Their fur is buff to brown, sometimes with a reddish tinge, marked with spots or stripes of brown or black, or both. Bobcats are more intensely colored above and lighter below. They have facial ruffs, ear tufts, white spots near the tips of their ears and a bobbed tail.
Bobcats are often confused with lynx. They are similarly sized cats, but occupy different habitats. Lynx live in cold northern latitudes where snow lies deep for much of the year. As adaptations to the lower temperatures of –70 F (–57 C), they have shorter tails than bobcats and their footpads are well protected with a dense covering of fur, while those of the bobcat are bare. The longer legs of the lynx are also an adaptation to traveling through deep snow, where the bobcat is at a disadvantage.
The plain brownish-gray coat of the lynx enables it to be inconspicuous against a background of dense, moss-laden coniferous forests and swamps, the typical vegetation from which it stalks its main prey, the snowshoe hare. The black-spotted brown coat of the bobcat blends in well with the background of rocks, brush, and other dense vegetation where its main prey, cottontails, feed. Because of the denser cover, sound may be more important than sight in locating prey for the lynx than the bobcat, and hence, its ear tufts, which are thought to help hearing, are longer than those of the bobcat.
The backs of bobcats' ears are marked with two white spots, which the female's offspring probably follow in dim light. Another useful adaptation is the white underside of the bobbed tail. If the kittens fall too far behind, the mother stops and softly calls to them while raising her tail to reveal the white patch below.
Bobcats vary in size along their continental range—larger animals occurring in the north and smaller animals in the south. They are generally between 1.5 to 2 feet (46 to 64 centimeters) tall at the shoulder and weigh between 9 and 33 pounds (4 to 15 kilograms).
The majority of the world's bobcats are found in the United States but they range from Mexico to southern Canada. Bobcats are very adaptable and can live in a wide variety of habitats, including boreal coniferous and mixed forests in the north, bottomland hardwood forest and coastal swamp in the southeast, and desert and scrubland in the southwest.
Bobcats communicate through scent, visual signals, and vocalizations. Scent marking occurs by urinating along travel routes, depositing feces in latrine sites, and scraping urine and/or feces along a trail. These marks also indicate that a specific den is being used by a female and her kittens, signal that a female is receptive to mating, or delineate a home range.
Body posture and facial expressions are effective close range signals to warn off intruders. They rarely mew like domestic cats, but chortle and emit birdlike chirps. During mating season, their vocalizations resemble that of a screaming domestic alley cat.
North American cats advertise land occupancy largely by scent and visual signals. Vocalizations play little part. The means used to warn off intruders include the depositing of urine, feces, and anal gland secretions, and marking scrapes in the ground.
The majority of the bobcat's diet consists of rabbit and hares, with a smaller percentage of rodents, such as squirrels and mice. They also hunt small deer, snakes, lizards and domestic animals such as dogs, cats, sheep, goats and poultry.
Primarily terrestrial, bobcats are excellent climbers and can leap high enough to catch low-flying birds. They stalk their prey with unparalleled patience, and often travel from 2 to 7 miles (3 to 11 kilometers) in an evening while hunting and patrolling their territory.
Bobcats can run at up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour) and they put their back feet in the same spots where their front feet stepped to reduce noise when hunting.
At the Zoo, bobcats have traditionally been fed a prepared meat diet, mice, rats, chicks and bones.
The mating season is primarily in the winter, though mating can take place anytime from November until August. Gestation is 60 to 70 days (average is 62 days) and there are usually two to four kittens per litter. The den can be a hollow tree, a cave, under dense shrubs, between two boulders or any other place protected from the weather. The female lines the den with moss and foliage and the kittens are typically born in the spring. Once the kittens are born, the female drives the male away, although the male will stay in the vicinity. The female nurses the kittens for two months and they then travel with her for three to five months, separating from her before the winter mating season. Females are sexually mature and mate after one year but males do not mate until they are 2 years old.
Bobcats may be active during all hours of the day and night, but studies have consistently found crepuscular (dawn and dusk) activity peaks.
Most bobcats live between five and 15 years in the wild. One zoo boasted a bobcat that lived to be 34.
While it is legal to trade in bobcat pelts, the bigger threat to bobcats is thought to be habitat loss.
There is a bobcat Species Survival Program (SSP) to which the Zoo belongs. Unlike other SSPs at the Zoo, the bobcat SSP does not manage an endangered species in human care (since bobcats are not threatened), but rather manages the placement of rescued and rehabilitated bobcats that cannot return to the wild. National Zoo Keeper Rebecca Stites is the studbook keeper for the bobcat SSP.