The real cool cats of North America

Mike Bleech

After running about a dozen trail cameras for several years, back to film cameras, finally a couple of years ago I got a photo of a bobcat. This summer I got about four bobcat photos, triggering a renewed interest in the wild cats of North America.

All three of the more common native North American cats- bobcat, lynx and cougar- are native to the Northeast. Other members of the cat family are only occasionally present in the southwest. Most notable of these is the jaguar. One of these is currently being watched.

Bobcats are actually common in parts of Pennsylvania including Warren County. However, they are not commonly seen. Bobcats are extremely elusive, largely because they are mostly nocturnal. Most of the bobcats that are seen are blurs passing through the headlights of a motor vehicle.

Surprisingly, I have gotten a couple of daylight photos on trail cams. And I have seen one bobcat during late afternoon. If you do see a bobcat during daylight hours it may behave with that indifference characteristic of house cats.

Bobcats are native to most of the United States, southern Canada and Mexico. They occupy a variety of habitat types. Locally they may be found in forest, swamps and our broken farm country.

The bobcat diet consists mostly of small mammals and birds. They do kill some deer fawns, and possibly small yearlings.

Large bobcats may weigh a little more than 35 pounds.

The lynx takes over the cat niche along the north side of bobcat range, with some overlap. Their range continues north into Alaska. During the Colonial Period lynx were reported in Pennsylvania. Habitat is primarily forest and swamp, similar to the bobcat.

Lynx have a ‘home’ range of 8 square miles to 21 square miles.

Lynx are about the same size as bobcats, maybe a little smaller at the top end. They look larger, though, because of their long legs, thicker fur and longer ear tufts.

The lynx diet consists of snowshoe hares, other small mammals and birds. Their ability to pursue prey on snow covered terrain is aided by extra large feet. Research in Minnesota has shown that 76 percent to 94 percent of the lynx diet is snowshoe hare during periods of hare abundance.

Red squirrels seem to be the next most important item on the lynx diet when snowshoe hares are scarce, and when there is no snow cover.

Historically, one of the strongholds of lynx in the U.S. is Minnesota. Currently the University of Minnesota is studying lynx on the Superior National Forest. They have radio-collared 33 lynx, and have found dens, movements and habitat.

Lynx are also being studied in Maine, Montana, Idaho and Washington.

Of course it is the cougar that stirs up the most excitement in this state. There can be no doubt that cougar pass through Pennsylvania. However, most likely this state has no breeding population. Or does it?

Cougar were comparatively abundant in Pennsylvania into the 19th Century. During that century, 600 were reported to have been killed in Centre County alone. But no cougar DNA has been found in recent years.

Cougar do exist in the East. According to the Eastern Cougar Foundation, there is evidence of cougar in Missouri, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, West Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Kentucky, Ontario and New Brunswick.

When I arrived at a New Brunswick lodge for a bear hunt, I was told a cougar had been seen just that morning in a field across a road from the lodge, and tracks had been confirmed.

The cougar subspecies known as Florida panther was once spread through the Gulf Coast States. It receded to a very small population in Florida and is near extinction.

Sightings of cougar in Pennsylvania have been passed off by the Pennsylvania Game Commission as being illegally released animals. But relatively recent information confirmed through DNA evidence that a cougar had traveled from South Dakota to a New England highway where it was killed. Those big critters will travel hundreds of miles.

Recently a television program called cougar the fourth largest of the big cats, surpassed only by tiger, lion and jaguar. But I do not think this is true. The snow leopard may be larger than cougar.