Historically, Maine had three wildcats roaming its vast forests. The smallest of the three is the elusive bobcat and it can still be spotted by the lucky hiker or hunter.
The bobcat is so unique and mysterious that it has two taxonomic classification names. It goes by Lynx rufus and Felis rufus. Most reference books prefer the first.
Regardless of what the wildlife biologists call the bobcat, we can be sure that it will forever live on the fringes of human society. The tenacity of this cat is the reason why it has survived near human development where other species have been driven or killed off.
It is powerful enough to kill a large animal, such as a deer, but it will also hunt birds, mice, insects, and even domestic cats that have strayed too far from their owner's home. The bobcat thinks nothing of eating carrion and will do what it has to do to survive.
Most bobcats are less than 36 inches from the tip of its snout to its stubby tail. It will stand 18 inches from the ground on its powerful stout legs. The track shows that the claws are retracted. Also the set of tracks will be perfect, meaning that they are formed in a straight line, which is common for hunting animals. Domestic dogs will exhibit an imperfect walk with many side meandering interruptions as it explores and plays.
The bobcat loves the dense woods and fringes of large swamps. It will often take up a 25 square mile range for hunting and mating. Female cats are slightly smaller than males and will produce one to two kittens in each litter.
The lynx prefers the vast remote woods and swamps of northern Maine. It hunts the snowshoe hare almost exclusively.
Wildlife biologists also are struggling with identifying and classifying the lynx, as indicated by its two classification names, Lynx canadensis and Felis lynx. The first is preferred by most.
The lynx is noticeably larger than the bobcat, standing 24 inches tall and slightly under four feet from tip of nose to its stubby tail. Its color is more uniform than the spotted coat of the bobcat but its ear tufts distinguish itself as well as its big round paws. The paws are like snowshoes and support the weight of the cat when it hunts for the snowshoe hare in the thick swamps.
The tracks of the lynx are noticeably larger than those of the bobcat and they may even be mistaken for the tracks of the mountain lion. The mountain lion will sometimes drag its tail between the tracks in the snow but the stubby tail of the lynx prevents that.
By the way, the easiest way to tell the difference between a canine track and a feline track, (besides the retracted claws of the cat) is that the feline track is as long as it is wide. The canine track is longer than the width. In other words, the cat track has a rounded appearance.
The largest wildcat by far is the cougar, or mountain lion. Though long expatriated, this feline ghost of the forest is making occasional appearances throughout Maine.
Still, Maine wildlife biologists discount the feasibility of a lion population and only state that the lion is probably an unauthorized release by various individuals. Oh, sure. How many of your friends do you know of that are raising mountain lion cubs in their homes just to release them into the wilds?
There were a couple of mountain lion sightings in southern Maine in the past few years. All were very close to each other and within the 30 mile territory range. The closest sighting was in Arundel (where there were two sightings) and the other one was in Waterboro.
A few years ago, a mountain lion crossed the road in front of a driver near Bethel. Misidentification is not likely. That driver was, coincidentally, a wildlife biologist.
Besides, it's pretty hard to mistake a mountain lion with another four-legged critter. First, the cat is between six and eight feet long from nose to tip of tail. No other animal in Maine has a long tail similar to the mountain lion. The tracks are three inches wide and sometimes show where the tail has touched the ground.
There's no argument that sightings are rare but that's understandable. All wildcats of Maine prefer the solitude of the dense woods and swamps.
These are mysterious animals with little known about their daily habits. Those who have seen any one or all three of these felines are luckier than most of us.
Keep a sharp eye when walking in the woods and you too may be one of the privileged few to spot one of Maine's wild cats.
R.J. Mere is a noted local naturalist and outdoors writer. He can be reached by mail (9 York St., Kennebunk ME 04043), phone (985-4420) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)