#WildlifeLove: Why Bobcats Are So Fierce

These elusive felines are shy, territorial, ferocious — and altogether fascinating.

By Reed Sparling

Extremely shy and secretive, bobcats are one of the hardest mammals to spot in the Hudson Valley. But with bare trees and perhaps a blanket of snow, your chances improve of glimpsing one of these beautiful creatures that resemble a house cat on steroids (minus the long tail). As you continue keeping an eye out for Lynx rufus, check out these wild facts about them.

Bobcat resting incognito. (Photo: Len Blumin / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

The stubby (“bobbed”) tail, from which bobcats derive their name, is the result of a genetic mutation. Biologists aren’t sure about the reason for the mutation; it doesn’t seem to have helped or hurt bobcats’ chances of survival.

Bobcats feed primarily on small mammals — rabbits, mice, moles, and squirrels. But if they are very hungry and small prey is scarce (especially during a cold winter), they’re capable of hunting down deer 10 times their weight. They kill the animal by jumping on its back and biting through its neck. 

Bobcat on the prowl. (Photo: dbarronoss / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Bobcats are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active in low-light conditions, around dawn and dusk. In between, they take “cat naps.” A prowling bobcat will travel up to four miles in search of prey. 

Bobcats can leap up to 10 feet and jump almost as high. In addition, they’re excellent rock climbers, can scale trees, and (unlike most house cats) are very adept at swimming.

Bobcat lying low in a hollow tree trunk. (Photo: Valerie / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Local Indigenous peoples hunted bobcats for food and fur. Elsewhere around the country, the animals are denigrated by some Indigenous tribes and revered by others. The Hopi in the Southwest consider them greedy and selfish; Hopi men who treat women cruelly are called bobcats. To the Pawnee people, today based primarily in Oklahoma, the creatures have celestial associations. For many years, babies born to Pawnee parents were wrapped in bobcat furs, to bestow a blessing from the stars.

Bobcats in New York once had wildcat company — Canada Lynx and Eastern cougars. Lynx may have been present in the state only during periods of migration; today, they venture no farther south than Maine. Cougars, which weigh up to 225 pounds (as opposed to a 35-pound maximum for bobcats), most definitely resided in New York, but they were hunted to extinction here by the early 1900s.

A bobcat spotted in winter in the Hudson Valley. (Photo: Harry J. Gorman)

Bobcats are territorial creatures. A male bobcat will confine himself to a “home” range of about 30 square miles, as opposed to five square miles for females. They mark their territories by posting what amount to “no trespassing” scent-signs (urine and feces). While the ranges of male bobcats occasionally overlap, females refuse to share their spaces with others of the same sex.

They’re solitary animals, only getting together with others to mate. While male bobcats will breed with many females, the females typically have a single mate. During breeding season, the males sometimes emit a piercing scream that can be heard for miles.

A bobcat spotted at Peach Hill Park, Poughkeepsie. (Photo: Scenic Hudson)

Bobcats are blind and helpless at birth. When born in April or May, usually in a litter of one to four kittens, they stay put with their mother in a secluded den — perhaps a rock crevice, brush pile, or hollowed-out tree that she has lined with grass and leaves. The young begin leaving the den to hunt around one month old, but usually remain with their mom through the first winter. The kittens’ biggest threat while out in the open comes from foxes, owls, and adult male bobcats. Infanticide is relatively common — male bobcats will kill kittens apparently to get their mother to go back into heat so he can spread his genes.

Reed Sparling is a staff writer and historian at Scenic Hudson. He is the former editor of Hudson Valley Magazine, and currently co-edits the Hudson River Valley Review, a scholarly journal published by the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.