More bobcats, less food leads to more sightings

  • A bobcat travels through the snow. Local and state experts say this winter has been particularly tough on the state's wildlife population as there has been a food shortage. Photo BY U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

  • Barred owls have also been impacted by the shortage of squirrels and other small rodents.  Staff photo by Meghan Pierce

  • An barred owl hunting during the day in a Peterborough backyard last week.  Staff photo by Meghan Pierce

  • An barred owl hunting during the day in a Peterborough backyard last week.  Staff photo by Meghan Pierce

  • An barred owl hunting during the day in a Peterborough backyard last week. Staff photo by Meghan Pierce

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, January 21, 2019 4:41PM

An increase in population coupled with a seasonal food shortage has pushed bobcats more out in the open than years past, according to local and state experts.

“Getting into the cold part of winter, bobcats are having a harder time hunting,” NH Fish and Game Wildlife Programs Supervisor Kent Gustafson said. “They are having to expand their hunting area, given the limitations with their food supply. It’s not uncommon for people to see more bobcats when food is scarce.”

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire estimated in the fall of 2016 that there were as many as 1,400 bobcats in the state. The bobcat population in the state has been rebounding since the state protected the animal from being hunted in 1989, researchers stated.

The bobcat population may not be as robust as it once was, Gustafson said, but those living in the state are experiencing a food shortage – caused by a lack of squirrels, mice, and other small rodents.

Gustafson said squirrels and other rodents were in their own food shortage predicament this fall, as the number of acorns, beechnuts, and other food sources were impacted by a poor growing season.

“I imagine quite a few of them died off. There were hundreds if not thousands of squirrels that were hit by cars in the fall,” Gustafson said. “Others probably ran out of food or were unable to find food.”

Squirrels and other small rodents were particularly impacted in the fall of 2018 as their populations swelled after a bumper crop of food sources in 2017.

“That winter they had large and multiple litters,” Gustafson said. “We wound up in a year where they did tremendously well, then all of a sudden comes the fall of 2018 where there is nothing for those animals to eat. It was the perfect storm from superabundance to almost nothing.”

Gustafson said New Hampshire is one of the northern-most areas that bobcats live, meaning they are tested more in the winter months.

“A bad winter could result in an unusually high fatality rate,” Gustafson said, noting that bobcats struggle to hunt during snowy winters. “During mild winters, they do really well.”

This Sunday’s weather – a mix of snow and very cold temperatures – could further impact the local bobcat population.

“It’s kind of a natural ebb and flow. Over the past few years, we’ve been riding a string of mild winters compared to the ones we are used to seeing,” Gustafson said. “It’s been fairly cold and snowy since then and we are going to get more snow this weekend –the dump of snow isn’t going to help the situation.”

Meade Cadot, a naturalist emeritus for the Harris Center for Conservation Education, said bobcats particularly like grey squirrels – a population affected locally by the lack of acorns produced by the northern red oak tree.

“With less food around, it encourages them to come near people’s birdfeeders,” Cadot said.

Bobcats aren’t the only animals in the Monadnock Region to be affected by a food shortage – barred owls are also struggling to find food as they eat the same small rodents that the wildcats do.

“Typically [barred owls] hunt at night but you will start seeing them out in the daylight, hunting for food or sitting by birdfeeders,” Gustafson said.

Eric Masterson, land program coordinator at the Harris Center for Conservation Education, said it is impossible to know the true stress on the local barred owl population without doing a study, but finding more of them congregating on roadsides and near birdfeeders may be a sign they are struggling to find food.

“It’s harder to find food in the winter as there are less available resources,” Masterson said. “If it’s tough going in the woods, you will probably find them more on roadsides. Feeding birds in the winter will also attract them.”

Cadot said foxes and fishers – who also eat small rodents – may also be impacted by the ecological shift being experienced this fall and winter.

Future acorn production will be the key in whether rodents, barred owls, bobcats, and other animals can rebound in population.

“Food is the number one thing that drives everything,” Cadot said. “It really all depends on what happens in future growing seasons.”

Nicholas Handy can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or nhandy@ledgertranscript.com.