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.

Eastern box turtles are declining

For the last few decades, box turtle numbers have been declining. Althought they’re not endangered, their populations have been plummeting throughout their range and they can’t continue at this pace.

An Eastern box turtle may have just one to three surviving babies in their entire lifetime. Individual turtles have a small range, just a few acres in size, so if just a few are picked up and taken home as pets, the local population may not recover for several decades.

Box turtles don’t do well in captivity except with expert care, so bringing one home won’t likely go very well. Captive turtles succumb prematurely to infection and malnutrition-related disease, often within just a few months of captive life.

So, please, the next time you see a box turtle in the wild, leave it alone, other than to help it cross the road (in the direction it’s going). Keep our native wildlife safe!

Why do raccoons have masks?

I just learned something that I never knew about raccoons. Those cute, little masks that make them look like four-pawed bandits actually serve a purpose. By absorbing moonlight, starlight, and artificial light around the raccoon’s eyes, the masks reduce glare, allowing them to see more clearly at night.

Photo by Maureen Seibert

Some raccoons are “palefaces,” and have white masks. This is a genetic mutation, more common with raccoons in coastal areas.

Animals have an amazing ability to evolve so they can be better equipped to survive in their environment. It is survival of the fittest, after all!

Another reason to love opossums

About the size of a large house cat, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is North America’s only marsupial, a mammal that carries and nurses its young in a pouch. One of Earth’s oldest surviving mammals, opossums (or simply possums), have been around for at least 65 million years, first appearing in North America about the time dinosaurs went extinct.

Most people don’t know it, but possums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease, eating over 95 percent of the ticks that land on them during their meanderings. Researchers estimate the average possum kills thousands of ticks every week. They also eat snails, slugs, and beetles, so they’re a welcome addition to the garden. They’ll also catch and eat unwelcome pests like mice, rats, fire ants, cockroaches, and even roadkill, making them an important part of Nature’s cleanup crew.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about possums is that they’re immune to snake venom, and actually kill and eat snakes, even venomous ones like rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Peptide in the Virginia opossum’s blood has been found to be an effective and inexpensive antivenom against bites from the western diamondback rattlesnake in the U.S. and the Russell viper in India.

So the next time you see a possum, walk away. They are far more beneficial as scavengers than harmful for any damage they might do. Give Nature a break!

Photo courtesy Amazingfacts.com

Those amazing woodpeckers!

Woodpeckers are my favorite family of birds, and I count myself fortunate that there are many different species in my neighborhood. They are year-round residents, quite vocal, and show up regularly at my suet and seed feeders in the winter.

Most woodpeckers excavate new nest cavities every year to raise their young. Once they’re done raising the current year’s brood, their nesting hole can become a home for many other animals. Pileated woodpeckers (pictured below) are the largest woodpeckers in North America, and their size and strong bills make them especially good at building homes for their families, and many other animals. A pileated woodpecker’s nest cavity is likely to later be home to owls, wood ducks, flying squirrels, tree squirrels, weasels, and raccoons.

Courtesy of For Fox Sake Wildlife Rescue

I’m fortunate that a pair of pileateds visits my feeders every morning in the winter. Where I lived previously, they preferred the safety of the deep woods and showed no interest in the bird feeders. The woodpeckers here, on the other hand, have become habituated to coming to feeders due to the number of people who feed them. They learn, and teach their young, that even if it’s a bit scary, bird feeders offer good stuff!