by Jim Jordan, Town of Kiawah Island Wildlife Biologist
Bobcats are reputed to be shy, secretive animals that avoid humans and development. They are often found living on the fringe of development, but are rarely if ever, found within it. Kiawah’s bobcats, however, seem to follow their own set of rules and for this reason they are very unique. Most residents have probably seen a bobcat in their own yard and in some cases on their porch or deck. How is this possible?
Animals need four things to survive: food, water, cover and space. This is true of all animals from snakes to bobcats to birds. The amount of land needed by an animal to find these four requirements is known as its home range. As a rule, predatory species such as bobcats have a much larger home range than prey species such as deer and rabbits.
Bobcats are common on Kiawah Island because they can readily find the food, water, cover and space that they need to survive. In fact, food and water are probably the easy part. Development on Kiawah has had the effect of creating optimal habitat for prey species such as cotton rats, squirrels, rabbits and deer. Yards, roads and golf courses create gaps in the forest that allow sunlight to reach the ground, promoting understory growth along edges which is an ideal habitat for prey species. In addition, irrigation and fertilization of native and landscaped shrubbery provides high-quality food sources for these species, as well.
The third requirement, cover, is also found throughout the island in the form of undeveloped lots, buffer strips, properties preserved by the Kiawah Conservancy and vacant areas. The fact that these undeveloped areas are interspersed throughout the Island is important. Because of them, bobcats do not have to travel very far to find the cover that they need. As development continues, the amount of cover on the Island will decrease and efforts to create, preserve and enhance areas of dense cover will become much more important.
The final requirement for animals is space. Because the amount of space on Kiawah Island is fixed, it limits the number of bobcats on the island. The easier it is for bobcats to find the food, water and cover that they need to survive, the less space they need and the more bobcats the island can support.
Why are bobcats so important to Kiawah Island? The answer is that they are the only large, mammalian predator remaining and as such they play an essential role in the balance of the ecosystem as they help to control rodent and deer populations. Research on Kiawah has shown that bobcats take approximately 50% of the deer fawns born each year. This natural control helps regulate and maintain deer numbers at acceptable levels, thereby reducing deer-vehicle collisions and landscape shrubbery damage.
Kiawah Island has many rare qualities: a spacious beach, first class amenities and beautiful homes. But don’t forget the bobcats – they may be the most truly unique thing that Kiawah has to offer.