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Florida's Wild Cat News - Bobcat or Panther? January 05, 2007 7:03 PM


Florida's Wild Cat

Published: Jan 5, 2007


I get several calls every year from readers who are certain they have seen a Florida panther, sometimes in the backyards of their New Tampa suburban homes.

While it's not impossible that Florida's version of the cougar might come visiting the 'burbs, the odds are extremely small. There are only about 100 panthers, and the vast majority of them are found south of State Road 72.

But there is a true wild cat that might very well show up in your backyard, particularly if you live on the edge of the developments that are now pushing into what was Florida woods and ranchland. It's the Florida bobcat, lynx rufus floridanus, and thus far it's a species that seems to be surviving quite well despite the insults inflicted on our state's habitat.

Bobcats are nowhere near the size of panthers; they weigh only about 25 pounds, typically, compared to 80 to 120 pounds for a panther. They're only about three feet long, while the panther's tail is that length. The bobcat is named for its "bobbed" tail, which is only about 6 inches long. And they wear black spots over a tawny brown to tan coat.

Panthers are a solid brown or tan, with no spots. And they are not black, period. Many of the calls I get describe "black panthers," but the biologists say it just is not a possibility. There has never been a single valid incidence of a black panther in Florida, nor in the general cougar population of North America. There have been reliable reports of black jaguars, and these cats do exist in Mexico and possibly in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, but none in Florida. There are also black leopards in Africa, but again, no leopard is likely to show up in Tampa Palms.

If you see a big black critter in the woods, it's probably a Labrador retriever - or maybe a wild hog.

Surviving In The Woods

Bobcats are inventive predators, able to survive on what the woods gives them. They eat birds, snakes, frogs, mice, rats, rabbits, armadillos and anything else small enough to capture easily. I once saw one kill an American egret, one of the larger wading birds, with just one bite through the neck.

Bobcats also take larger prey, reportedly turkeys, small hogs and whitetail fawns. They are also known on occasion to capture small household pets, though they flee at the sight of a larger dog. The larger bobcats found in the northern U.S. occasionally kill adult deer.

Bobcats mate from late fall to early spring, according to state biologists. And at that time some of the "panther" legends are spawned, because during mating they utter some of the same growls and screams heard in housecats, except with a lot more volume. These sounds, particularly heard from the woods at night, are hair-raising, and seem to come from a much larger animal than the bobcat.

In the northern U.S. there have been a few incidents of bobcats attacking humans, though these are likely cases of mistaken identity. Humans are far too large for the Florida-strain cats to consider potential prey.

I was once turkey hunting south of Immokalee with my son, then 10 years old, when we saw a bobcat cross a trail about 100 yards away. I started yelping on my turkey call, and in less than five minutes the cat had stalked to within 20 feet of us. Brock shifted his feet a bit and that was all it took for the creature to realize we were not turkeys, but it was a moment we remember well.

Marking Their Territory

Bobcats leave obvious signposts in the woods to mark their territory. It's common to find a "scratch" in a Jeep trail anywhere in the state. The cat heaps up a mound of sand and urinates on it to indicate to other bobcats that this is his hunting and mating territory. They also have scratching trees, where they rake their claws over the bark - another territorial mark.

Biologists say bobcats do not tolerate others of the same sex in their home territory, which means the bobcat population is always self-limiting. It takes lots of hunting territory to support each of them. Researcher Timothy Mellow, who is director of the wild cat study group coryi.org, reports that in typical woodlands it takes a bit more than one square mile to support each cat. And that fact will surely cause a gradual decline in bobcat numbers in Florida as thousands of additional acres fall under the bulldozers every year.

Bobcats also are impacted by coyote numbers, and that population appears to be rising in wooded parts of the state. Coyotes kill and eat young bobcats. Many also die on the highways. A few are taken by hunters, but most consider the cats an interesting part of the outdoors experience and let them pass.

With litters of two to four per year, bobcats are capable of sustaining their numbers as long as adequate territory remains.

To learn more about bobcats, visit the Web site coryi.org.

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 January 05, 2007 7:48 PM

Thank you debbie for this great article, very informative.  [ send green star]
 
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