task. He did say that furbearer statistics suggest the number of these cats is stable and added, “One thing most Michiganders don’t realize is that bobcats are found in every county of our state!” Indeed, the bobcat is classified as a Least Concern animal on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) scale.
Amazingly, bobcats have been observed to jump as high as 12 feet. In a Superman comparison, if an adult male human had that capability, he’d be able to launch himself to the top of a six story building in a single bound! Bobcats can also motor at up to 35 miles per hour. That’s needed acceleration when you’re in the business of running down rabbits.
In Michigan, bobcats breed from winter into spring, with most of the mating taking place in February and March. Litter size ranges from one to six, with two to four being most common. The gestation period is 60 days. The female raises the kittens alone, which are blind at birth, and each weighs only as much as a can of beer. The young, sometimes called bob-kittens, wean at about two months. They grow quickly and can hunt on their own by autumn and, in most cases, disperse soon after. In Michigan, however, the bob-kittens have been known to hang with their protective mother until the next spring.
Plenty of Pads
Bobcats have one main den in their territory and prefer that to be a cave or deep crevice under a rock. This is their “natal den,” which they fill with dead plants for bedding in preparation for the birth of the young. Several additional abodes are constructed and are spread out through the territory and may include hollow logs, rock formations, and clumped bushes. For females, the extra shelters are especially helpful. To throw predators off the little ones’ scent, mother bobcats move their bob-kittens from one den to the next regularly.
Predation on the young is common with those wily coyotes being the biggest culprits. Cannibalism also occurs when wandering adult bobcats, usually males, prey on the helpless infants. Fully-grown bobcats have few natural predators. However, cougars are known to kill bobcats that tread on their territory.
Tuft and Ruff Relatives
While bobcats are members of the lynx family, that common name is more generally associated with the Canada lynx. On the surface, these two felines look somewhat alike as both are mid-sized cats with stumpy tails and hairy tufts at the tips of their pointed ears. A distinctive feature of both species is a fluffy “ruff” of fur that protrudes from either side of the face. Differences between the two include the Canada lynx being slightly bigger with longer limbs, larger feet, and longer ear tufts.
Another distinct discrepancy is that bobcats have short, reddish-brown coats with well-defined spots while lynx are grayer, shaggier, and have faded spots. Their posteriors also differ as the bobcat displays black bands on its tail, whereas a lynx’s tail sports only a solid, black tip. Because they’re found further north, Canada lynx have enlarged paws that act like snowshoes, enabling them to hunt more stealthily in the deep snow.
Bobcats and lynx are genetically very similar. Over the past several years, a handful of confirmed hybrids have turned up in the northern U.S. The result is an animal with the bobcat’s general build, a combination of colors from both species, and the larger ear tuffs of a lynx. Using the now popular portmanteau name bestowed on the hybrid animals, it’s dubbed a blynx!
Known as the “cats of the shadows,” bobcats are rarely seen during daylight and are much more active at dawn and dusk. In ecological terms, animals who favor these low-light conditions are called crepuscular. Bobcats usually wake up three hours before sunset and then go back to sleep around midnight; they rise again roughly an hour before dawn. In the early morning, the felines return to their slumber.
When food gets scarcer in our cold northern winters, however, bobcats tend to change their schedules and spend more time tracking down prey in broad daylight. They’re persistent in this quest and have been known to travel as far as eight miles while hunting.
Life in Northern Michigan forests can be challenging as the average bobcat only survives to be six or seven years old. Specimens reaching 12 years in the wild are documented as are cats surviving to a quarter-century in captivity.
Graceful and stealthy, bobcats are extraordinary hunters who can survive in many habitats. In Michigan, the bobcat is an adaptable predator that inhabits wooded areas, forest edges, and swampland environments. Like most cats, they’re primarily solitary and territorial. Territory sizes vary significantly from 1 to 20 square miles in area with boundaries that the cats mark with deposits of urine and feces. Males rule over the largest home ranges while the fiercest territorial battles occur between adjacent females.
Bobcats will often scurry for the safety of a nearby tree if threatened by a larger animal. These frisky felines have also been known to pounce onto unwary prey from overhanging tree limbs.
Bobcats can’t always consume their victims in one meal. In these cases, they’ll bury portions and will return periodically to dig up their leftovers. This behavior is known as “caching,” Unfortunately, burying a corpse won’t assure that it won’t be discovered by other carnivores. Crows, eagles, coyotes, bears, and cougars will gladly raid a bobcat’s stash if the opportunity arises!
In captivity, bobcats tend to be much more aggressive than the larger lynx. Some zookeepers call them the “spitfires of the animal kingdom!” None of our Michigan zoos currently house bobcats. Our buckeye-loving friends to the south, however, feature these felines at the Columbus and Cincinnati zoos.
In the 1980s, the remains of a young bobcat were discovered in a 2000-year-old man-made burial mound in western Illinois. It was part of a much larger burial site created by Native American groups in the Hopewell tradition. Scattered around its body were the beads of a necklace, which might have been used as a collar in life. Given these clues, some experts speculate that the young bobcat was once a beloved pet!
Those are a few fascinating, fun facts about those fabulous felines known as bobcats. Hopefully, you’ll steal a glimpse of one of these elusive and lovely creatures while exploring the woods and waters of the Wolverine State!