the 1980s and 1990s, when bobcat populations were low. As
it turns out, since 2007, a number of reported sightings and
photographs have been of bobcats stalking turkeys.
Other sightings included bobcats positioning themselves
near bird feeders and regularly attacking squirrels or turkeys
that came to the feeders. So it seems that bobcats have figured
out that some of the best hunting may be in backyards. This
hunting strategy may be especially important for juvenile
bobcats as they leave the care of their mothers during their
first winter. Deep snow can effectively conceal the mice and
voles that kittens depend on. So finding a bird feeder that is
regularly raided by squirrels may get a young bobcat through
the worst of winter.
Modifications in an animal’s behavior, like stalking prey
at bird feeders, may simply be individuals responding to a
changing world. We aren’t too surprised by the ability of a
raccoon to associate a trashcan with potential food. After all,
raccoons have been living among people for generations. But
for a bobcat to venture into a backyard and wait to ambush a
squirrel or turkey at a bird feeder is an unexpected reaction.
Such dramatic and sudden changes in behavior may require
a more complete explanation.
Recently, animal behaviorists have coined the phrase
“synurbanization,” which means adapting to the urban
environment. Research in Europe has demonstrated that city
blackbirds are genetically different from their country cousins.
The genetic difference among city birds results in their
tendency to explore new and sometimes dangerous areas. To
explore new and potentially risky environments comes with
potential hazards – an eager house cat ready to pounce, for
example. But it often comes with the discovery of new food
sources. As a result, the risk-taking birds have become very
successful in urban environments. Could the same process
explain the very rapid increase in suburban bobcats? Maybe.
As bobcats have more frequent encounters with humans,
there are likely risks to both bobcats and humans. Given the
amount of space occupied by a bobcat – approximately 10
square miles for females and at least 25-30 square miles for
males – bobcats in more developed landscapes often cross
roads, putting themselves at risk of being hit by a car or
truck. Multi-lane roads in particular can become effective
barriers that prevent bobcat movement. We’ve detected
a pattern of genetic separation among bobcats living on
opposite sides of Interstate 93 in New Hampshire.
In addition to the risk of vehicle collisions, bobcats
living in developed areas frequently encounter humans and
their dogs, adding further danger. Rory Carroll, a doctoral
student, and professor Marian Litvaitis at the University of
New Hampshire are examining how bobcats respond to the
nonlethal stressors of living in more developed landscapes.
As an animal experiences stress, it releases hormones into
A female bobcat and her kitten crossing a quiet road in Hollis, New Hampshire. Roads
like this are a moderate threat to bobcats, but multi-lane highways are substantial (and
potentially deadly) barriers.