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Now seen in the suburbs: the elusive bobcat

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/30/2020 Don Lyman

Several years ago, while driving along a remote road looking for snakes late at night in the Mojave Desert along the California-Nevada border, I was startled when a large bobcat ran about 10 feet in front of my vehicle.

For a split second, the elusive predator was illuminated in my headlights and seemed frozen in mid-stride, running across a warm desert night, its long legs, tufted ears, and beautiful reddish-brown fur with black spots forever etched in my memory. It quickly disappeared into the desert, and I felt lucky to have caught a glimpse of this shy, iconic wild cat.

I’ve never seen one in Massachusetts, and have often wondered if they live in the woods in the Boston suburbs. Then I saw video footage on TV a few weeks ago of a bobcat in a driveway in Danvers, and my question was answered. Yep, they’re here!

“Historically bobcat populations have been in the western two-thirds of Massachusetts,” said Dave Wattles, Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in Westborough. “But they’re expanding eastward. In Eastern Massachusetts bobcats seem to be thriving.”

And why are bobcats moving into the eastern part of the state?

“Because of supplementing of their natural prey,” said Wattles. “Mostly through bird feeders. Bobcats are hunting in peoples’ yards for squirrels and other small mammals and birds that are attracted to bird feeders. Bobcats are expanding into the suburbs.”

One was reported in West Roxbury near Interstate 95 north this summer, said Wattles. And the list is growing. Other communities where bobcat sightings have been reported since 2015 include Newton, Topsfield, Groton, Framingham, Woburn, Easton, Plymouth, Haverhill, Townsend, Concord, Walpole, Chelmsford, North Reading, Pepperell, and North Attleborough.

“And this is only for those calls that we’ve received,” said Wattles. “Certainly there are more bobcats out there than what we get reports of.”

Bobcats are named for their short tails, which appear cut or “bobbed,” Wattles said. Other big cats, like mountain lions, often have tails that are about the length of their body, but bobcats’ tails typically only grow to about 12 inches long.

According to the MassWildlife Web page “Learn About Bobcats,” adult bobcats are about twice the size of a domestic house cat, range from 28 to 47 inches long, and weigh from 15 to 35 pounds. Males are about a third larger than females.

Bobcats are Massachusetts’ only native wild cat species. Wattles said the Canada lynx, a close relative of the bobcat, is found in New England, but only in northern Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Wattles said there’s an estimated 3,500 bobcats in Massachusetts. A limited harvest of 80 to 100 bobcats per year is allowed through hunting and trapping, but only in the western and central parts of the state. The Eastern Massachusetts populations couldn’t sustain hunting, he said.

Asked if there have been any recent bobcat sightings in large suburban conservation areas such as the Blue Hills Reservation, Harold Parker State Forest, or the Middlesex Fells Reservation, which are managed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, DCR press secretary Olivia Dorrance replied in an e-mail that the last confirmed sighting of a bobcat within the three parks was in the Middlesex Fells in 2008.

“DCR has not received a report of a bobcat within the Middlesex Fells, Blue Hills, or Harold Parker in recent years,” Dorrance wrote. “On the occasion a bobcat is sighted in a state park, visitors are encouraged to contact DCR park staff.”

Wattles said MassWildlife doesn’t need sightings reported, but people can report sightings to one of their district offices, or to their main office at 508-389-6300.

Bobcats are mostly active at dawn and dusk, said Wattles, but they can alter their activity patterns and hunt at night if they need to.

They are found from southern Canada to central Mexico, and throughout most of the lower 48 states. A US Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet said bobcats have the greatest range of all native North American cats.

Bobcats live an average of 12 years in the wild, and begin reproducing at about two years of age, MassWildlife said. They breed from February through March, and give birth in April or May. Females produce one litter annually, averaging two kittens per litter. The kittens are born in a den, which the mother lines with vegetation such as grass, leaves, or moss. Dens tend to be located in places like rock crevices, caves, brush piles, hollow trees, or logs.

Bobcats are polygamous and do not form lasting pair bonds. The male does not help raise the young, which remain with their mother until they are full grown, usually through their first fall or winter. Young bobcats are sometimes preyed on by owls, coyotes, and adult male bobcats, said MassWildlife.

Bobcats feed on medium-sized animals like rabbits, but also eat mice, squirrels, skunks, opossums, muskrats, birds, and snakes, said MassWildlife.

Asked if bobcats can kill deer, Wattles said they can, but it’s rare.

“Typically they will be fawns and young deer,” said Wattles. “Bobcats don’t chase them down, but would pounce on the deer’s back or neck.”

Wattles said bobcats pose little risk to humans, and MassWildlife doesn’t get reports of bobcats attacking pets. He said small dogs or cats could be at risk, but bobcats are not likely to go after animals as big or bigger than themselves.

If you come across a bobcat in your yard or elsewhere, give it space, advised Wattles. If need be you can chase it away by yelling and making noise.

“Bobcats, like all predators, help to keep ecosystems in balance,” said Wattles. “They prey on smaller animals which helps to keep the populations of those animals in balance. Natural systems work best and stay in balance when they have all their functional parts — in this case all the different types of animals, including predators.”

Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to donlymannature@gmail.com.

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