Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
The distinctively feline tracks through the snow in our woods last winter intrigued me. They would follow the narrow ski trail a ways, then meander into the trees or, sometimes, seem to disappear altogether. There was no way, I thought, a house kitty was so far from home in the deep of winter, and besides, these tracks were a bit large for your average cat.
Then it hit me: these were bobcat tracks!
I’ve been looking for the “phantom of the forest” ever since that revelation. While I haven’t laid eyes on one, more and more people around the northeast – from city suburbs to rural woodlots – have been seeing these elusive cats lately.
The bobcat population in the northeast peaked in the early-to-mid-1900s, as farmland gave way to scrubby forest regeneration. It’s no coincidence that white-tailed deer and cottontail rabbit populations also peaked at that time. As the forest grew back, populations of all three animal species declined. An unrestricted harvest on these wily felines (both Vermont and New Hampshire paid bounties on bobcats until the early 1970s) and harsh weather cycles also took a toll. Plus, bobcats struggled to compete with fishers and coyotes, two animal species that didn’t exist in much of the northeast 40 years ago.
In New Hampshire, bobcat populations dropped so low that hunting and trapping seasons were officially closed in 1977, reopened briefly, and then closed again in1989.
Today, the bobcat population in both New Hampshire and Vermont seems to be rising.
“The furbearer species are notoriously boom and bust; their population ebbs and flows with food availability, habitat, and weather conditions,” said Chris Bernier, furbearer biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “Our population here in Vermont is thriving.”
New Hampshire Fish and Game and the University of New Hampshire embarked on a collaborative long-range study of bobcat habitat, prey use, and home range sizes in 2009. Fish and Game estimates that 1,400-2,200 bobcats now live in New Hampshire.
The animal’s resurgence has New Hampshire considering opening a bobcat season for the first time in 25 years. Not surprisingly, even the mere suggestion has sparked controversy. With their attractive looks and secretive nature, bobcats have developed a devoted following among their human neighbors. In many ways these tenacious cats symbolize wildness: stealthy, solitary, quietly powerful, and beautiful.
Bobcats live throughout the continental United States and from southern Canada to Mexico. A female’s home range is about 12 square miles, and a male’s can stretch to 36 square miles. But bobcats will sometimes travel much greater distances, likely seeking new territory or better hunting. One bobcat collared near Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire traveled north to Canada and over to Maine.
Their tawny coats and spotted underbellies provide camouflage in the scrubby forests and rocky outcrops they favor. Bobcats typically weigh between 15 and 35 pounds, although larger males can tip the scales near 50 pounds.
Like their distant cousin, the housecat, bobcats are adept tree climbers. They maintain their retractable claws by using trees as scratching posts. And although they're not often heard by humans, bobcats make a variety of noises from mewing and hissing to full-throated growls. Mating season in our region runs from February into March, with kittens – usually a litter of two to three – born in late April and May.
Anyone who has ever watched a housecat stalk its prey can envision the bobcat’s fierce hunting ability. While their preferred menu includes small mammals, most notably cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hare, bobcats are, like many predators, opportunistic. Using keen eyesight and hearing, they will hunt birds, snakes, muskrat, porcupines, turkeys – as well as backyard chickens and squirrels poaching birdfeeders. Bobcats will hunt both fawns and adult deer, hanging on by the claws and biting at a deer’s neck until it succumbs.
“They’re a top predator. They’re made to kill,” said Bernier. “That’s what they need to do to survive.”
It seems they are surviving quite well, these phantoms of the forest, giving me hope that someday I’ll catch a glimpse of a spotted wildcat moving through the trees.
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer. She lives in Franconia, New Hampshire.