Bobcats are about twice the size of a common house cat. They stand 20 to 23 inches high at the shoulder and are 30 to 35 inches in length. Weights vary from 10 to 40 pounds. Females average about one-third smaller than males. They get their name from a short, bobbed tail that is about 5 to 6 1/2 inches in length. Small tufts of hair extend from the tips of their ears, making them look pointed. A ruff of long fur that extends along the cheekbones gives their face a full, rounded appearance. The upper body is yellowish-gray to light brown with a sprinkling of black. Their summer coats can have a reddish tinge, as indicated by their species name, rufus, which is Latin for red. The belly and inner legs are whitish or yellowish with black spots.
Distribution & Abundance
Historically, bobcats occurred throughout Illinois but were most common in forested parts of the state. Habitat changes and unregulated harvest caused their numbers to decline dramatically by the late 1800's. During 1977, bobcats were placed on Illinois’ first official list of threatened species. Bobcats responded well to protection and habitat restoration. During the 1990's, a study conducted by the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University confirmed reports of bobcats in all but three counties. At that time, bobcats were common in southern Illinois and expanding northward. Bobcats were removed from the list of state threatened species in 1999.
Illinois'; bobcat population continues to grow. Statewide, the number of bobcats sighted by archery deer hunters increased more than ten-fold from 1992 to 2012. This trend is supported by intensive studies in the southern third of the state, where the number of bobcats increased from 2,200 in 2000 to 3,200 by 2009. Today, it is estimated that as many as 5,000 bobcats occur in the state.
Bobcats prefer large forested or wooded areas. Forest lands with immature trees, thick underbrush, occasional clearings, cliffs and timbered swamps are generally best. Common den sites include fallen trees, hollow logs or trees, thickets, caves and rock piles. Some bobcats make their dens in abandoned or little-used barns and buildings. Viewed by many as a "wilderness species," the bobcat's shy, secretive habits allow it to live surprisingly close to people.
Bobcats are most active at night, dusk and dawn. Daytime movements are rare except during the breeding season and occasionally during winter when food is scarce. They remain active all year long. While capable of swimming, they avoid water. Bobcats are excellent climbers and use trees for resting, observation and to escape enemies. Like domestic cats, they sharpen their front claws on dead trees or other objects. Bobcats mark their territories with droppings, urine and gland secretions to warn strangers to stay away.
Territories of the adult males studied in southern Illinois averaged about 8 square miles; those of adult females were about 3 square miles. Territories of both sexes overlap.
Illinois bobcats have a high survival rate once they reach a year old. They're protected by closed hunting and trapping seasons. Most deaths are caused by vehicles. Predation is rare, but kittens are killed occasionally by coyotes, domestic dogs, hawks and owls.
Bobcats are curious animals, zig-zagging to investigate objects that catch their attention. They usually move at a walk or trot. Dirt roads, railways and game trails are common travel routes between hunting and resting places. Bobcats rely heavily on their keen sight and hearing to locate prey. Their hunting strategies are based on a wait-and-pounce or stalk-and-pounce approach. Prey that are missed on the first pounce are seldom chased for more than a few yards. Bobcats usually are quiet but can make low growls or high-pitched screams. Squalls, howls, meows and yowls are sometimes heard during the mating season, when they tend to be more vocal. Captive bobcats have been known to purr. The same is probably true for wild ones.
Common foods include rabbits, squirrels, birds and rodents such as mice, voles and rats. Bobcats gorge themselves when food is plentiful and may not feed again for several days. They seldom return to eat from an old kill unless food is scarce.
Mating peaks in February, but the season can last from early January through June. Most litters arrive in late April or early May after a gestation period (pregnancy) of 50 to 70 days. Litter sizes average two to three kittens. Newborns weigh about 12 ounces and are 10 inches in length. They have spotted fur and sharp claws. Their eyes open at 9 to 11 days of age. Not long after, the kittens venture outside the den to play. They're weaned at about 2 months of age, but most remain with their mother until fall or the next spring. Some females are sexually mature and mate when they're 1 year old.
Maintaining and managing forest habitats are important conservation measures for bobcats. In some cases, forests need complete protection because they're located in key areas or provide homes for rare plants and animals. Illinois nature preserves and natural areas help to meet this goal.
Cutting trees for timber, pulp and firewood is good for wildlife as long as it's done responsibly. Sunlight is the key to the composition of the forest. Very little sunlight reaches the ground in a mature stand of trees, which means that grasses, wild raspberries and other sun-loving plants cannot grow here. As these plants disappear, so do animals such as rodents and rabbits that depend on them for food. Animals like bobcats that eat rodents and rabbits aren't far behind.