Only once have I seen a bobcat. It was crouched behind a rock, snow piling up on the top of its head. A snowstorm swirled around me, and there it was, black tips poking above its ears, a wooly beard dotted with frozen crystals. My neighbors, on the other hand, tell stories of their sightings every year. Some cats choose their decks or porches to live under. Some years, my neighbors simply watch them walking a wildlife path that crosses their property.  

This winter, a family I know watched a mother bobcat and its kitten for two hours. While the mother was lying in the sun, she observed her youngster engrossed in the chasing of a squirrel. I was incredibly jealous that I wasn’t privy to this amazing wildlife scene. 

While elusive, bobcats in Truckee/Tahoe will often hang out near us humans, not seeming in any rush to leave the domain, especially if there is an abundant cottontail population. Otherwise, a tasty meal can be made of rodents, squirrels, or birds. They’ve been known to take down a small fawn as well.  

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I’ve heard many neighbors or visitors to our area claim with great excitement that they had spotted a lnyx or a cougar walking in the forest or crossing a street. Lynx? Cougar? Mountain lion? Bobcat? How do you tell the difference? 

To begin, bobcat is often confused with the name lynx, but the difference between the two is simple: The bobcat in the Truckee/Tahoe area, aka Lynx rufus, aka red lynx, is a species of lynx. Others include the Canadian (Lynx canadensis), the Iberian (Lynx pardinus) and the Eurasian (Lynx lynx) lynx. 

The bobcat is the smallest of the group, standing approximately two feet tall and weighing a mere 12 to 30 pounds (depending on whether it is a female or a male). This weight is much less than that of the other wild feline roaming our area (and rarely seen), the considerably larger 80- to 100-pound mountain lion. 

Speaking of mountain lions, another misperception prevails. The mountain lion moniker (Puma concolor) is often confused with that of the cougar (Puma concolor, same name, same animal). So, what’s the difference? The mountain lion and the cougar are generally identical but called different names in different countries. Their habitat stretches from Canada to South America. There have been sightings of mountain lions at Tahoe, but no official encounters are made as often as with the bobcat.

Mountain lions sport tawny coats and have round ears. Adults can reach up to 7 feet long with a thick, 2–3 foot long tail, and range from 70–150 lbs. Bobcats have spotted coats with banding down their legs and across their faces, including on their distinctive facial rough. Such a patterning varies between individuals and can be fairly light. The ears are pointy and tufted, colored black on the back with a noticeable white spot. Their tails are 5–9 inches long. Adults can weigh 12–25 lbs. Domestic cats vary in size and color, but generally have longer tails and are shorter and smaller than bobcats.

That one time I was lucky enough to share a snowstorm with my bobcat neighbor, I stood for as long as it would let me before it ran off. In that chilly but engrossing 10 minutes, I studied its face and upper body, golden-brown-gray fur, speckled with black spots. Its renowned ear tufts — black at the tips and base — are a sure bobcat clue, as is the white patch centered on the back of each ear. But it was the ruff I loved the most. Its cheek fur reminded me of a man’s long sideburn chops, like that of an old miner during the Gold Rush or those of our sixth U.S. president, John Quincy Adams.

NO CLAW TIPS? That’s a telltale sign that the prints you see are a bobcat’s. Photo by Sarah Miller/Moonshine Ink

Of course, the most famous trait for which the bobcat is named is its “bobbed” tail, only 4 to 7 inches long and marked with several black stripes toward the tip. There was no mistaking the nubby appendage in comparison to a mountain lion’s, which is much longer and reaches the ground with the tip curled upward.

Another clue to the Felidae, the scientific family to which the bobcat belongs, is its tracks. These are easily distinguishable from those of a coyote. (The coyote is a canine, while the bobcat is in the feline family.) When I see tracks like that of a dog, but don’t see shoe prints nearby, I am certain that either a coyote or a bobcat has walked past my house. In the case of felines, they have four toes on the front foot (with a fifth dewclaw) and four toes on the back foot. Coyotes and our domestic canines have four toes as well, but with two indented lobes on the rear pad, in contrast to the bobcat’s three indented lobes. In the end, though, the most telltale sign lies in the feline’s retractable claws (when they aren’t climbing trees or defending themselves). A print with no claw tips? Bobcat. A print with claw tips? Coyote. As for how to tell a coyote from a dog, the coyote paw print is more oval, the dog’s more rounded. 

I keep looking for my bobcat neighbor this stormy winter in hopes I might see one for a second time. So far, no luck. I’m guessing they’re acting much like us humans during these recurring snow storms: hiding in their dens, cuddling up to one another to keep warm.

HANGING OUT: The bobcat can lie languidly on someone’s porch, but that is a rarity. They are often elusive. Photo by Brian Grocott

Slow Down for Our Friends

One neighbor in Sierra Meadows, Hek Elliot, tells a story on Nextdoor of helping an injured bobcat. With the cat’s hip broken in 50 places, Elliot surmised, “It was most likely hit by a car.” 

Unfortunately, the bobcat was euthanized, as its injury was beyond repair by the medical team at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care. 

Elliot wrote, “Since I’m a photographer, I felt the need to document it all in hopes of using this media to educate people to slow down and be more aware of their surroundings.”

~ Photo by Hek Elliot

Author

  • Eve Quesnel

    Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 35 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim-now on her own-and many dogs through the years, currently a Border Collie-Aussi mix. Her favorite pastimes include walking in her neighborhood and nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel is now retired from teaching English at Sierra College in Truckee but continues to pursue several writing projects. She is intrigued by the natural world of which she explores and writes about for the column "Nature's Corner" in Moonshine Ink.

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