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The bobcat (Felis rufus) is a moderate-sized member of the cat family. The name is appropriate because they sport a stubby tail only four or five inches long. Bobcats range in length from 30 to 50 inches, stand about 2 feet high and weigh from 15 to 30 pounds. Large tufts of fur on the cheeks are characteristic of the species. The fur is reddish-brown above and a whitish below, and black spots or streaks are throughout the coat. Bobcats live as long as 10 to 12 years in the wild. Eerie screams are often emitted by bobcats during the night.
Many scientific studies have documented that bobcats are entirely carnivorous. Their preferred prey are rabbits, but they also feed on rats, mice, moles and squirrels. Some studies have reported that small deer are occasionally taken by bobcats. Carcasses of kills too large to move, such as small deer may be cached or hidden for latter meals.
Bobcats are territorial and generally solitary animals with limited social life. Territorial scent-marking with urine and scats, especially by males, has been reported. Mating generally occurs in early spring during February and March, and the young are born after a 62-day gestation period. An average litter of three kittens is born in April or May. The female may move the kittens to several different dens during the growth period. Males do not assist in raising the young. The young generally remain with the female until they reach one year of age. At that time they learn predatory skills necessary for survival. After one year, the young disperse, and the female will enter another reproductive season. Some adults have shown that kitten survival is associated with prey abundance, with more young surviving during the years of higher rabbit populations.
Typical bobcat habitat is characteristic as remote, well forested areas of rugged topography with cliffs, bluffs or rocky outcrops. The unglaciated region of south central Indiana seems to provide the best bobcat habitat in the Hoosier state. Limestone caves found in this region, as well as rocky outcrops, hollow trees and logs could be used as denning sites. Bottomland hardwood forests along river systems bounded by large bluffs and timbered slopes are also considered good bobcat habitat.
Bobcats are a far-ranging mammal, having home ranges as large as 20 square miles They are primarily nocturnal, hunting and moving during early morning and late evening hours. Their secretive, nocturnal behavior and preference for remote areas make interactions between humans and bobcats relatively rare. Bobcats are agile and accomplished climbers. They can dart around rock ledges in pursuit of prey or can scurry up trees to escape from dogs.
Bobcats once ranged throughout Indiana before settlement of the Hoosier state. Loss of habitat because of forest clearing and new settlements in remote areas probably caused the drastic population decline. As a result, the bobcat was classified as endangered in 1969, providing full protection for this rare species, but the bobcat was able to be removed from the list in 2005 due to its increased population. A database was created in 1989 to record bobcat sightings. A total of 38 confirmed bobcat sightings have been recorded along with dozens of unconfirmed reports. Some reports are actually feral cat sightings. Without physical evidence, photos or expert confirmation, most reports are viewed with skepticism. Data accumulated to date suggests that bobcats occur at moderate levels in the forested, southcentral portion of the state, and to a lesser extent, in the natural lakes region of northwest Indiana.
In neighboring Ohio and Illinois the bobcat is also considered a rare species. Bobcats are more common in Michigan and Kentucky, where they are a game species trapped for their valuable fur.
Man is the bobcat’s worst enemy. Habitats needed by the bobcat for survival have been converted to agricultural use or developed for an expanding human population. Bobcats have been needlessly destroyed because of the misconception that they are terrible predators. They are, in fact, a beneficial predator, preying heavily on rats and mice.
The Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program began a study in December 1998 to determine the abundance and distribution of bobcats in the state. The project is focused on southcentral Indiana. Bobcats are trapped, radiocollared and then tracked to determine habitat use, reproduction and abundance. Data gathered from the study will be used to create management guidelines.