Story and photos by Susan C. Morse
It’s late February, and a tom bobcat is eagerly
sauntering along – something is in the air!
Lengthening daylight and warming temperatures
signal the arrival of courting and breeding season.
He parallels the edge of the cliff until another
trail emerges, seemingly out of nowhere. At this
intersection, he pauses under a dense pine and
makes what is called a “scrape,” or “scratch,” in
the snow-free needle duff under the tree. Unlike
ephemeral tracks, scrapes tend to last. Indeed,
scrapes are the most reliable sign we can find
wherever any of the world’s wild felids are in residence and communicating with one another.
The tom crouches, brings his hind feet forward behind his planted fore feet, and proceeds
to push his hind feet backwards in succession.
The result is a shallow, rectangular trough that
culminates in a small, conspicuous pile of absorbent materials – typically conifer needles, moss,
soft earth, or leaves. The piled substrate serves
as both a visual and aroma-rich scent mark that
lets bobcats post their social status and signal the
occupancy of a given habitat, which allows them
to mediate possible competition and fighting.
Today, the amorous tom proclaims his reproductive potential – using the scrape as a kind
of personals ad. No other animal makes exactly
the same sign. The smooth-edged trough is
consistently a touch wider than the side-by-side
placement of the hind feet that scratched and
scuffed to produce the scrape’s mound. Edge to
edge, I have measured 4. 5 to 5. 5 inches for an
average North Woods bobcat scrape, and twice
that large, 8. 5 to 10 inches, for a cougar’s. In snow,
soft earth, or sand, the planted front-feet tracks
can often be seen.
Dogs and their wild canid cousins are much
admired for their sense of smell. But make no
mistake – bobcats and all other species of cats are
all about olfaction, too. Urine or feces are sometimes deposited on the scrape, and pedal scent
derived from sebaceous glands on the bobcat’s
feet is incorporated into it. Our tom bobcat will
continue to wander and scent-mark throughout his neighboring
females’ core areas. Making scrapes is a step away from making
kittens; he’s not just pussyfooting around.
Clockwise from the top: Bobcat using hind feet to push scrape materials into a
mound; larger scrape made by an Arizona cougar; planted front foot tracks at the
bottom and scrape trough with feces at the top.
Susan C. Morse is founder and program director of Keeping Track in Huntington, Vermont.