About Wood and Field

My husband and I moved to our small farm in southwest Virginia in 2011. We decided to let the fields grow up to create a more diverse habitat for the wildlife that was living here long before we came along. We share our land with three dogs, four hens, and a couple hundred thousand honey bees, and try to live in peace with wildlife as much as we can.

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!

Coyote love lasts a lifetime

Only about  5 percent of mammal species are truly monogamous. Among members of the canine family, most— including foxes, wolves, and jackals— form strong pair bonds, but are often observed “cheating” on the side. Not so with the coyote. It is one of the only mammal species known to form truly faithful, monogamous pair bonds that last a lifetime.

Photo courtesy of For Fox Sake Wildlife Rescue

Coyotes normally find a mate in late adolescence, when youngsters first set out on their own away from their parents. Once mated, the pair will work side by side to raise their young each year, and may raise as many as ten litters in their lifetime together.

Just like humans, coyotes grieve for their lost mates and may never recover from the loss. A widowed coyote with pups is very unlikely to be able to raise the pups alone. Without a partner to help defend the home, the widowed coyote may lose its den, kills, and hunting grounds to rivals. They are condemned to live a life alone, as an adult coyote will rarely be able to find a new mate.

Please be kind to your wild neighbors. They have loved ones who need them!

No fireworks for me

My dogs have never experienced fireworks. I’ve been living in the country since 2010, which is the year I got Callie, and Noah didn’t join our family until 2014. We never went to watch fireworks, mostly because it was a drive to get there, and, at our age, we’d already seen our share of fireworks displays.

This year, I chose to stay home as well. Callie would be nervous, but I knew she would be fine. Noah, on the other hand, gets the shakes and runs from room to room (kind of like how I imagine a wild dog might react) anytime there’s a loud noise, like a gun shot or a car backfiring. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fireworks, wondering what was happening at home.

As it turned out, the fireworks only lasted about 20 minutes. Callie cuddled next to me. Noah shuddered with each boom and paced from room to room, looking for an escape, but eventually settled down on the sofa with Callie and me. I guess he figured since he was still alive, maybe it was going to be okay.

Sadly, there will be a lot of pets that will be terrified. They don’t understand loud noises and will look for an escape, and if they get out, they will run, many far enough that they can’t find their way back.

So I stayed home to make sure my dogs were safe. I’d rather stay home than come home and discover that one or both dogs were gone, or worse, something bad happened to them.

I can only imagine how terrifying the loud noises and lights must be to wildlife. Every year, countless animals die when fireworks scare nursing mothers away from their young and frighten birds into windows and traffic.

Yet, the 4th of July and fireworks have become inseparable in our culture as a way to celebrate the founding of our wonderful country. If you do go to watch fireworks, here are some tips to keep your pets safe. Have a happy and safe Independence Day!

 

 

Unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease

My first up-close encounter with a possum was one evening years ago when I went into the feed room to get feed for our horses. I was used to seeing these hairy, grayish animals flattened on the road, their lives abruptly and unceremoniously ended while out on a nightly prowl, but I was not expecting to see this 18-inch-long freeloader wedged under the feed bin. A closer look prompted a couple of low hisses from the hapless creature, but it didn’t move—it was probably as surprised to see me as I was to see it! I had unknowingly put out the welcome mat for this visitor when I forgot to close the feed room door that morning. I got my feed and left the door open, hoping it would take its leave the same way.

Photo: Google images

The oft-maligned opossum is actually a fascinating creature that suffers from an image problem. Frequently perceived as a dim-witted, rat-like scavenger whose most impressive trick is mimicking roadkill, this creature has one spectacular virtue that just might transform the aversion of some for this odd, waddling mammal into at least tolerance.

Turns out possums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease. Large numbers of the ticks that carry the Lyme disease bacteria are found on mice, shrews, squirrels, and chipmunks, but not so with the opossum. Researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY found out why. Several opossums were placed in cages and covered with ticks. The researchers waited for the biting ticks to jump off and counted how many escaped the mammal’s voracious appetite. The opossums ended up grooming off and eating over 95 percent of the ticks that landed on them. Experts estimate that a single possum can eat as many as 5,000 ticks in one season!

Typically, possums go about their business so quietly that you won’t even know they’re around. What should you do if you do happen to encounter a opossum? Absolutely nothing! Possums seldom stay in one place for more than a few nights, so fears of them “moving in” are unfounded. Just watch from a distance and enjoy one of nature’s most unusual and beneficial wildlife species.

In our midst

Despite their fear of humans, some birds choose to rear their young right outside our door

For the past several years, Eastern phoebes have chosen to nest on our porch. This spring, they built their mud, moss, and grass nest on a ledge above the door. Thinking it was not a good place because of all the foot traffic, I removed the nest, only to have it reappear a few days later, so I let it stay. Mama phoebe would find out soon enough what it’s like when three barking dogs come charging out the door to defend us against any real or imagined four-legged invader that might happen to venture into the yard.

Despite all the coming and going, mama sat on her eggs, flying off when the door opened, and returning a few minutes later. I grew more confident that she wasn’t going to bail on the eggs, and soon five sets of eyes could be seen peering over the rim of the nest.

Once the nestlings were big enough to watch the activity below, they seemed mildly entertained, taking it all in as if completely normal. Unfazed by the noise and commotion, even the time a fox ventured into the yard, setting the dogs into complete pandemonium, the phoebes grew and thrived. A few days later, they left the nest to start their new life.

Three days before leaving the nest

While the vast majority of passerines prefer to secrete themselves away from people during the nesting season, others seem to seek out a nesting site close to human activity. Every spring, phoebes, wrens, bluebirds, and other birds that normally shy away from people choose to raise their offspring literally at our doorstep, begging the question: If birds have a basic distrust of humans, why, then, do they take the risk of raising their family where we could easily cause them harm?

My answer came while reading a passage by author and professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont Bernd Heinrich in The Nesting Season. Heinrich wrote, “There are almost no Eastern phoebes in the wild nesting on cliffs as they did before human settlement. Phoebes have learned to take advantage of human protectors, and those birds that build their nests in human structures are spectacularly successful.”

What Heinrich was getting at was that some birds sense that their offspring will be safer if located close to human activity, areas their natural predators tend to avoid. Somehow they are able to temporarily overcome their fear of humans, and use their hosts as a sort of insurance policy against the predation of their nests.

What I was witnessing was simply an adaptation of wild critters to help them survive. While the activity going on around the phoebes was no doubt an annoyance, it seemed a simple trade-off: put up with the pesky humans (and their dogs) for a short time in return for a greater chance of survival for their offspring.

For the rest of the year, the phoebes will live out their lives in the woods and fields around us. We will see them winging their way across the meadows and hear their calls, but rarely will they venture as close as they did during the nesting season. But it’s a pretty sure bet that these same birds or their offspring will be our house guests next spring, once again seeking the protection of humans.

The underappreciated bat

Few animals in history have been so maligned as bats. For centuries, these flying mammals have been portrayed as blood-sucking, rabies-infested vermin, giving a bum rap to creatures that really do a lot of good. However, in the last couple of decades, thanks to the efforts of conservation groups and federal and state wildlife agencies, bats are being seen in a different light for the valuable role they play in the ecosystem.

As the primary predators of night-flying insects, bats are critical to reducing insect pest populations, including those pesky mosquitoes that take some of the fun out of being outdoors in the summer, and brought us such mosquito-borne diseases as West Nile and Zika virus, among others. Bats are part of a healthy ecosystem and integral to the balance of nature. Without bats, we would be overrun with insects and forced to use more pesticides, which can kill beneficial insects like bees, ladybugs, and dragonflies.

Every summer, a few little brown bats, probably males or unmated females, take up residence on our porch. We embrace these insect-eating machines that dine on mosquitoes, stink bugs, moths, beetles, and a host of other insect pests. In the fall, when the nights start getting colder and insects get hard to find, our furry visitors fly off to their winter hibernation site to wait for spring. 

Little brown bats roosting on our porch.

Because they have highly-specialized habitat requirements, bats do not adjust well to environmental changes. Adding to their vulnerability, they often live in very large colonies that can be wiped out in a single catastrophe. With many species suffering population declines due to loss of roosting habitat, loss of wetlands (which serve as insect-breeding grounds), pesticide poisoning, and disease, some are vulnerable to extinction. People can help bats by making their home landscape more bat-friendly. 

Welcoming bats will pay dividends in terms of organic pest control. These winged wonders play an important role in nature’s systems of checks and balances. In a healthy, diverse ecosystem, for every insect pest, there is a natural predator. One of these is the silent hunter of the night, the underappreciated bat.

HOW YOU CAN HELP BATS

As more and more land is gobbled up by development, bats are losing suitable habitat every day. People can help provide these useful creatures with places to live and feed by making a few adaptations to their landscape.

  • Bats will live in man-made bat houses if they are placed on a south-facing structure away from natural predators. Bat houses and kits can be purchased online, or you can make your own with plans from Bat Conservation International (http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses/build).
  • Bats prefer habitat with a mix of open and wooded areas. Plant a variety of perennials, herbs, and night-blooming flowers like moonflower, datura, evening primrose, cleome, and nicotiana to lure nocturnal insects.
  • Bats are drawn to aquatic areas, where insect populations tend to be greater. Adding a pond or wetland to your landscape will help to ensure lucrative foraging for bats.
  • Avoid using pesticides that can harm non-target organisms such as bats and other wildlife.

Why so red, Mr. Cardinal?

The flamboyant male Northern cardinal sings from high perches when courting, and unlike many other birds, when fall rolls around, doesn’t trade in his red breeding plumes for a drab winter coat. While this might seem to make him an obvious target for a hawk looking for a meal, there’s a scientific basis for both his bright coloring and enthusiastic singing: to advertise what a good mate he will make.

Mr. Red

According to Birds of America Online, brighter males have a higher rate of reproductive success, hold better territories, and offer more parental care. By responding to the male’s redness in her mate selection, females encourage the evolution of bright coloring in males. At the same time, the female’s muted colors provide her and her nest with a protective camouflage that the male lacks.

Despite its low rate of nesting success (typically, fewer than 40 percent of nests fledge at least one young), their long breeding season (often producing two broods), the fact that they are adaptable and can live almost anywhere, and do not migrate (which is risky business, at best), cardinals are a successful and common species—so it’s safe to assume that Nature knows what she’s doing with the male’s bright red plumage!

Mourning doves all winter

In years past, we’ve always had a couple of mourning doves that were regular visitors, eating the sunflower seeds off the ground that fell from the feeders. We see and hear them during the rest of the year, but this is the first time they came to feed as a flock and stayed all winter.

Mourning doves_mar2018

Earlier in the season, they were very flighty. taking off into the woods at the slightest sound. But as the weeks went by, they grew more trusting, flying into the nearby trees when we went outside, returning to feed after only a brief time away.

Maybe since they found a reliable food source, they’ll return next winter. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing their soft cooing when breeding season rolls around…which should be soon!