Woonsocket Call

BOBCATS BACK ON THE PROWL

Sightings of the shy feline predator being reported across Rhode Island

- By RUSS OLIVO rolivo@woonsocket­call.com

The big, tawny cat was twice the size of a domestic feline, with pointy ears and a short, stubby tail. It vanished into the woods on silent, padded feet without making a sound. “It was like 20 feet away from me,” says the eyewitness. “It happened so fast. My heart was pumping.” Peter, who doesn’t want to give his last name, was cutting grass at his home in Western Cranston on May 8 when he spied the swift-footed creature – a New England bobcat – at the wooded edge of the property. Except in photograph­s, he’d never seen one before in his life.

A native animal that was prized for its pelt, bobcats were hunted to the brink of extinction by early settlers and in future years struggled to survive against the ravages of habitat loss associated with residentia­l sprawl. Until a few years ago, sightings of the creatures – now protected as a threatened species – were rare, but researcher­s at the University of Rhode Island and state Department of Environmen­tal Management say the shy and elusive bobcat is making a comeback.

“We’ve had sightings in almost every town I would say except for Providence,” says URI Research Associate Amy Mayer. “They’re super adaptable, they can live in a lot of different habitats. Pretty much anywhere they can find food to eat you’re going to be able to find them.” The Smithfield Police Department issued a “wildlife awareness” advisory this week after receiving several reports of bobcat sightings, including one off Log Road, not far from the Glocester line. A woman managed to snap a photograph of the cat while it traipsed through her backyard and posted the image to Facebook, where it raised quite a stir. While bobcats share a perch with coyotes near the top of the wildlife food chain in this region, Mayer says they generally feed on rabbits, rodents and, increasing­ly, some naturalist­s believe, white-tail deer. She advises residents to take the same precaution­s around bobcats they would if coyotes were living in their midst – keep your pets in the house and don’t let them outside unsupervis­ed.

Mayer is in year three of a five-year study of bobcats that’s aimed at collecting some basic data about the animals. Among the things she’s trying to figure out are what kinds of habitats they’re living in, how far individual animals range and how diverse the gene pool is.

Mayer and other researcher­s say it’s too soon to draw a bead on the size of the population, but they can say one thing with certainty about the bobcat census: it’s growing.

“Based on the number of sightings we have been receiving in recent years, the number of roadkills – we don’t get lots but we get more than we used to – anecdotal reports, camera shots, it would seem the population is on an uptick,” says Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist with DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s something that’s true on a regional scale, not just here locally.”

Brown – Mayer’s partner in the research study – says it’s still something of a rarity to see a bobcat in the wild in Rhode Island. He’s been studying them three years and he still hasn’t seen one.

“I’ve picked up dead ones off the road, I’ve caught them in live-traps, but I’ve never seen one in the wild just crossing the road or something,” he says. “Even my own coworkers have seen one within a hundred yards of my office in West Kingston, in the Great Swamp Management Area. I feel kind of disappoint­ed.”

But bobcats are notoriousl­y private animals, says Brown. They’ll usually run off and hide as soon as they get the notion that there are humans nearby.

Still, people do get a decent glimpse of one now and again because bobcats often hunt for prey during the day.

“They’re pretty shy, secretive animals and they are active in the daylight,” says Brown. “Mostly, they’re nocturnal, but some animals don’t follow the rules strictly. Where there’s a lot of human activity, coyotes are active during the day, for example, and I think that’s true with bobcats and some other animals as well. Some of the things they prey on, squirrels, chipmunks, they’re active during the day.” So they follow the food. With brownish-gold fur and distinct markings that can appear as darker stripes and spots, bobcats grow to be about 30 pounds or so in this area – generally twice the size or more of a normal housecat. They’re easily distinguis­hed by their pointed ears, heavily whiskered jowls and naturally cropped, or bobbed, tails, from which the animals get their name.

Since URI launched the DEM-funded study, it has trapped and outfitted three bobcats with GPS collars which Mayer tracks to gather data on their range. The first, captured in 2016, was struck and killed by a car four months later, so Mayer is currently tracking only two animals.

DESPITE THE 2016 captive’s untimely demise, the young male trapped in Kingstown yielded a full set of data for Mayer, including informatio­n on its sometimes impressive range.

“It was very large,” said Mayer. “We captured him in Kingston, at one point in he ended up in Narraganse­tt, at another point in North Kingstown, and yet another in Stonington, Connecticu­t.

“He had areas where he hung out – hotspots where he spent most of the time,” said Mayer. “Every once in a while he’d go on what we’d call his walkabouts. We think that was just a young male trying to figure out his home range. Males’ home ranges don’t generally overlap.”

One bobcat mystery that remains unsolved is why the population is on the rise – not just here, but in other parts of New England.

It could be due to a bump in the creatures’ food supply – a brief population boom for rabbits and rodents, for example – or a triumph of the bobcat’s innate level of high adaptabili­ty to a variety of habitats.

“We don’t really know that,” says Mayer. “It could be they’re figuring out how to survive in populated areas a little more or that there are more food sources...we don’t really know for sure.”

But naturalist Wayne Barber of Burrillvil­le has a theory:

Take an explosion in the population of white-tailed deer, couple it with a plague of rabies that has ravaged other rivals at the top of the food chain, including silver fox and raccoon, and you’ve got the proverbial vacuum in the ecosystem that Mother Nature abhors. Enter the bobcat. “The white-tailed deer population has given them a food source,” says Barber. “They’re on the tremendous rise right now because there are no predators around them. Rabies have gone through fox and raccoon...and when they die from natural occurrence, then other apex predators have more to feed on.”

Barber says the expansion of the wild turkey population has also turned into a buffet for bobcats.

Founder of My Northwest Rhode Island, a blog that’s widely followed by hunters and nature enthusiast­s all over New England, Barber says there has been a population of bobcats in the Cooper Hill Road area of Burrillvil­le since at least the 1950s.

Barber says it’s only natural that Rhode Island is seeing a rise in the bobcat population because the same scenario is unfolding in nearby Massachuse­tts, Connecticu­t and other New England states. The census is so high in New Hampshire that the state recently considered allowing up to 50 animals to be trapped for their pelts, but later took the idea off the table.

Barber said New Hampshire has logged thousands of “nuisance complaints” about bobcats from property owners who are concerned about the animals attacking their children or pets.

The last time Barber saw a bobcat in the wild was a few miles away from his home, in nearby Thompson, Conn., in early February, Barber says.

But the Pascoag resident says he has heard the telltale sounds of bobcats closer to home “many times” in the recent past.

Contrary to what one might surmise, the cry of a bobcat is nothing like the meow of its domestic cousins, says Barber.

“They’re not screaming,” he says. “They’ll be calling to attract another bobcat. It’s not like growl. It’s more of a loud purr. But once you hear it you’ll never forget it.”

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 ??  ?? This image of a bobcat prowling through a backyard in Smithfield made the rounds on social media sites this week. State wildlife officials say sightings of the cats are still extremely rare, but certainly on the rise.
This image of a bobcat prowling through a backyard in Smithfield made the rounds on social media sites this week. State wildlife officials say sightings of the cats are still extremely rare, but certainly on the rise.

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