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Archive for Thursday, January 31, 2008

The wild side

Backyard critters rarely pose danger to humans

The great horned owl is the only animal that regularly eats skunks and frequently kills and eats other owls.

The great horned owl is the only animal that regularly eats skunks and frequently kills and eats other owls.

January 31, 2008

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Ornate box turtles pass each other on low ground. Reading the age of a turtle is a lot like the rings of a tree - you can tell how old they are by the upper shell, or carapace, which will have radiating yellow lines that can be counted to get a general idea of the turtle's age; they can live to 30 years or more.

Ornate box turtles pass each other on low ground. Reading the age of a turtle is a lot like the rings of a tree - you can tell how old they are by the upper shell, or carapace, which will have radiating yellow lines that can be counted to get a general idea of the turtle's age; they can live to 30 years or more.

When my parents moved to West Lawrence near a golf course, they spent their first week adjusting to the hustle and bustle of tee times and errant white balls flinging their way.

In the midst of that, their little domesticated cat, Pablo, mysteriously disappeared. We have discussed the various scenarios as to Pablo's fate, but most of us have grappled with the inevitability that a large, winged predatory bird most likely swooped down and had a little cat sandwich one evening.

Even living in a city such as Lawrence, we often encounter wildlife in our backyard. I've written about some of those in the past. This week, let's nestle in and learn more about those critters we share our yards with.

Great horned owl

In the case of Pablo, the great horned owl could have done the deed. It is the only animal that regularly eats skunks and frequently kills and eats other owls.

The owl is found anywhere from the Arctic tundra to the tropical rain forest to the arid deserts and suburban backyards.

The females tend to be larger, though the males and females have the same plumage and prominent ear tufts. Their colors range from reddish brown to gray to black and white, and they are known to live in the wild for 13 years or more. The great horned owl comes out in the twilight and night to feed on small mammals and occasionally birds, and in general it is not a problematic critter to have in the garden.

"Great horned owls would take rodents such as voles and gophers that sometimes cause problems for gardeners and have a tasty meal," says Charlie Lee, wildlife specialist for K-State Research and Extension.

Sharp-shinned hawk

These hawks are found all over the United States, though they are quite migratory, often wintering from the central United States to Costa Rica. They feed almost entirely on small birds. Their tails are striped, quite long and pronounced and squared or slightly forked at the end. Males and females look alike, though females tend to be larger.

Stan Roth, adjunct educator and naturalist with the Kansas Biological Survey, says this of the bird: "The sharp-shinned hawk is a small, secretive, diurnal avian predator that feeds on select insects and small birds that might be available in an urban setting like a garden. They can take prey that might be a nuisance in the garden setting, like sparrows, starlings and pigeons. They can also spook fruit and seed-eating animals from the garden. However, seeing 'little birdie' feathers and entrails in the yard can be a loathful anthropocentric issue."

Cooper's hawk

This one is very similar to the sharp-shinned hawk, though its tail is more rounded, and the bird itself tends to be larger. These hawks are as common and share the same habitats and taste in prey.

Skunks and raccoons

There are four kinds of skunks in the United States - the hooded, hoy-nosed, spotted and striped. The spotted and the striped are the most common, though the spotted tend to like rural farm settings and the striped are more likely the skunk you'd see in an urban garden.

A placid, retiring and nonaggressive animal, skunks generally try not to get into harm's way. They are mostly nocturnal and solitary, eating insects that are generally pesky to humans and minding their own business. A skunk's main defense is a complex, chemical substance that includes sulfuric acid that can be fired from one of two anal glands, making the skunk an animal that does not shy away from a confrontation but rather will stand and face a threat.

Raccoons are marked as the masked bandits, with bushy ringed tails making them quite recognizable despite that they are nocturnal. Raccoons can be found from southern Canada, throughout the entire U.S. and down to Central America. The raccoon has a varied diet, from fish and aquatic life to fruits and vegetables. They have adapted quite well to living among humans and in fact tend to thrive in urban settings more than rural.

As far as either of these animals affects on gardeners, Roth says: "These mammals would never be considered harmful or truly beneficial in a garden setting. Raccoons go after ripe garden produce, and skunks may dig for grubs and worms in a garden."

Virginia possum

Possums are North America's only marsupial. The females carry eight to 13 babies in a pouch on their belly. These marsupials are around 70 million years old, making them one of the oldest mammals on earth.

They are considered "nature's janitor" because they tend to clean up after other critters. Deceased insects to rotting plants and even feces are all considered a delicacy to their nondiscriminating palette. Possums often are mistaken as dangerous and ill-tempered because they tend to growl and snarl when in a defensive state. However, if the truth be known, they will freeze and play dead when confronted. They will emit a foul odor as their metabolism lowers when they are in a position of turmoil so predators will find them inedible.

Garter and brown snakes

"Seldom are snakes detrimental to an area," Lee says. "They often prey on things that cause problems for gardeners like insects or rodents."

The most common snakes in Kansas gardens are a few kinds of garter snakes, all of which have yellow stripes and are of medium size. The brown snake is fairly common and has the appearance of a large earthworm.

"The greatest detriment to encountering snakes in a garden is the apprehension caused to those that are lacking in knowledge and experience about/with snakes," Roth says. "All snakes are predacious, which tend to make life easy for themselves by taking lame, sick and naÃive young prey."

While garter snakes can bite, they generally just secrete a filthy putrid-smelling fluid from anal glands to express their displeasure. They generally eat earthworms and amphibians. They tend to be beneficial to the garden because so many other animals eat them and their eggs from songbirds, birds-of-prey, amphibians, skunks, raccoons and other snakes.

Ornate box turtle

These turtles were named the Kansas state reptile in 1986. All the ornate box turtles have yellow markings on their backs, but to distinguish the sexes, look into their eyes. The males have red or orange eyes with the color usually repeated on the front legs, face and neck. The females have yellow eyes like the stripes on their shells, and they tend to be larger.

Reading the age of a turtle is a lot like the rings of a tree - you can tell how old they are by the upper shell, or carapace, which will have radiating yellow lines that can be counted to get a general idea of the turtle's age; they can live to 30 years or more.

"There is only one species of land turtle in Kansas, the box turtle," Roth says. "If the garden site is adjacent to a body of water, on occasion water turtles will wander away from their home. These rare visitors would be the painted turtle, the slider or the snapping turtle. Box turtles can be a nuisance by eating on garden fruits such as tomatoes and select berries."

Whatever critter you might share your garden with, it is best to remember that wild creatures are more frightened of you than you are of them. Their single aim in life is to provide for themselves and their young and live to see another day.

If you find an unwanted resident living in your garden, chances are they would much rather relocate than wage war with the other end of a garden hoe. Just nudge them along and discourage them from coming back.

Much of the fun of gardening is having the privilege to a front row seat to watch nature at work - pull up a chair and soak in your little ecosystem.

Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.

Comments

Daytrader23 6 years, 7 months ago

I used to have bears walk down my driveway and try to rummage through my garbage in Colorado. That will scare the crap out of you as you leave the house to go to work.

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Danielle Brunin 6 years, 7 months ago

Consumer, are you talking about Republicans??? Juuuuuuuust kidding ;) Very nice article though.

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Sandy Beverly 6 years, 7 months ago

Jennifer, thanks for sharing info about our animal neighbors. I especially appreciate the perspective at the end of your column: "Much of the fun of gardening is having the privilege to a front row seat to watch nature at work - pull up a chair and soak in your little ecosystem."

I was troubled by the teaser headline on p. A1 of the hardcopy LJW: "Find out what critters lurk in your backyard". This headline makes wildlife sound threatening. (Not your doing, I know, and inconsistent with the theme of your column.) I would argue that these animals are not hiding or lurking, just living. And, we're in their backyard as much as they are in ours.

For some info about other backyard wildlife and what these critters are up to right now, see http://www2.ljworld.com/weblogs/stumb...

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BigPrune 6 years, 7 months ago

Great article. Very informative. I wish every article in the JW was as well written.

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JJE007 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm going to steal a word from the mouth of Stan Roth and say this whole article is anthropocentric!

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GretchenJP 6 years, 7 months ago

I live in Ottawa and have seen a fox on many occassions... beautiful creatures they are.

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fascinating_person 6 years, 7 months ago

On the topic of owls - I remember my dad telling me a story about cleaning up the farm after a terrible windstorm. He lived at his parents' farm in Nebraska at the time, and he and his father were cleaning up debris in the yard when they found a very large owl (I believe it was a barn owl) pinned by each wing beneath a large piece of metal siding. The owl was still alive, blinking at them; they removed the debris from his wings, which spanned at least 5 feet. The owl appeared to remain incapacitated, sprawled across the ground, motionless. They continued about their work, and upon returning to check on him later, they found the owl gone. A happy story for the owl - on the other hand, should Pablo the Cat ever return, do let us know.

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