Felis silvestris silvestris
The wildcat is Felis silvestris, a member of the small cat sub-family Felinae. It is native to Eurasia. It is so-called because it is almost impossible to tame. However, crossbreeding with domestic cats has occurred throughout almost the whole of the species' range.
The wildcat shows geographic variation. All subspecies are larger than house cats, with longer legs and more robust bodies. There are about 22 subspecies, or (according to some) only four, including the Chinese mountain cat, which was previously considered a species in its own right.
Our domestic cat originated from the subspecies known as the African wildcat. The name 'wildcat' is sometimes used as a term for domestic cats which have gone wild in the sense of living rough, without owners.
The wildcat has pointed ears, which are moderate in length and broad at the base. Its eyes are large, with vertical pupils and yellowish-green irises. Wildcat species are larger than the domestic cat. The European wildcat has relatively longer legs and a more robust build compared to the domestic cat. The tail is long, and usually slightly exceeds one-half of the animal's body length.
Males measure 43–91 cm (17–36 in) in head to body length, 23–40 cm (9.1–15.7 in) in tail length, and normally weigh 5–8 kg (11–18 lb). Females are slightly smaller, measuring 40–77 cm (16–30 in) in body length and 18–35 cm (7.1–13.8 in) in tail length, and weighing 3–5 kg (6.6–11.0 lb).
The wildcat is a largely solitary animal, except during the breeding period. The size of its home range varies according to terrain, the availability of food, habitat quality, and the age structure of the population. Females tend to be more sedentary than males, as they require an exclusive hunting area when raising kittens. Territorial marking consists of urinating on trees, vegetation and rocks, and depositing faeces in conspicuous places. The wildcat may also scratch trees, leaving visual markers, and leaving its scent through glands in its paws.
The wildcat does not dig its own burrows, instead sheltering in the hollows of old or fallen trees, rock fissures, and the abandoned nests or earths of other animals, such as of fox or Eurasian badger in Europe, and of fennec in Africa.
When threatened, a wildcat retreats into a den, rather than climb trees. When taking residence in a tree hollow, it selects one low to the ground. Dens in rocks or burrows are lined with dry grasses and bird feathers. Dens in tree hollows usually contain enough sawdust to make lining unnecessary. When the den is infested with fleas, the wildcat shifts to another den. During winter, when snowfall prevents the wildcat from travelling long distances, it remains within its den longer than usual.
The European wildcat was once widely distributed in forested regions from Europe up to Turkey and the Caucasus. Between the late 17th and mid 20th centuries, its European range became fragmented due to large-scale hunting.
It is possibly extinct in the Czech Republic, and considered regionally extinct in Austria, though vagrants from Italy are spreading into Austria. Sicily is the only island in the Mediterranean Sea with a native wildcat population.
The African wildcat lives in a wide range of habitats, with the exception of closed tropical forests, but throughout the savannahs of West Africa from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast eastwards to the Horn of Africa.
When hunting, the wildcat patrols forests and along forest boundaries and glades. In favourable conditions, it will readily feed in fields. The wildcat will pursue prey atop trees, even jumping from one branch to another. On the ground, it lies in wait for prey, then catches it by executing a few leaps, which can span three metres.
Sight and hearing are the wildcat's primary senses when hunting, its sense of smell being comparatively weak. When hunting aquatic prey, such as ducks or nutrias, the wildcat waits on trees overhanging the water. It kills small prey by grabbing it in its claws, and piercing the neck or occiput with its fangs. When attacking large prey, the wildcat leaps upon the animal's back, and attempts to bite the neck or carotid. It does not persist in attacking if prey manages to escape it.
Wildcats hunting rabbits have been observed to wait above rabbit warrens for their prey to emerge. Although primarily a solitary predator, the wildcat has been known to hunt in pairs or in family groups, with each cat devoted entirely to listening, stalking, or pouncing. While wildcats in Europe will cache their food, such a behaviour has not been observed in their African counterparts.
Throughout its range, small rodents are the wildcat's primary prey, followed by birds, especially ducks and other waterfowl, galliformes, pigeons and passerines, dormice, hares, nutria, and insectivores.
Unlike the house cat, the wildcat can consume large fragments of bone without ill-effect. Although it kills insectivores, such as moles and shrews, it rarely eats them. When living close to human settlements, it preys on poultry. In the wild, it consumes up to 600 g (21 oz) of food daily.
Kittens are usually born between April and May, and up to August. Litter size ranges from 1–7. Kittens are born blind and helpless, and are covered in a fuzzy coat. They weigh 65–163 g (2.3–5.7 oz) at birth, and kittens under 90 g (3.2 oz) usually do not survive. They are born with pink paw pads, which blacken at the age of three months, and blue eyes, which turn amber after five months.
Their eyes open after 9–12 days, and their incisors erupt after 14–30 days. The kittens start hunting with their mother at the age of 60 days, and start moving independently after 140–150 days. Maturity is attained by the age of 12 months. Similarly to the domestic cat, the physical development of African wildcat kittens over the first two weeks of their lives is much faster than that of European wildcats.
The kittens are largely fully grown by 10 months, though skeletal growth continues for over 18–19 months. The family dissolves after roughly five months, and the kittens disperse to establish their own territories. Their maximum life span is 21 years, though they usually live up to 13–14 years.
Wildcat populations are foremost threatened by hybridization with domestic cat. Mortality due to traffic accidents is a threat especially in Europe. The wildcat population in Scotland has declined since the turn of the 20th century due to habitat loss and persecution by landowners.
In the former Soviet Union, wildcats were caught accidentally in traps set for European pine marten. Wildcat skins were of little commercial value and sometimes converted into imitation fur. Wildcat skins were almost solely used for making cheap scarfs, muffs and coats for ladies.
Wildcat species are protected in most range countries. Conservation Action Plans have been developed in Germany and Scotland.
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Wildcat Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.