Backyard Bobcats

January 19, 2008

Fat squirrels beware! Bobcats are being reported with increasing frequency this winter in the snowy suburbs of New Hampshire.

While rare visitors to residential areas, the deep snow pack this winter has limited easy access to prey in remote forested hills. Normally secretive, yet increasingly hungry bobcats are leaving their preferred habitat in areas with south-facing ledges for sunning and talus slopes for den sites to hunt near birdfeeders in more residential areas located adjacent to large-acreage, core habitats.

According to wildlife biologist, Patrick Tate, the furbearer project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, bobcats have been observed and reported this winter in residential backyards of southern New Hampshire including Manchester, Derry, Exeter and Greenland. Tate says "human development can entice prey species to backyards through incidental feeding of wildlife by outdoor pet feeding, trash and purposeful feeding including bird feeders. In pursuit of prey, wild predators investigate curiosities including chirping birds and follow the scent of prey to residential backyards."

Earlier this winter, a bobcat was observed in Manchester crossing ice to hunt along the perimeter of an island in the Merrimack River downstream from the Amoskeag Falls. Because of their shy and secretive nature, many believe bobcats only inhabit areas of low human population in large tracts of wilderness. According to Tate this belief is not entirely true. "While areas of dense human population generally have lower bobcat densities, the species is present but very adept at avoiding human interaction."

In a neighborhood of 1-acre house lots in Bow, a young bobcat has routinely risked contact with humans to forage for suburban squirrels attracted to black sunflower seeds and cracked corn spread for birds and squirrels. According to a resident, the backyard bobcat seems to prefer smaller red squirrels to their larger gray squirrel cousins, visiting before mid-morning and again in mid-afternoon to successfully capture red squirrels for breakfast and dinner. The young bobcat negotiates the backyards risking contact with people, domestic dogs, road traffic and other hazards.

Bobcats are stationary hunters rather than stalkers. They hunt by crouching motionless along game trails in areas where prey are most active and then pounce with a short burst of speed to catch prey at close proximity. Among their favorite fare are squirrels, birds and snowshoe hare. Large male bobcats can even prey on winter-weakened white-tailed deer. Recent evidence suggests that increasing wild turkey populations in the State may become an important food source for New Hampshire bobcats.

Fish and Game biologists believe that based on more frequent bobcat observations throughout the State over the last 5 years, the population may be increasing. However, Tate is quick to point out that "without scientific tag and re-capture studies, it has not been possible to establish a reliable statewide population estimate. Bobcats are secretive animals. Observations are rare which makes population assessment much more difficult." The mere presence of bobcat tracks indicates the statewide distribution but not relative abundance or density of bobcats in a given region.

With persistent snow cover this winter and a lack of acorns and beechnuts to feed small mammal prey including squirrels, the backyard birdfeeder bobcat observations are increasing. Breeding season for most wild fur-bearers including weasels, mink, fisher, otter, foxes, coyotes and bobcats peaks in February and early-March across the State. When Valentine's Day displays of pink and red hearts appear in cities and suburbs, wild furbearers also prepare for their own brief season of love and rites of procreation.

Or as a renowned cartoon skunk would say: "Here kitty, kitty, kitty… Ah, mon Sherrie." Special thanks to Sherrie Tucker for the beautiful backyard bobcat photos.