The European wildcat looks similar to a pet cat, but it is one of the fiercest of all animals. Like most of its cat relatives, the wildcat is a highly efficient hunter. The European wildcat is an ancestor of the domestic cat. Its numbers are increasing slowly in many areas after a century of persecution.
Habitats: The European wildcat is very adaptable and can survive in a variety of habitats. In Scotland wildcats inhabit moors and woodland but prefer hilly area for hunting. Rocky outcrops in forest throughout Europe provide refuge for most wildcats. In southern Europe the wildcat lives among scrub brush; in central Europe it lives in coniferous (cone-bearing) forests of spruce, fir, and cedar.
Breeding: Female wildcats are ready to mate in late February or early March. Groups of males howl, screech, and wail throughout the night to attract females. Once a male has established his dominance over the group, the female rolls on the ground to signal that she is ready to mate with him. Like other cats, the male wildcat bites the female’s neck during mating. Approximately six and a half weeks later the female gives birth in a nest situated among rocks or in a hollow tree. The mother defends her litter ferociously during the first few weeks of their life. The kittens open their eyes after 10 days and are quite fierce themselves, spitting, biting, and scratching at intruders. The mother suckles the kittens for a month, after which they start leaving the den to play nearby. The male does not help rear the kittens. At the age of three months the young begin to accompany their mother on hunting trips. By 10 months of age the kittens are almost fully grown, but they do not breed until the next year. Young wildcats mimic all their parents’ habits and are just as fierce.
Food & Hunting: Wildcats feed mainly on mice and other small rodents. They also eat larger mammals and prefer to live in areas where ground-nesting birds, rabbits, and hares are common. The European wildcats are not as successful at catching larger prey, but they may kill deer fawns that are too slow to escape. Wildcats lead solitary lives and hunt alone in areas where food is scarce. Their territories usually contain approximately 250 acres that they mark with feces and urine and by shredding the bark on trees. Wildcats fiercely defend their territories against intruders but do not hesitate to leave when it is time to mate. Where prey is plentiful, wildcats sometimes hunt in groups. A Scottish wildcat stands guard over a full-grown rabbit it has just killed.
Wildcat & Man: Wildcats once ranged throughout Europe. But as forest were cleared to provide wood for homes and industry, their habitats were destroyed, and they were forced to move to more remote areas. The European wildcat was once considered to be a pest because it preyed on ground-nesting birds that were raised for private hunting. Thousands of wildcats were killed during the 1800s and early 1900s to protect the grouse, partridges, and pheasants that were raised by gamekeepers on hunting estates. Because the attitude toward wildlife today is one of awareness and sensitivity, the slaughter of the wildcat has completely stopped. It is now seen as an important member of the environment and is protected in many areas.
Key Facts: Sizes, Weight, breeding, lifestyle, related Species
Weight: 8–22 lb. Female lighter
Length: 18-28 in.
Mating: Late February to early March
Sexual Maturity: 1 year
Gestation: 63-69 days
Litter Size: 1-8 kittens, but usually 4
Diet: Small rodents such as mice; also hares, rabbits, birds, birds, and insects
Life span: About 12 years
Habit: Usually solitary. Nocturnal
Call: Purrs, howls, and meows like its relative, the domestic cat
Related Species: There are 30 species of
cat in the genus Felis, which also includes the domestic cat.
Distribution: Scotland, Spain, Germany, Poland, and parts of southern Europe.
Conservation: The European wildcat population is increasing after years of attempted extermination by man, and the animals are re-colonizing their former habitats.
Comparison of a wildcat with a domestic tabby cat: The domestic tabby cat is the animal that most closely resembles the wildcat. But the wildcat’s head is heavier and broader than the tabby’s. Its ears often project horizontally, rather than vertically, as the tabby’s do. The wildcat’s fur is darkest on its back and cream colored on its belly. Four or five dark stripes run from the forehead to the nape of the neck, where they merge into a line. The wildcat’s tail accounts for almost half its length and is shorter than a tabby cat’s. It has thick, black bands and a blunt-looking tip. The domestic tabby is a third smaller than the wildcat and has a longer, thinner tail. It is far less shy than the wildcat.
Did You Know:
The Egyptians domesticated the African wildcat to protect their grain stores.
Small cats like the wildcat are unable to roar because of a bone in their larynxes. But they can purr while breathing both in and out, which big cats cannot do.
The wildcat was once found throughout northern Europe. It left during the Middle Ages because of the cooling climate.
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