‘Adaptable’ But Secretive Bobcats Can Share Suburban Habitat With Humans
December 12, 2022
JOHNSTON, R.I. — The big cat saunters across the driveway, bobbed tail swaying, passing in front of two parked cars before the doorbell camera cuts off.
The video, posted on the neighborhood app Nextdoor, came with a question: Anyone else see an animal like this? It looks like a bobcat.
After watching the video, Mary Gannon, the wildlife outreach coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, confirmed the animal is “a very healthy-looking bobcat.”
Is it unusual for a bobcat to be wandering around suburban Johnston? Not so much, said Morgan Lucot, a furbearer biologist with DEM. Bobcats are “very adaptable,” and are the most widely distributed feline in North American, she said.
Bobcats are “meso-carnivores,” meaning they will eat just about any animal, from squirrels to birds to snakes to small deer, according to Lucot.
It’s undetermined how many bobcats roam Rhode Island, Lucot said, but their numbers are growing. Although the habitats they prefer — forested land, large fields — are diminishing, their adaptability means they can adjust to any environment.
“Carnivores that are highly adaptable aren’t always negatively affected by” an urban environment, Lucot said, and can sometimes turn it to their advantage, eating backyard chickens, say, or unsecured trash.
“We’ve gotten sightings from Johnston before, as well as from Smithfield and Cranston,” Gannon said. Although bobcats can be found throughout Rhode Island, their highest numbers are in Washington County (South County).
The shy, secretive cats are solitary, unless they are mating or raising young. The cats mate between February and May, and the kittens — an average litter has three — are born in June. The young stay with the mother until the following spring. Lucot said while she’s rearing her kittens the mother will choose a den, usually in a boulder pile or underneath exposed tree roots. She said she’s known bobcats to den under a shed, near a plentiful supply of food.
Bobcats are roamers, Lucot said, walking up to 12 miles a night. The cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. DEM partnered with the University of Rhode Island several years ago to track bobcats with GPS collars, Gannon said. A video discussing the results of the study can be found on YouTube. One bobcat tagged in the study was tracked from South Kingstown to eastern Connecticut and back over the course of a week.
Bobcats are native to New England and were considered “varmints” by early settlers and were hunted as such. It wasn’t until 1969 that Massachusetts, the first New England state to do so, declared the bobcat a “game species,” which meant the cats could only be hunted during a particular time, and there was a limit to how many could be killed.
So what should you do if you suspect you are sharing your land with a bobcat? First, look for tracks. Bobcat tracks look like common house cats’, only much larger: bobcat tracks are typically about 1 1/2 inches long by 1 3/8 inches wide. In contrast, coyote (and most other dog tracks) are longer than they are wide. Bobcats weigh between 15 and 30 pounds, and with their fluffy fur can look much larger.
“They look like cute furry cats but are not,” Lucot warned. Don’t approach them, she said. Instead, make noise, bang pots and pans, and “shoo them away.”
“It’s best for the animal to be scared,” Lucot said. “We don’t want them getting used to people.”
While “it might be exciting to get a bobcat in our backyard, it’s not legal to feed them,” Lucot said.
She recommended that homeowners bring in small animals and livestock, such as chickens, after dark. Enclosures should be checked frequently for holes, and outdoor pet dishes should be brought in overnight as well.