Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Bobcats

The bobcat, once a relatively abundant contemporary of the bison and elk, is the smallest native member of the cat family in North America. Known to early settlers and travelers of Illinois as wildcat, short-tailed wildcat, bay lynx, and catamount, bobcats were a formidable enemy of the settlers' free-ranging sows and piglets. In early Illinois the bobcat was common and high up on the food chain. When widespread in Illinois, the bobcat was most often found in counties with heavy timber stands or along major waterways. Today, this endangered species is most likely encountered in the wooded regions of the northwestern and southern counties. Its inherent caution and tendency to "mind its own business" have enabled it to persist in some agricultural regions, as long as tracts of suitable woodland habitat remain.

At first glance the bobcat may appear to be a timid creature, running at the slightest provocation. In reality, a bobcat will invariably detect the approach of any invader, quietly leave its resting place, and silently retreat without ever being seen or heard. When cornered or attacked by enemies, though, it becomes a different creature--a wild, slashing demon of unlimited courage. It screams, growls, spits, hisses, and tries to scratch out the eyes and every other part of an enemy's anatomy.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus) resting in tree.

Bobcats usually weigh less than 25 pounds. The color and weight of their coats are somewhat dependent on where the animals dwell, what they eat, and their ages. To the rabbits, squirrels, mice, and other small game on which they feed, bobcats are a persistent and remorseless enemy. To locate prey bobcats use their acute vision and hearing. Large feet enable them to prowl softly through the night while hunting for food; cryptic coloration helps them blend with their surroundings. An old myth claims that a bobcat will hide in dense cover and attract game by rapidly twitching its tail. This is not true; on average, the animal covers two to seven miles in an evening while looking for food.

One of the few times a bobcat may be heard is in early winter. The males begin to squall and yowl to capture the attention of a passing female. After a successful serenade (usually from January to late February) bobcats mate, and following a gestation period of about 50 days, the female gives birth to one to four kittens. Bobcat kittens do not open their eyes until they are nine days old. Born unskilled in the art of hunting, kittens can learn to kill their own food when the mother bobcat brings live prey to the den. The female keeps them with her through early autumn until their education in the ways of the bobcat is complete.

The last thing on a bobcat's mind is to become entangled with people. They are so successful at keeping out of sight that few humans are ever aware of their presence. Even those who do catch a quick glimpse often aren't sure whether they have seen a real bobcat, a stub-tailed version of a house cat, or an apparition--a phantom of the forest.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology.

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Last Modified 8/16/96

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