I moved to Kiawah Island with Becky, my wife, immediately after I retired from Riverbanks Zoo. We love South Carolina’s coast and always admired the natural beauty of this 10-mile-long barrier island, including an incredible array of native wildlife. Alligators, loggerhead sea turtles, bald eagles, and bottle-nosed dolphins abound as well as a healthy population of approximately 30 bobcats. Not long after moving to Kiawah, I walked out onto our patio one morning and discovered a baby bobcat peering out from behind a flowerpot. It stayed long enough for me to take a quick photo before disappearing into the adjacent thick forest. What a memory.
Bobcats, Lynx rufus, one of six cat species native to the United States, can be found in each of the lower 48 states, including all of South Carolina. The lynx, a very close relative, roams Alaska. Their name is derived from their short, or bobbed, tail. While most wild cats have long tails (think cheetah or lion), the bobcat sports a tail of only 6 to 8 inches. Males are larger than females, and their color ranges from grayish to reddish brown, depending on their range. Bobcats can vary in size, also depending on their geographic range. South Carolina bobcats average 16 to 22 inches tall at the shoulder and 30 to 40 inches long. They are relatively small cats, weighing between 10 and 25 pounds. Bobcats typically live 7 years and 10 years in the wild.
They generally become sexually mature at about 2 years of age, and breeding occurs from winter until early spring. Gestation is 60 to 70 days. Litters range from one to six, but more typically two to four kittens are born in the spring. Young are weaned at about two months of age. Cubs become independent of their mothers anywhere from six to 12 months after birth.
Bobcats are known to be shy and are rarely seen, even though they are relatively common. They are most active at dawn and dusk but can be observed almost any time of the day or night. They are territorial, with established home ranges of up to 40 acres. They can also be found in many urban areas, including the back patio of a Kiawah home. Like all carnivores, their prey varies by region, but the three most common prey species in South Carolina are deer fawns, rabbits, and cotton rats. However, bobcats will eat almost anything of appropriate size, including squirrels, fish, birds, and even insects. They are also known to prey on small livestock and poultry. Bobcats may still be legally trapped and hunted in South Carolina with permits obtained through South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Sadly, over the past two years Kiawah’s healthy bobcat population has dramatically declined. Less than 10 animals now remain on the island. What happened? Approximately three years ago, some island residents and pest control companies began using second generation anticoagulants, SGAs, as bait in an effort to control rodents. Rodents that eat SGAs do not die immediately, instead they become lethargic, making them easy prey for predators like bobcats. Over time, as the bobcats ate more and more of these rats and mice, the levels of SGAs in their systems increased to the point of death. Fortunately, a concerted effort is now underway on the part of the town and island residents to eliminate SGAs in hopes that these wonderful cats can be saved. And then, I’ll once again have bobcat kittens on my patio.