The bobcat makes a comeback

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11261128561976.jpg’, ‘Photo by Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The bobcat is one of the few remaining wild felines in North America.’);

The bobcat or wildcat is about twice the size of an overgrown tabby, and it gets its name from its short or bobbed tail. It is a stout animal with large feet and ears and a ruff of hair on each side of its head. The thick fur is pale rufous-brown, and small tufts of hair extend from the tips of the ears. Some individuals, fed on tales handed down through generations, shudder at the very mention of a wildcat, and imagine, embodied in this animal, all the ferocity and terror of the wild.

Bobcats were common and widespread in Illinois when the first European settlers arrived, but “civilization” gradually took its toll as habitat was destroyed and hunters and trappers killed them indiscriminately. Their numbers were decimated dramatically by the late 1800s, and by the 1980s they were thought to be absent from the Midwest. Bobcats were added belatedly to the state’s threatened species list in 1977.

In recent years, the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University has conducted a study of bobcat populations throughout the state. Alan Woolf, the director of the laboratory, says “Bobcats are now even more abundant and far healthier than we suspected.” He reports confirmed bobcat sightings in northern Illinois went from 70 in 1992 to 216 in 1998. Higher numbers of sightings were made in the state’s southern third, going from 98 in 1992 to 425 in 1998. These numbers convinced state conservation officials to remove the bobcat from the list of threatened species in 1999. However, the hunting, trapping, or keeping of bobcats is prohibited.

From time to time, one hears of bobcat sightings in the Rock River Valley, and, undoubtedly they are present in the more remote parts of our area. It is a nocturnal animal; shy and furtive and not often seen. Officials believe that many of the reported sightings of mountain lions or cougars in northern Illinois are actually bobcats that are magnified in the eyes of the beholder.

The bobcat admirably fulfills the role of predator in the natural food chain. He prefers small mammals and ground-nesting birds to satisfy his food needs, but has never been incriminated with the decimation of cattle or sheep herds. Sheep ranchers in the West, however, put the bobcat in the same class as the coyote as a predator on their flocks. I feel sure that from time to time a bobcat has had a young, isolated lamb for dinner, but lamb chops are not an item on his usual menu. They gorge themselves when prey is plentiful and may not eat again for several days.

Bobcats have a keen sense of sight and hearing, and usually adopt a stalk-and-pounce method of attack. Prey that is missed on the pounce seldom gets more than a few yards away before being caught.

The great strength of a bobcat and its fierceness seem hardly necessary considering the weakness of his usual prey, but it has a great reputation as a fighter if cornered. There was an old saying that was used to describe the fighting ability of a he-man: “He can whip his weight in wildcats.”

Some years ago, I was walking down a dry creek bed in the sheep-producing Big Bend area of west Texas when I found the complete, sun-blanched skeleton of a bobcat. There was a neat, round hole between the eye sockets of the skull that appeared to have been made by a 30-caliber rifle bullet, probably fired by some irate sheep herder. I thought at first the skeleton might be that of a juvenile mountain lion, so I took the skull to an expert in vertebrate anatomy at the university, and he assured me it was the skull of a bobcat.

The bobcat’s calls are simply that of a house cat magnified. It mews, yowls, caterwauls, howls, growls, and hisses, and in captivity has been known to purr.

It would be a shame to allow this member of the few remaining wild felines to vanish from North America, and we are indebted to the wildlife scientists at Southern Illinois University who are striving to prevent this from occurring.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2005, issue

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