Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fringe Benefits: Desert Cats

November 2007
Bobcats have been roaming the neighborhood lately. Of course, they have been doing so for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. But within the last decade, the neighborhood has been transformed from natural desert to a relatively lush landscape that is a veritable heaven for the bobcats’ favorite prey, cottontail rabbits.

If your personal pet is about the size of a rabbit or hare, you may be alarmed. A hungry bobcat may not discriminate one tasty ball of fur from another, except that bunnies don’t bark. For many people though, a chance to view desert cats and other wildlife from the comfort of our patios is one of the benefits of living on the suburban fringe!

Like housecats, bobcats purr and are excellent tree climbers. Their favorite activity is lounging. During the day, a bobcat will find a quiet shelter to snooze, and with desert colored and dappled coat, become nearly invisible to passers by. Curious, but wary, bobcats generally avoid contact with humans, which are the most dangerous predator of wild felines. To the contrary, there are no records of bobcats preying on humans.

When it comes to finding food, especially for a hungry litter of kittens, roaming into a neighborhood greenbelt is like hitting the fast-food take-out lane for a desert cat. Rabbits, quail, doves, wood rats, rock squirrels, and maybe a fat lizard or two are all on the bobcats dining menu. If any of these creatures hang out in your yard, the cats may be stopping by for a visit when you aren’t looking. Bobcats will hunt when their prey is most active, which is usually dawn, dusk, or at night. These are good times to keep vulnerable pets indoors.

Are the cats that have been seen recently several or all the same one? We don’t know, but we do know that bobcats are extremely territorial, and rarely range within each other’s turf except to satisfy the urge to mate. Males will roam into several females’ territory, helping to insure that we continue to have bobcats around. Those that survive kittenhood are booted out of their mom’s den after about six months of training in the bobcat arts of cryptic lounging and hunting. Territories are well delineated by scent marks and scratching posts. Depending on prey availability, one bobcat will claim anywhere between 2 and 40 square miles. On the suburban fringe, where prey is very abundant, we may support a denser population of bobcats than the adjacent undeveloped desert.

The Phoenix area is home to one of twelve subspecies of bobcat. Ours, Felis rufus ssp. baileyi, is a lighter colored and more petite cat than northern varieties. They are about double the size of an average domestic cat, usually weighing in at 15-25 pounds and measuring just under two feet tall and less than three feet long, plus the bobbed tail that is their namesake.

For lots more information on our wild neighbors, check out the Arizona Game and Fish Department website:

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