By Doug Ireland
---- — When Karen Flanders and her husband, Dave, recently saw a cat sunning itself in their backyard, they thought it was an ordinary feline taking a nap.
But when they got a closer look, they realized it was a bobcat — nearly 4 feet long and weighing several dozen pounds.
“She was just basking in the sun, grooming herself,” the Chester woman said. “As soon as she heard the slightest noise, she got up and went.”
For two consecutive days in late July, the big cat napped on a stump in their yard. It was the first time they had seen a bobcat in their seven years living on Lady Slipper Lane.
Other Southern New Hampshire residents also are seeing bobcats for the first time as the population begins to rise in the Granite State, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game wildlife biologist Patrick Tate.
Tate and University of New Hampshire wildlife professor John Litvaitis are spearheading a four-year study of the animal’s population and habitat, due to be completed next year.
The study revealed that thanks to warmer winters, the bobcat population has steadily increased since declining in the 1970s and 1980s, when harsher weather reduced the numbers and prey, Tate said. Hunting and trapping of the species was allowed in New Hampshire until it was banned in 1989, he said.
There were approximately 100 bobcats in the state at that time, according to Litvaitis. Now, there are an estimated 1,400, Tate said.
More bobcats are being spotted throughout the Northeast, he said. That includes Southern New Hampshire, where the big cats have been seen in East Derry in the past few weeks.
Bobcat sightings have been a hot topic of conversation in Jennifer O’Neill’s Damren Road neighborhood, where she said a neighbor saw an adult and three babies near rabbit carcasses in his yard.
O’Neill, who has four young children and two dogs, said she’s concerned about their safety, but doesn’t feel a need to keep them inside. But no one is taking any chances either, she said.
“We’re just all being cautious and spreading it around our neighborhood,” O’Neill said.
Sherri Nourse, who lives on nearby Walnut Hill Road, was surprised to hear of bobcat sightings in East Derry, including one by School Board member Jennifer Lague, who could not be reached yesterday for comment.
“I know we have coyotes, I know we have fisher cats, but I didn’t know we had bobcats,” Nourse said.
She has children ages 11 and 13, and said they had initial concerns about their safety, but are not worried. After Flanders saw the bobcat in her backyard, she made sure children stayed away from the popular play area.
“Since then, nobody is allowed down there,” Nourse said.
Tate said while most bobcats typically avoid humans, a rabid cat could attack a person.
“Bobcats with rabies can be aggressive,” he said. “They generally fight to their death.”
But Tate said it’s rare for a bobcat to contract rabies. They generally stay away from dogs and coyotes, but will kill cats, he said.
Their only natural predators are fishers, which attack young bobcats, Tate said.
Perhaps the biggest threat to bobcats is motor vehicles, he said. Increased development throughout New Hampshire has forced the animals to wander greater distances to find food and cross busy roads, Tate said.
As part of the study, the research team — which includes three UNH graduate students and 10 trappers throughout the state — captured bobcats and outfitted them with collars featuring global positioning devices to track their movement.
Tate said one of the study’s most interesting finds is how well bobcats have acclimated to living in residential areas, often living off the birds and rodents that visit backyard birdfeeders.
“They feed on everything from a mouse to a deer,” he said.
That’s just one more reason to bring in backyard birdfeeders. As for the big cats, Tate said they should be left alone.