How do bobcats hunt?

Bobcats use both ambush and mobile hunting techniques when hunting. Ambush hunting is also described as “sit-and-weight”. At the junctions of game trails which are well used bobcats use the ambush technique. They also use the same technique from lookout positions. They are patient hunters. There are records of bobcats waiting at the entrances to burrows for several hours after failing to catch a prairie dog.

Bobcats use the “mobile technique” while patrolling their ranges, crossing and recrossing areas looking and listening while using roads, trails, footpaths and lanes. Claire Rollings in her book of 1945, “Habits, food and parasites of the bobcat in Minnesota”, at pages 131-145, describes a bobcat’s movement through the snow:

“The bobcat constantly haunted trails of the varying hare, and searched carefully through thickets, under windfalls, and about upturned roots. On the trail it usually advances by a steady trot, but stops often as if to survey the trail ahead or to watch some movement. It then may continue if nothing special has been seen; or it may crouch and slink forward (indicated by irregular tracks and deep snow drag); or it may suddenly leap in pursuit of observed prey. If the victim is not captured after a short burst of speed, the chase usually is abandoned.”

Bobcats rely on sight and hearing to detect prey. Hall and Newsom in their research study of 1978 “Summer home ranges and movements of bobcats in bottomland hardwoods of southern Louisiana” at pages 427-436 write:

“Constantly on the alert for sound or movement, a bobcat would often stop and sit in the road, peering intently into the roadside vegetation. Sometimes this position will be held for 5 to 10 minutes before the animal moved. If the object of investigation seemed to be a potential food item, a sitting bobcat would assume a crouched position, often followed by a pounce into the roadside cover.”

Bobcats are very alert and aware of the slightest “turn of a tuft of fur caught on a branch” (Wild Cats of the World page 189). Once the bobcat detects prey he stalks slowly and deliberately. Whatever cover is available will be used to get as close as possible to prey before making his final rush. Most attacks are made within 10 meters of the prey item. One record mentions that the bobcat had stalked to “within a leap or two of a deer by crawling among the cliffs”. If the initial rush and attack fails then the bobcat rarely pursues the animal.

Sometimes, rarely, bobcats hunt cooperatively. There is a record of one courting pair stalking together at a place where snowshoe hares were common.

“The cats moved through the plantation about 10 to 15 meters apart and appeared to alternate stopping as the other moved forward 15 to 20 meters” (as recorded by McCord in 1974 “Selection of winter habitat by bobcats on the Quabbin Reservation Massachusetts)

Cottontail rabbits are a major prey item for the bobcat. Cottontails may be easier to catch because they tend to freeze rather than run. They live in brushy habitats where they can be more easily ambushed.

Most of the animals that the bobcat preys upon weigh less than 2 kg (4.4 pounds). However there is good evidence that bobcats can single-handedly kill prey 10 times their own weight. For example, the largest deer killed in one record weighed 68 kg. Large prey such as deer are killed with rapid bites to the throat, neck or base of the skull. Most often the deer suffocates as the bobcat bites the throat.

It is suggested that bobcats sometimes attack deer that are bedded down. These skills are not always instantaneous. There are some accounts of deer running with a bobcat “straddling the deer’s back or clinging to its throat” (as recorded by Young in “The bobcat of North America” published in 1978 by Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press)

Rodents are pounced upon. There are pinned down by the cat’s front teeth. They are killed by a bite to the nape of the neck or head.

As to the success rate of the bobcat while hunting, there are few records. In one record, with respect to South Carolina, a bobcat was successful three times out of eight observed attempts in capturing two cotton rats and a cottontail rabbit. In another report it is estimated that only one out of six attempts to capture rabbits and rodents was successful. As for adult deer the success rate will be even lower.

My thanks to Wild Cats of the World by Fiona and Mel Sunquist.

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