Outdoors: Phantom of the Woodlands: The Arkansas bobcat

By Keith Sutton Published February 21, 2010 at 4:45 a.m.
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Keith Sutton / Contributing Photographer

The bobcat has keen senses of eyesight, hearing and smell that help the animal find prey and avoid enemies.

— He arrived like a ghost - suddenly, unexpectedly.

I was hunting squirrels behind my home in eastern Arkansas. Chickadees and kinglets buzzed in the trees. A pileated woodpecker f lew past, the brilliant red of her long rakish crest gleaming like f lame. I found a mossy seat beneath a giant beech tree, drew a squirrel call from my pocket and tapped on its rubber end. Fifty yards away, a fox squirrel responded.

The russet squirrel sidled down the hickory and cut loose with a string of profanities, lashing the air with its expressive tail. I sat, watching its humorous antics, and pondered the best way to approach for a shot.

Beneath the squirrel’s tree, something moved. The woods were open, but I could not discern that which had caught my eye. I squinted. I stared. But nothing was there.

I looked again at the squirrel. It had stopped barking and was stretched tight against the bark, motionless, its large black eyes locked on the ground below.

I looked again beneath the tree. A large bobcat sat there. He was looking up at the fox squirrel, licking his muttonchop whiskers.

Though I was focused intently on my surroundings, the big cat’s approach had entirely escaped me. He was a phantom. His sudden presence startled me.

The squirrel was startled, too. He quickly ascertained his position on the lower end of the food chain and raced for a hole high above. The bobcat made a half hearted leap for the bushy tail, then started off as if the squirrel had never been there.

I t apped a ga i n on t he squirrel call. The cat turned and captured me in its gaze. I remember most his luminous eyes, two pools of liquid gold.He looked into the depths of my soul, then turned and was gone.

I saw that beautiful animal several more times over the years. His home range and mine overlapped. Often he hunted mice by the beehives at the edge of my garden. Sometimes, pulling into the driveway at night, I glimpsed his glowing eyes in the brushy wood land edge. I sat and watched for him on occasion, but even when he appeared, it was only for a moment. One second he was there; then he melted into the landscape. His camouflage was perfect. Even when in plain view, he could wholly escape my searching eyes.

The bobcat’s amazing instincts and adaptability have served it well. Like many large predators, it was persecuted as vermin for decades. In1727, Massachusetts placed a bounty on bobcats. In 1973, bobcat bounties were still paid throughout Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and Utah. At that time, bounties were paid in some counties of 14 other states. Predator-control programs focused on the bobcat’s eradication. But the fierce bobcat, prolific and resourceful, matched the success of the coyote in its efforts to circumvent man. The bobcat is probably more common today than it was during colonial times. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service places the U.S. bobcat population at 725,000 to 1 million adult animals.

One key to the bobcat’s success is the animal’s mastery of habitats. The species ranges through portions of all 48 contiguous states, plus southern Canada and northern Mexico, inhabiting boreal coniferous and mixed forests in the North, bottomland hardwood forests and coastal swamps in the Southeast, semi-desert and scrubland in the Southwest, and densely popu lated suburbs in t he Northeast. Only large intensively cultivated areas appear to be unsuitable habitat.

Diet is another ingredient in the bobcat’s recipe for adaptive expertise. Rabbits, hares and small rodents comprise the bulk of the bobcat’s food in most areas, but bobcats are opportunists and will eat grasshoppers, crayfish, raccoons, prairie dogs, porcupines, bats, peccaries, snakes and birds. Bobcats are known to take domestic cats, carrion and fruit, and male bobcats sometimes kill deer when winter snow makes runningdifficult. Diets for bobcats vary by region and season.

Bobcat survival also hinges on the animal’s uncanny ability to stay out of sight - and trouble. Bobcats are natural scouts and spies. They have senses that are wonderfully acute, and a nature that is all suspicion. They believe in being neither seen nor heard, andthey have every art of precaution the most accomplished spy could ever think of.

Add to this the fact that bobcats rarely prey on poultry or livestock. They mind their own business as far as human matters are concerned; thus they are seldom persecuted as pest species. This, too, enhances the animal’s prosperity. Bobcats are now the widest-ranging, most-common wild felid in the world.

Few people consider the bobcat a varmint anymore. We realize the vital role these beautiful predators play in the balance of nature. We know they provide a necessary check on rodent and rabbit populations, which make up more than half of the bobcat’s usual diet. And we know that proper management creates a surplus of animals that can be taken by hunters and trappers without affecting the overall population. Hunting and trapping bobcats are allowed in at least 37 states.

I never hunted the phantombobcat. He was too close to home, too much a part of my inner circle. I hunted others of his kind, though, and learned through the years that bobcats are perhaps the most challenging to hunt of all our wild creatures. No wild turkey was ever more difficult to call. No deer possesses more elusiveness and adaptability. No bear is more reclusive. No fox or coyote is more finely attuned to its environment.

I went back to the old homeplace not long ago. The house I lived in is no longer there. Young woods now cover what was, 25 years ago, my yard.

I walked down the hill to the old beech tree where I used to hunt squirrels, and sat on the mossy ground beneath the tree to reminisce. I closed my eyes, thinking back to a time when life was simpler. And when I lookedup, the bobcat was there.

I looked for a moment into his golden eyes, not truly believing what I saw. Surely, it couldn’t be …

I closed my eyes and massaged my eyelids with my fingertips. When I looked again, the phantom was gone.

Arkansas bobcat facts

Rabbits are the bobcat’s main food item in Arkansas year-round, but bobcats also eat squirrels, rats, mice, chipmunks and occasionally opossums, raccoons, skunks, birds and snakes.

Most young bobcats are born from March through early April, usually two to three blind, well-furred kittens.

Kittens are able to fend for themselves at 6 months of age, but family ties are not broken until the female becomes pregnant again.

Bobcats live in many habitats, including rocky outcrops and canyons, heavily wooded uplands, swamps, brushy areas and semi-open farmland.

Bobcats are primarily nocturnal, one reason they are seldom seen by humans.

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