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!

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.

The Coyotes Were Back Last Night!

Our Eastern Coyote friends haven’t been around for most of the winter, but we heard their yips yesterday evening just after the sun went down. Their typical pattern is to stay a few days, dine on rabbits, mice, and whatever else they can find, and move on. They usually return a few weeks later.

Last March we had a female den up somewhere on our neighbor’s property. I saw her in the same field every day, hunting for mice in the clumps of dried grass. Must have been lucrative because she was there every morning like clockwork.

Image

I snapped this picture last year of a female looking for mice to take back to her pups.

I’m curious to see if she will use the same den again this year. If she does, maybe I can get just a little closer. I was probably 100 yards away when I took the pictures last year and was amazed that the pictures turned out as good as they did.

We expanded our chicken run last fall in case the coyotes came around and we needed to keep the chickens up. We added plastic around two sides to keep out the wind and snow. They didn’t stay in there much, but it sure came in handy when we got a super cold spell in January and the big snow a week or so ago.
chicken coop

Our chickens are terrified of snow. Maybe because they didn’t have a chance to get used to it before we got hit with over two feet in a 24-hour period!

Today, it was 65 degrees and all the snow is gone. It sure felt good – to dogs, chickens, and humans alike. Spring is less than a month away!

Can You ID These Two Birds?

Sometimes, particularly in late spring and early summer, when juvenile birds haven’t yet grown in their adult plumage, it’s tough to identify them. Other times, a new bird shows up that you haven’t seen before and it doesn’t look like anything in the bird field guides. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

I came across this bird on the side of the gravel road we live on. It’s not a great picture and he’s well camouflaged, so you have to look closely. I thought it might be an Ovenbird, but no. The bird that I think it is is sparrow-sized and likes areas with rushing streams and clear brooks, while its northern counterpart prefers swamps and bogs.

This one really threw me. I became very excited when I first saw it – a new bird to add to my list of birds seen on our farm (65 and counting). I felt sure that the reddish-brown on the bird’s breast would give it away, but no such luck. I was beginning to get frustrated when I figured it out. We have a lot of them on our farm; this one is a juvenile.

Can you identify one or both of these birds?

Update: A Lucky Survivor!

This morning I thought both baby birds had succumbed to the attack of the black snake last night. The smaller of the two was cold to the touch and obviously dead; the larger one, though still warm to the touch, was unresponsive and I presumed, dying.

You can imagine my surprise when a couple hours later I heard a little chirp. At first I thought I was hearing the birds outside, but when I checked, one of the babies was moving. I could see his eyes were open and as I approached, his beak opened wide – he was hungry!

I couldn’t put the nest back on the ledge for fear the baby would fall out, so I placed it and the little bird in a hanging pot of petunias close to the site of the original nest and waited to see what happened. The distraught parents had been hanging around all morning, not knowing what to do. When the baby heard them calling, he began cheeping and no sooner had I walked away than they flew over. They were both very animated, obviously glad to see that one of their chicks had survived.

Here’s a picture of the little guy in the nest this evening. He’s alert and eating.

Baby phoebe in nest

I hope he makes it. Only time will tell if he suffered any internal injuries.