Bobcats are named for their stubby, “bobbed” tails, but it’s their furry sideburns that most people recognize. Full-grown bobcats don’t weigh much more than a chubby house cat. But a bobcat’s long legs make it stand nearly twice as tall as your tabby. Like any self-respecting cat, bobcats take lots of sun naps, give themselves tongue baths, and sharpen their claws on whatever’s handy. They usually stay tight- lipped but may hiss when scared, growl when mad, purr when happy, and meow to say, “what’s up.”
Bobcats aren’t picky about where they live. If there are rabbits to eat, places to hide, and dens to raise kittens, chances are a bobcat will be there — they even turn up in towns and suburbs. You may have a bobcat for a neighbor. But don’t worry. Unless you’re a rabbit, you have nothing to fear.
Rabbits top the menu in Missouri, but bobcats will eat whatever they can catch. Thanks to an arsenal of claws, jaws, and eyeballs, they catch quite a lot.
Not much escapes a bobcat’s keen eyes. Their peepers are about as big as yours, but their pupils can open three times wider. This lets in more light, helping bobcats pinpoint prey when it’s dark.
Bobcats usually keep their claws tucked into their paws. This keeps the claws razor sharp. When a bobcat’s ready for business, it unsheathes its terrible toenails, hooks them into prey, and hangs on until it can put its teeth into play.
Super strong jaws increase the number of critters bobcats can chomp. The feisty felines can take down animals 10 times their size, including small white-tailed deer. But a bobcat’s bite is especially bad news for bunnies. The cat’s canines — long, pointy teeth at the edges of its smile — fit perfectly between the bones of a rabbit’s spine. When a bobcat bites down, its teeth pierce the cottontail’s spinal cord, delivering a quick death.
At dawn and dusk, bobcats go on the prowl. If you tried to follow a hunting bobcat, you’d zigzag all over the place. Like house cats, bobcats are curious and investigate whatever catches their eye.
Once a bobcat spots prey, its focus becomes laser sharp. It crouches down and slinks closer, taking care to avoid snapping twigs or rustling leaves. Sneaking bobcats place their back paws in the footprints of their front paws, so no extra sound is made. When a bobcat has crept within striking range, it pounces, becoming a tawny brown blur of fur, claws, and fangs. Victims rarely hear a thing.
In winter, bobcats look for mates. Lovestruck females make loud yowls that can be heard a mile away. Although their boyfriends leave after just a few days, girl cats aren’t lonely for long. By spring, females are busy preparing dens in hollow logs, rocky caves, or tangled thickets. There, they give birth to a litter of two to four kittens.
Newborn kittens are blind and helpless. They mew when they’re hungry and purr when they eat. After 10 days of drinking mom’s milk, their eyes squint open, and they begin exploring their den.
Mama bobcats take good care of their kitties. Mom changes dens every week or so to keep predators from finding her family. When her kittens are too young to walk, she carries them gently by the scruff of their necks. At each new home, mom makes a leafy nest to keep her babies comfy.
Kittens start playing outside when they’re about a month old. They wrestle and stalk each other, wiggling their bottoms before they pounce. The toddlers tire easily and sometimes fall asleep in the middle of their games. When mom growls an alarm, the kittens scatter and hide until danger has passed.
When kittens are about 2 months old, mom begins cutting back on milk and starts bringing prey to the den. At first, kittens just bat at the prey, unsure whether to eat it or play with it. But their growling tummies get the best of them, and soon they’ve switched from drinking milk to eating meat.
Hunting lessons begin when the kittens are about 4 months old. Mom brings wounded prey back to the den, and her kittens practice pouncing on it. Once they pass that test, the kittens begin tagging along when mom goes hunting. At first, they simply watch mom and study her hunting tactics. When the kittens try to catch prey themselves, their first attempts usually fail. But by the time they’re 7 months old, young bobcats are well on their way to becoming rabbit-chomping shadow cats.
Nichole LeClair Terrill