Monday, September 28, 2009

Cat Tracks

On an early morning walk up a neighborhood wash after a monsoon rain, I was lucky to cross paths with a bobcat. There were its tracks, fresh prints in the mud, a little less than two inches in diameter with characteristic three-lobed pads. Too large for a domestic cat. The lack of claw marks is another clue that this print was not made by a domestic dog, fox or small coyote, other creatures that commonly cruise the washes. I scanned the corridor and nearby shrubs, hoping to catch a glimpse of this beautiful spotted wild cat, but if it was still around, it was well-camouflaged in leafy shadows.

Several neighbors have been luckier than I, capturing candid photos of bobcats roaming their yards, resting in shade under cars, perched on fences and even lounging on their patios! About double the size of an average domestic cat, the local subspecies, Felis rufus ssp. baileyi, is leaner and lighter colored than stocky northern varieties of bobcats. If your home is adjacent to open space, your chances are higher for seeing desert wildlife, but many species, like the bobcat, are attracted into urban and suburban neighborhoods because of abundant prey.

Photo by Geena Clark

When it comes to finding food, especially for a mom cat with a hungry litter of kittens, hunting around a neighborhood greenbelt is like hitting the fast-food take-out lane. Rabbits, quail, doves, wood rats, rock squirrels, and maybe a fat lizard or two are all on a bobcat’s dining menu. Bobcats will hunt when their prey is most active, which is usually dawn, dusk, or at night. If you are worried that your small dog or cat might look tasty to a bobcat, these are good times to keep vulnerable pets indoors, although they much prefer rabbits and doves to other carnivores.

photo by Richard Halliburton

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.

For many people, a chance to view desert cats and other wildlife from the comfort of our back yard or living room window is one of the benefits of living close to natural open space. The Arizona Game and Fish Department website,, offers lots more information about our wild feline neighbors, including a video. But keep your eyes peeled for the real thing on your early morning and evening walks. And be sure to check your patio too!

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