Does living in the city make it easier to be nocturnal? Natural-born early birds may never learn to love the nightlife, and owls might not ever welcome dawn’s early light but bobcats (Lynx rufus) have shown themselves to be as adept at changing their circadian time signature as a jazz combo.
Territorial and mostly solitary, in keeping with their lineage, the bobcat is an opportunistic mesopredator — adults stand about 12 to 24 in (30-60 cm) at the shoulder, measure between 18½ to 49 in from nose to terse tail tip, and slant the scales at 4 to 40 lbs (3.8-18.3 kg); on average, males are bulkier than females. Within their personal stomping grounds, which can range from small (0.25 sq mi) to quite expansive (125 sq mi), they’ll establish a main den plus a few supplementary crash sites. A rock ledge, hollow log, brush pile… any old place that offers room and board will do as a back-up.
When their home venue is in the hinterlands, bobcats generally start warming up at twilight, jam until ’round midnight, break for a long intermission, then encore from dawn until a few hours after sunrise. That said, it’s not uncommon to see this intrepid player prowling their turf in broad daylight. It all depend on circumstances and the season; in this business a cat has to be flexible enough to bend with the beat.
Maybe it’s that behavioral plasticity that allowed bobcats to see the benefits of city living while their human neighbors still thought of them as bound to the boondocks.
While certainly not newcomers to the urban scene, it took University of New Mexico biologist Robert L. Harrison’s 1998 exposé in The Southwestern Naturalist to pull the curtain back and reveal the village bobcat vanguard in three different residential areas in and around Albuquerque. Following Harrison’s lead, others began to offer additional scholarly works, reporting on the urban bobcat diaspora in Houston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere.
We’ve known for some time that their ancestors emigrated to North America from Europe during the Pleistocene, crossing over the Bering Land Bridge and then fanning out across their new continent; from that perspective, moving from the country to the suburbs doesn’t seem like a very big leap. Which makes it even harder to understand how long it took industry professionals to recognize the bobcats’ inherent proficiency at improv — their above-mentioned comfort with couch-surfing; their willingness to sample everything from insects to deer; and their ability to feel welcome in diverse environments from semi-desert to swampland.
Somehow, cities and suburbs were automatically dismissed as potential habitat. Sure, there were rumors and anecdotal reports of bobcat sightings in a borough here, a metropolis there… but fans thought they were simply on tour. I guess people assumed members of the Lynx Quartet (L. lynx, L. canadensis, L. pardinus, and L. rufus) are always in the pocket and stick to a playlist of reliable standards — take what comes your way, keep to yourself, and keep away from humans. No one in the audience expected one of the sidemen to jump to an urban chord progression so they couldn’t hear (or see) it. By the time someone did notice, the bobcats had already moved into below-ground rent-controlled apartments and were feeling jake.
Cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas are 24/7 enterprises; someone is always up to something somewhere. The easy early-to-bed, early-to-rise rhythm of human life was replaced by an ambitious bebop tempo with the introduction of electric lighting. Suddenly, hours previously deemed too dark for enterprises other than R&R could be put to work. And when humans are out and about from before dawn until late in the evening, a feline who wants to avoid meddling neighbors and automotive spotlights has to take the night shift to make a living.
And remain among the living, too. A recent study by University of Alberta researchers found that urban carnivores who are able to convert to a nocturnal lifestyle have significantly higher survival rates than those who hold on to the dusk-and-dawn habit, primarily because there are fewer cars to dodge after dark. Of course, the ability to perform late at night is all fine and dandy but it isn’t sustainable if the kitchen closes at sundown; some of the nutrients have to adapt to nocturnal as well for the show to go on.
It’s also important to remember that just because someone can work through the wee small hours doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy, or that their innate chronotype can change at will from morning lark to nighthawk. Urban bobcats may be up all night out of necessity more than inclination… and really, truly, desperately looking forward to a grabbing cat nap.
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