I love wild animals, but don’t want them living under my house!

A couple of months ago, a skunk moved in under my house. I didn’t actually see it, so how did I know it was a skunk? If you’ve ever smelled skunk spray, it’s not something you forget. The pungent, musky smell hangs in the air for a long time. I had smelled it a couple of times in the early evening, so I knew there was one prowling about.

My two dogs confirmed my suspicion one night when I let them out for their last pee. As soon as I let them out, they ran around the fenced area like crazy, sniffing the ground (clue #1). My littlest dog then went to the lattice enclosure around the bottom of the deck and was obviously very interested in something (clue #2).

The next morning I saw some small animal tracks under the bird feeder (clue #3). Skunks have five toes on each foot, and claws that extend from each toe. The claws make deep tracks on the fore feet, unlike a cat, which retracts its claws. The hind foot leaves the mark of a heel pad that is usually between two and two-and-a-half inches. 

Okay, so a skunk had been in the yard last night, probably attracted to the spilled sunflower seeds below the feeder. I began checking to see if there was any place where a small animal could get under the house. A skunk, which is about the size of a small housecat, could squeeze between the lattice framwork around the deck. Then I noticed a depression where a critter had dug to get under the house. So, there was indeed a skunk living under my house.

The negatives to having a skunk living under your house are: 1) they can contract and spread rabies; 2) they can dig burrows or tunnels under there; and 3) if they find an opening, they can get inside your house. Three very good reasons for not having a free-loading skunk as a boarder.

I removed the bird feeder and cleaned up all the spilled seed. At least I wouldn’t be aiding and abetting the intruder. I was trying to figure out how to get the skunk to leave when my dogs took care of the problem for me.

The next night, I let them out and right away smelled the skunk, but it was too late. The dogs lit out after something in the dark. I held my breath, waiting to see what would happen. I was anticipating having to deal with two very stinky dogs, but miraculously, they didn’t get sprayed.

Turns out, the skunk took his leave that night. I made a mental note to close up that opening under the house. Problem solved.

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Black bears give birth while hibernating

Imagine going to sleep and waking up months later, with three new babies that you gave birth to with no memory of the big event. This is part of the black bear’s mating cycle every year. The bears mate in late summer, but the cubs don’t begin growing until the female bear, called a “sow,” enters her den to hibernate. Some time between mid-January and mid-February, she gives birth to 2 to 3 cubs without fully waking from hibernation. She and the cubs stay in the den together until springtime.

So, while winter does her thing, mom and cubs are safe and warm in their winter hibernacula!

Photo credit: For Fox Sake Rescue

Do coyotes howl when hunting?

Coyote howling in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Jim Peaco

Many people panic when they hear the howls and yips of their coyote neighbors. They often believe these sounds mean that they, or their pets, are in danger. Although it’s always best to keep small pets properly contained or supervised, a howling coyote isn’t trying to announce that it’s about to attack you or anyone else. Coyotes are around us all the time without causing us any harm. Whether you hear them or not, they are present in our neighborhoods and parks. When you hear them howl, it isn’t because they’re searching for food—they’ve been there all along, and you just happened to notice them singing. Coyotes howl and yip to communicate with one another. A coyote may howl to bond with family, meet up with a friend or relative, or warn territorial rivals that this particular territory is taken. Like most other predators, coyotes hunt silently by stalking their prey. Coyotes live in small family groups, typically containing just two to five individuals, but use auditory illusions to make themselves sound like a large, intimidating pack. Just one mated pair might sound like a dozen or more animals! This is one of the reasons that people are often alarmed by their calls. Enjoy listening to your coyote neighbors as they communicate with each other.

Don’t relocate any wild critter in winter!

Seeing chipmunks scurrying around? While you might be tempted to trap and relocate them, moving them is not a humane solution, especially during the cold months. Chipmunks spend the fall collecting nuts and acorns that they have stored in their burrow to keep them alive in winter. When you relocate a chipmunk, you take it away from its hard-earned stash of winter food, leaving it to starve. Other than making a couple of small holes in your yard, they don’t mean you any harm and are simply trying to survive.

Please don’t relocate ANY wildlife in winter. They have food sources mapped out and stored away. If they are moved, they lose the safety and warmth of their burrow or den and run the very real risk of starving and becoming food for predators.

Photo by For Fox Sakes Wildlife Rescue

Do raccoons hibernate during winter?

Raccoons right now are going through many changes to prepare for winter. Rather than being strictly norcturnal, they’re becoming more active at dawn and dusk, and are developing a strong instinct to forage on high-fat foods and seek shelters. All these changes prepare them “Diet Hibernation” during the coldest months, known scientifically as torpor.

Torpor differs from true hibernation. Animals in true hibernation sleep for weeks or months at a time and don’t need to eat or drink. Bears can even give birth during hibernation, barely waking up in the process!

While raccoons in the coldest parts of their range may sleep for several days at a time during torpor, they never experience the dramatically slowed metabolism that true hibernators experience. During torpor, some raccoons come out during the warmest part of the day to forage for food. Torpor serves the same purpose as hiberation: it enables animals to make it through the lean months with little food.

If you’re one who can relate to a raccoon’s desire to spend the winter sleeping and coming out only to eat “comfort food,” that’s because humans have a torpor instinct just like our wild neighbors. We tend to sleep more and gain weight during the winter, and many experts believe that torpor instinct is a major contributor to seasonal depression. These coming months are hard for most wild creatures, and we’re no exception!

If you see raccoons foraging in the daytime and they appear otherwise healthy, there’s no need to panic and assume they have rabies. They’re just adjusting their habits with the seasons, as nature intended!

Leave the leaves

A simple way to make life better for all the small critters that rely on leaf litter is to leave your rake in the shed and let the leaves stay on the ground until spring. Fallen leaves are important to the tiny ecosystem that exists in your own backyard. Butterflies, moths, earthworms, toads, salamanders, and many other small animals spend the winter under leaf litter and depend on it for their survival.

Leaf litter, made up of leaves, twigs, and pieces of bark, is an important component of healthy soil. The decomposing litter releases nutrients into the soil and holds in moisture. It also serves as great nesting material, hiding places, and protected spots for animals. This dead organic material provides the perfect habitat for a plethora of organisms, including worms, snails, spiders, and microscopic decomposers like fungi and bacteria. 

Make greener choices this season and give local wildlife a helping hand!

World Rabies Day

Courtesy of For Fox Sake Wildlife

Today is World Rabies Day, a day to raise awareness about the disease and the “vectors” that carry it like skunks, foxes, raccoons, and bats. While the vast majority of wild critters don’t have the virus, it’s still a real and present risk to the welfare of our native wildlife and to the safety of humans and livestock.

About 50% of calls received by animal rehabilitators involve animals with central nervous system infections. These groups work with local animal control officers and the USDA to ensure that these animals are tested for rabies. (Most of these cases turn out to be canine distemper, another fatal and painful viral infection.)

Please have all of your pets vaccinated against rabies and get regular booster vaccines. Do not handle wildlife or take animals from the wild as pets. While the risk of rabies is relatively low, the virus is out there. Animals with rabies don’t always exhibit the drooling, staggering, or aggressive behavior that we would normally recognize as symptoms of rabies. Sometimes they will act overly affectionate.

A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not all plants are born equal. Some go through their entire life cycle with nary a glance from passersby. Take, for instance, the plants that grow on bare ground and other hostile places with poor soil and few nutrients. To survive, these plants have developed special adaptations such as long tap roots and root nodes containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These plants grow, propagate, and die, and in the process enrich and stabilize the soil, paving the way for other, less hardy, plants to grow. These early soil colonizers are the ‘pioneer plants’ — otherwise disparagingly referred to as “weeds.”

Dandelions, the bane of the perfect lawn set, fall into this category, but they, too, have a job to do. Their profligate nature and the fact that they are one of the earliest wildflowers in spring make them an important early food source for honeybees and butterflies. Honeybees gather the pollen in special pockets and take it back to the hive to feed the colony; butterflies and bees alike drink the nectar for fuel.

Dandelions are an important food source for bees and butterflies.

Common milkweed is another pioneer plant that rarely receives its due praise. Found in fields, pastures, vacant lots, and along woodland borders, this native plays an important role as host plant of the larvae of the monarch butterfly (a declining species in Virginia), and is a highly sought-after nectar source for wasps, bees, butterflies, and beetles.

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed

Unfortunately, many homeowners and gardeners spend a fortune eradicating these so-called weeds rather than trying to live with them or manage their numbers. We would be wise to remember that when we remove or destroy the fertile top layer of the soil, nature sends in her first line of defense – the weeds!

Mama opossum carrying 12 babies on her back!

If there was a wildlife Mama-of-the-Year award, this mama would get my vote!

Check out this video of a mama opossum in Wisconsin carrying 12 of her babies on her back.

Opossums remain in the mother’s pouch until they are about two months old. Between two and four months of age, they may ride on their mother’s back and are dependent on the mother for help in finding food and shelter.

Read my earlier blog post about how possums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease.

Please leave possums alone. They are quite harmless, and once the babies are old enough, they will move on.

Fall’s bounty is winter’s food for animals

Fall is nature’s time to provide the food that will sustain wild animals through the winter. The summer growing season has produced a virtual cornucopia of delectible wild foods like poke, persimmon, and sumac that will provide a bounty of food for deer, wild turkeys, birds, and other wildlife.

pokeberry
persimmon
mockingbird on sumac

Want to know how you can help feed wildlife this winter? Let your garden go wild.

  1. Leave undisturbed wild areas in your garden – piles of leaves or brushwood can make the perfect nest in which animals can hide, rest, and hibernate.
  2. By leaving the task of tidying your garden borders and shrubs until early spring, shelter can be provided for insects throughout winter.
  3. The seeds of summer’s flowers can provide extra food for birds, mice, and opossums.
  4. If you have a compost heap, this will become a welcome habitat for toads, salamanders, and skinks to overwinter.