Like most of us, I have had very limited experience with bobcats and three of my four encounters occurred outside New York State.
Remarkably, the only two times I have seen a wild bobcat, although two years apart, were almost certainly the same animal. And the circumstances were nearly identical. Each time I was driving through Fort Clinch State Park near Jacksonville, Florida when I rounded a curve and came upon a bobcat trotting away from me along the road.
I was so close, perhaps fifteen yards from the animal, that I could see the characteristic black markings on the top of its short tail. This bobcat was larger than a house cat, but a more evident difference was its longer legs. In appearance it appeared half way between a cat and a dog.
Both times the cat paid little attention to my car but after perhaps fifty yards it simply drifted off into the scrub growth at roadside leaving me delighted to have interacted even briefly with a species that was so outside my experience.
Several years ago I also saw a penned bobcat at a game farm in Pennsylvania. Its pen was separated from another containing a puma. Both animals I was told had been raised by well-meaning people who soon found that cuddly kittens taken from the wild would quickly grow into uncontrollable beasts.
My fourth experience was my only in-state encounter. A group of us were camping just west of Balsam Lake Mountain in the Catskills. We had just finished supper when we heard a series of loud screams coming from a nearby pine grove. Several of us immediately searched the woods to locate the animal but we did not find it. I am certain that it was a bobcat.
Here in western New York we are not in the designated range of the bobcat. We are in fact in an extensive hole in their range for they are found in eastern New York, in most of Pennsylvania, in Canada only a few miles north of Toronto and in the mitt of Michigan. Indeed, their range includes over 3/4 of the United States mainland.
I am told, however, that our exclusion hole is shrinking as an increasing population of bobcats is forcing a range extension. I would like to receive reports from readers who come across these interesting animals in western New York and nearby Canada. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation also accepts such reports, not only of bobcats, but of otters, fishers, martins and weasels as well, through its website or by phone at 372-0645.
As I have noted, bobcats are quite different in appearance from house cats. Their fur is short-haired with a background of gray or tan with an orange cast. Usually they are black spotted. We have no lynx here so there is no chance of confusion with them.
Their one to three inch tracks show no claw marks and are about a third larger than those of house cats. When the bobcat is walking or trotting the tracks are between 20 and 46 inches apart; when running that increases to four to eight feet. Like all cats, the tracks of their hind feet fit exactly into those of their fore feet; thus you see only the prints of what appears to be a two-legged animal.
Bobcats are carnivores whose primary food is rabbits but they take whatever they can find, from insects through deer in size. Deer are usually taken as fawns in winter. Farmers don't like them because they will kill not only poultry but sheep and goats. They are stealth hunters, lying in wait for prey or creeping up on them before making a quick dash and grab.
Bobcats generally mate in late winter or early spring and the gestation period is about two months. Thus kittens – usually two to four -- are born in April or May. The mother alone cares for her young often in a hollow log or shallow cave. The kittens are weaned in two months and stay with their mother until fall, when they strike out on their own to find new ranges.
Although bobcat kittens are preyed upon by owls and foxes, the adults have only two major predators: coyotes and humans. We hunt and trap them and kill them with our cars.