It isn't uncommon to observe wildlife while taking my evening walk with my dog, Duke, on the township road I live beside. Lately I've seen wild turkeys, but I've also spotted deer, porcupines, sandhill cranes, ducks and geese, songbirds galore, frogs and toads, you name it. But one animal that crossed the dusty dirt road in front of me last week was a first.
Indeed, one of the most, if not the most, elusive mammals that inhabit woodlands throughout northern Minnesota casually crossed the roadway, in broad daylight, without so much as a sideways glance at us, stopped both Duke and me in our tracks - a large bobcat.
Despite an abundance of bobcats that inhabit much of Minnesota, people rarely ever see this reclusive and beautiful wild cat. As such, I can attest to their ghost-like existence. For all the time I have spent in the woods, I've seen only a half a dozen or so Minnesota bobcats in my lifetime so far. My first-ever wild bobcat sighting was in Vermont nearly 20 years ago.
Bobcats are one of three wild cats that are found in Minnesota. The Canada lynx and the mountain lion are the other two, though not nearly as common as their smaller cousin. Acquiring their name because of their tail, the word "bob" means a short or shortened tail. And one look at the bobcat's tail reveals that the animal is aptly named.
A bobcat's black-tipped tail with a patch of white underneath is only about four to seven inches long, whereas the lynx's black-tipped stub tail is black all the way around, and the mountain lion's rope-like tail is nearly as long as its body.
The spotted coat of the bobcat gives it an almost leopard-like appearance. Interestingly, bobcats retain spotted coats as adults, whereas mountain lions have spots only as kittens, and lose the spots as they mature.
Even though bobcats are small, when compared to the average domestic housecat, the bobcat is a much larger and heavier muscled animal. Averaging anywhere from 20-30 pounds and as long as three feet in length, bobcats are adequately sized for the role they play in nature.
Like all cats, including most domestic cats, bobcats are highly efficient hunters. Their diet includes a host of prey species. From small to medium-sized rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels, to larger prey like deer fawns and porcupines. They will also hunt and eat fish, birds, rabbits and snowshoe hares.
Bobcats have even been known to attack and kill adult deer. They succeed by waiting for a deer to pass below a tree branch they have chosen above a deer trail. The cat will pounce onto the back of the deer, hang on, and bite the animal's neck until a major artery is severed or the deer suffocates.
Bobcats are found only in North America. They occur throughout southern Canada and south to Mexico, thus making it the most wide-ranging and common wild cat in North America. Although bobcats are not considered an endangered species, not all states have large populations of the wild cats. Minnesota's population of bobcats supports a hunting and trapping season. Licensed hunters and trappers take several hundred bobcats every year.
Vocalizations are very similar to what we are accustomed to hearing from domestic cats. Bobcats growl, hiss, purr, meow and snarl. During mating season the normally solitary bobcats form pair-bonds, and it is during these times that the wild cats become even more vocal. Female bobcats give birth in the spring, usually in February through April, to litters of kittens numbering anywhere from three to six. Only the female cares for and raises the youngsters. The kittens' mother teaches every survival skill that is learned.
Unlike domestic cats, bobcats seem to enjoy the water. Some people who are lucky enough to observe bobcats in the wild have reported seeing the cats playing, swimming and hunting frogs and fish from rivers, wetlands and lakes.
A few autumns ago, my brother-in-law was one of those lucky enough to observe a bobcat. While hunting deer north of Karlstad, Minn., he was alerted by a commotion created by two unidentified creatures. The animals were in the open field that he was overlooking.
As he described it, "They were running, rolling, and jumping." Much to his delight as he watched through his binoculars, he soon figured out what they were. For several minutes he observed a pair of young bobcats playing and wrestling with each other in the grass. The frolicking pair eventually entered the woods together and disappeared.
The bobcat that I recently saw was a marvelous looking animal. Sleek, well formed and strong-bodied, it confidently crossed the road with seemingly no concern. When I reached the area of the roadbed that the animal had walked on, I found its tracks. Each back foot track, in the classic cat way, was placed inside the front tracks. The tracks revealed no claw marks, another sure sign of a cat track.
Yes, I for one am pleased to know that there are common, yet rarely seen, species of wildlife living right under our noses. No doubt a part of the reason is because of the cat's nocturnal ways, but even so, knowing that native and wild bobcats are hunting the river bottoms and forests in our own backyards makes for added excitement as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com