Published: Saturday, April 4, 2009
By ANDREW WOLFE Staff Writer
Hunters and trappers killed 50 bobcats in Massachusetts last year, hitting the state's quota for the first time since it was set in 1977, a state wildlife biologist said. Bobcats have been spotted in all but Boston and southeastern Massachusetts, Hajduk said, including nine sightings in the last seven years within the Worcester city limits.
Though cold comfort for those 50, the kills bode well for the bobcats, which seem to be bouncing back in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, biologists said.
That doesn't mean you'll see one anytime soon.
"Bobcats are generally shy and elusive. You very rarely see them just walking around," Massachusetts Fish and Game biologist Laura Hajduk told an audience of about 75 people who came to hear her talk about bobcats recently at the Nashua River Watershed Association headquarters in Groton, Mass.
Bobcats are a top-line predator in New England. Humans aside, New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist Pat Tate said recently, "There aren't any predators that prey on bobcats."
Because of their solitary and elusive nature, not much is known about the habits and lifestyle of bobcats in New England. It's illegal to hunt them in New Hampshire, but wildlife biologists with the University of New Hampshire and state Fish and Game Department have teamed up for a three-year study starting this fall.
New Hampshire biologists plan to focus their study in the regions around Keene and Plymouth, and will begin by trapping 10 to 15cats in each area, sedating and studying them and then releasing them with radio tracking collars. A similar study is ongoing in Vermont.
"You can't just line them up and count them," Tate said. Adding later, "New England bobcats haven't been studied at great length, because of their elusiveness and because of the cost."
"They don't call back like a lot of birds do," Hajduk said. Adding later, "They are very difficult to capture, very difficult to handle."
Biologists hope the study will give a better picture of bobcats around the state, and also help gauge the effectiveness of a major wildlife corridor from the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts to Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire, Tate said.
Bobcats were wiped out of Massachusetts and most of New England during the colonial years and into the 1800s, Hajduk said, along with beaver, wolves, cougar and elk. Bobcats began to return as farmers migrated west and forest reclaimed their fields, she said.
Bobcats were viewed as a nuisance during most of the 20th century, however, and New Hampshire and Massachusetts paid bounties for their pelts throughout most of the 1900s, creating a record of the population while trying to extirpate it.
"In the past, bobcats were viewed as varmints. They were predators that people did not want on the landscape," Hajduk said. "They were something we needed to be rid of."
New Hampshire ended its bounty program in 1973, five years after Massachusetts, and outlawed bobcat hunting in 1977, six years after Massachusetts opened season, according to MassWildlife and the New Hampshire Bobcat Study Web site created by UNH ecology professor John Litvaitis. Now, bobcats may be bouncing back.
There have been about 50 bobcat sightings around New Hampshire in the last two years, including three in Hudson, Tate said. Cars have killed about 30 bobcats on New Hampshire roads in the past two years, including two in Merrimack, and one each in Amherst and Milford, Tate said.
"We get some great reports when people see a bobcat in Worcester," Hajduk said. "They are absolutely shocked."
Bobcats are New Hampshire and Massachusetts's only native wild cats (unconfirmed cougar sightings excepted), biologists say. Lynx have been known to cross the Canadian border to visit northern New Hampshire, but there are no known lynx breeding in the state, Tate said. Northern New Hampshire is the northern edge of the bobcat's natural range, and the southern edge for the lynx, he said. (Bobcats are a member of the lynx genus, and lynx-bobcat hybrids have been found in Minnesota, federal researchers report).
Bobcats and coyote compete for some of the same prey, but bobcats are pickier, Hajduk said.
"Coyotes will eat literally anything," she said.
Bobcats will occasionally take livestock, but rabbits are their favorite meal, and they eat mainly squirrels, snakes and mice, biologists said. They have been known to take young or sickly deer, and though they prefer to make their own kills, they will scavenge, Tate said. Their 28 teeth include four large canines and are designed to shear off chucks of meat, which they swallow whole, Hajduk said.
Bobcats will generally choose flight over fight, despite their sharp teeth and claws, Tate said. If cornered and confronted, they can be formidable, however. A coyote will snatch an untended bobcat kitten, Tate said, but they avoid mature bobcats. Your dog might tree a bobcat, but you'd better hope the cat stays there.
"A bobcat would absolutely cause some severe physical damage to a dog," Tate said.
Bobcats attacks on humans are extremely rare, especially in the east, but a rabid bobcat attacked five people in Greenfield, Mass., in 2003, and another rabid bobcat attacked a domestic dog and a horse last year, Hajduk said. New Hampshire has no recorded cases of rabies in bobcats, Tate said.
Bobcats are named for their rear ends, as their tails are naturally short. Otherwise, they look a bit like a domestic cat might, if felines played professional sports.
Bobcats average around 15 to 35 pounds, though their thick coat makes them look a lot bigger, especially in winter, Hajduk said. Northern cats tend to grow larger, and a hunter in Maine once bagged a 76-pound bobcat, she said.
Their topcoats can be a reddish brown or gray, while their flanks and undersides are lighter, but spotted. Seen from behind, their ears are distinctively white, with a dark nearly black outline, Hajduk said.
Bobcats are most active around sunrise and sunset. While your chances of seeing one are never better than slim, you may find tracks if one has been around, especially in winter (snow makes for terrific tracking). Bobcat tracks tend to be in the neighborhood of two inches in diameter, with four front toes spaced more or less evenly in front of the heel pad, which has a distinctive notch in the front lobe. Bobcats tend to step on the same spot with their front and hind paws, so to the tracks may show as one imprinted over the other. Bobcats have claws, but you won't see them in their tracks. Like any cat, they keep them sharp and sheathed amongst their toes.
Bobcats breed in the early spring, around February and March, and they are most vocal at that time, Hajduk said. Generally quiet and stealthy, bobcats may snarl if threatened, and scream bloody murder if looking for a mate, "just like a feral tom cat," Hajduk said.
"In early March, if you hear some eerie screams coming from the woods, there's a good chance that you heard a bobcat," she said.
Female bobcats go into heat in their first year, while males don't begin to breed until their second season, Hajduk said. Once they've done the deed, males have naught else to do with propagating the species, she said.
The female bobcat bears a litter of one to four kittens each summer, and raises them alone, Hajduk said. The kittens stay close to their den at first, then follow their mom around all summer, learning to hunt and hide, she said. Come late fall, they wander off on their own. Bobcats are not social, she said, though they will tolerate other cats in their territory.
A bobcat may range over 200 square kilometers, covering several miles a day, but if food, shelter and water are at hand, it also may stick to a single square kilometer. As the bobcats spread into more human-populated areas, the potential for human conflict increases. Though far more shy than coyote, bobcats are nearly as adaptable, she said.
"They're not going to den under your deck, but they will certainly look for the rabbit den under your deck," Hajduk said. "Where there is food, these bobcats will go."
Bobcats haven't changed, but people's views of them have. Now, most people are happy to know that the big cats are out there, somewhere nearby.
"They are very highly viewed by the general public," Hajduk said. "Whether you ever see a bobcat or not, you just like knowing that it's there."
Bobcats have been spotted in all but Boston and southeastern Massachusetts, Hajduk said, including nine sightings in the last seven years within the Worcester city limits.
On the net
Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife:
Vermont Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit:
Understanding bobcats in the Granite State:
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org