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THE RABBIT MOST COMMONLY SEEN IN GEORGIA BACKYARDS

        If you live in the suburbs or a rural area, there is a good chance that rabbits appear from time to time in your backyard. However, since four species of rabbits live in Georgia, which species of rabbit inhabits your yard?  If I had to guess, I would say it is the eastern cottontail.  Here’s why.

       The Appalachian cottontail, eastern cottontail, marsh rabbit and swamp rabbit all occur in the state.  However, the rabbit most often seen in Georgia backyards is the eastern cottontail.

       Eastern cottontails are 14-17 inches long and can weigh from two to four pounds.  One of the easiest ways to identify it is to look at the color of the nape of its neck.  The eastern cottontail has a cinnamon-colored nape.  None of the other species of rabbits that inhabit the state displays this characteristic.

       Although I do not know of anybody that hosts a marsh rabbit or Appalachian cottontail, I know a couple that feeds swamp rabbits in their yard.  The swamp rabbit is our largest rabbit (3.5-6 pounds).

       The marsh rabbit is our smallest rabbit. This rabbit weighs only 2.5-3 pounds.   It lives in in the Coastal Plain and prefers marshy areas, wet bottomlands, and swamps.

       The Appalachian cottontail is our rarest rabbit.  This is because its range extends only into extreme Northeast Georgia.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE GRAY SQUIRREL’S FRONT TEETH NEVER STOP GROWING

        A gray squirrel’s front teeth are constantly being worn down. If this was not the case, they would quickly wear down and lead to the animal’s premature death.  This fate is prevented because they are constantly growing at a rate of approximately six inches per year.

BACKYARD SECRET—CPT. JOHN SMITH NAMED THE OPOSSUM

     Captain John Smith, a leader of the Jamestown Colony, is widely credited with naming the opossum. 

     Supposedly, Captain Smith came across an opossum while in the company of a member of the Algonquin Tribe.  When Smith asked the man what this strange looking animal was called, his companion told him it was an “aposum.”  The Native American name referred to the long-tailed animal’s white face.  However, as luck would have it, as the man uttered the word “aposum” he grunted.  This led Captain Smith to believe he said possum.  Is this story true?  We may never know for sure.  What I do know is the opossum is indeed an odd animal.

BACKYARD SECRET–GROUNDHOGS CAN CLIMB TREES

      It is safe to say most Georgians have never seen a groundhog.  The reason for this is groundhogs are principally residents of the northern quarter of the state.  For the rest of us, our best chance of seeing this mammal is to spot one feeding in the grassy shoulder of a North Georgia highway.  However, those folks fortunate enough to live in this picturesque swath of the state are well aware of the fact that groundhogs will take up residence in or near backyards.

       If you live within the range of the groundhog, you are probably surprised to learn groundhogs are capable of climbing trees since they have stubby legs, weigh up to fourteen pounds, and rarely venture far from their burrows.

       Homeowners are not always pleased to find a groundhog living in their backyard.  This is because groundhogs eat up to 1.5 pounds of food a day, consuming a variety of plants such ornamental flowers such as roses, and food plants like a beans, strawberries, and carrots.  In addition, their burrows sometimes undermine walkways, driveways, as well as building foundations.

      However, in some backyards groundhogs are not a problem and provide homeowners with interesting wildlife viewing opportunities.  If you watch groundhogs long enough, you may have the rare opportunity to spot a groundhog perched in a tree high above the ground.  Groundhogs will climb mostly to either escape a predator or reach food.  Both coyotes and dogs prey on adult groundhogs. 

       With an abundance of food growing close to the ground, it is hard to imagine why a groundhog would climb a tree to feed, but they do.  The famous Pulitzer Prize-winning nature writer, Edwin Way Teale, wrote that he once spied a groundhog high above the ground dining grapes hanging from a grapevine that had snaked its way into the tree’s crown.

       Climbing up a tree would be hard enough for a groundhog; it seems to me that it would be even hard to climb down again.  

       Groundhogs in trees?  I find it hard to believe a groundhog is capable of such an athletic accomplishment.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF THE LUMPY SQUIRRELS

       From time to time, all backyard wildlife watchers see something that they cannot explain.  For example, if gray squirrels frequently visit your feeders, chances are you will eventually spot one that appears to have lumps somewhere on its body. When this happens, it is only human nature to wonder what causes these mysterious lumps.  A vast majority of the time, hidden inside each lump is the larva of a parasitic fly known as the squirrel bot fly.

       Squirrel bot flies parasitize animals such as gray and fox squirrels, and rabbits.  The squirrel bot fly looks much like a bumblebee.  However, if you have the rare opportunity to examine one, you will see that it has one set of wings instead of two like the bumblebee.

       Adult bot flies live for only two weeks or so.  During this brief time, a female must lay her fertilized eggs on the branches of trees and other surfaces.  If a squirrel happens by and touches an egg, it rapidly hatches and the larva tries to hitch a ride on the squirrel.  The tiny larva must then make its way into the squirrel’s body via a body opening.  This often occurs when a squirrel grooms itself and unwittingly swallows a bot fly larva.  A larva can also gain access to the body through the bushytail’s eyes.

       Once inside, the larva travels through the squirrel’s body before eventually ending up between the animal’s skin and flesh.  Here it rapidly grows.  As the larva increases in size, it creates a noticeable lump.  Many people call these lumps warbles or wolves.

       Over time, the liquid-filled lump swells.  A bot larva can reach a size of 1.5-inches long and an inch wide.  During this period in its life, a larva chews an exit hole in the squirrel’s skin through which it eventually wiggles out and drops to the ground.

       Once on the ground it burrows into the soil and pupates.  It will remain there until spring when it sheds the covering that protected it throughout the winter and emerges as an adult.

       Meanwhile, once a larva leaves a squirrel, the open wound it left behind heals and any hair that was lost while the larva was living just below its skin will regrow.

       Fortunately, we, as well as dogs and cats, cannot be infected by coming into contact with a squirrel parasitized by a bot fly.

       The amazing drama involving the bot fly and the gray squirrel is played out in countless backyards across Georgia each year.  However, I had never seen a “lumpy” squirrel in my yard until this year.  Have you ever seen one in your yard?  If you have, you now know the answer to a mystery that has confounded many folks for generations.

HOW MUCH WATER DOES A GRAY SQUIRRELS DRINK PER DAY?

       The majority of the birdbaths placed in Georgia backyards are intended to be used by birds. However, the truth of the matter is many other animals visit them. I think it would be safe to say the “other” animal most often seen at our feeders is the gray squirrel. With that in mind, have you ever wondered how much water a gray squirrel consumes in a day?

       It seems that, a gray squirrel needs two to three tablespoons of water per day, however, a number of factors affect the amount of water a squirrel drinks. For example, female gray squirrels nursing young require more water than squirrels not producing milk for their young.

       It is interesting to note that, on the average, a gray squirrel drinks twice per day.

BLACK BEARS AND BIRD FEEDERS — A RECIPE FOR TROUBLE

        Some 5,100 black bears live in the state of Georgia. While they are not what you would call backyard wildlife, during the warm months of the year, they are known to make forays into backyards in search of food. When this happens, it does not bode well for the bears or us.

       Although black bears are seen throughout the state, biologists have discovered Georgia is home to three distinct bear populations. One population calls the north Georgia mountains its home. A second population lives in central Georgia in the Ocmulgee River drainage. Another population roams in and around the vast Okefenokee Swamp in the southeast corner of the state.

       Naturally, those Georgians that live in or nearby any one of these populations has the greatest chance of having a bear show up in their yards. However, they can be seen in some unexpected locales such as urban areas like Atlanta and Macon. With that in mind, it is a good idea to know what you should do to discourage bears from visiting your yard.

       Most black bears appear in backyards looking for food. Being an omnivore a black bear can eat just about anything. Since the animal cam possess an excellent sense of smell, thoroughly clean outdoor grills after they have been used. Also, refrain from storing household garbage outside. Bears are drawn to the intoxicating scents of cooked meat and garbage.

       Bears are fond of pet food too. Consequently, if you feed your pets outside, don’t leave any uneaten food in the yard overnight.

       Bears also love birdseed and suet. It is understandable why they are drawn to these delicacies. Both foods contain lots of protein and fat. In areas where folks are regularly plagued with visits from hungry bears, it is recommended that feeders be taken in at night. If you face such a problem, it is a good idea to clean up all uneaten food that collects below the feeders. Some people even go to the trouble of spraying the ground beneath feeders with ammonia in hopes it will help eliminate the scent of the seeds.

       Once a bear locates a backyard that features bird feeders, it has found a bonanza. Where else can a bear gorge itself on a bounty of easily accessible food with little effort? Consequently, the bear will return as long as the food is available. The only way you can counter these feeding forays is to remove all potential food from your backyard. Even then, it may take some time before a bear moves on in its relentless search food. In its wake, it will likely leave you with damaged or missing feeders and bent poles that simply could not withstand the onslaught of a hungry bear.

       If you do happen to see a bear in your backyard, do not try to approach it. Bears are much stronger and faster than you are. On top of that, why in the world would you want to approach a wild animal that can weigh as much as 300 to 500 pounds anyway? If a bear feels threatened, you stand a chance of being hurt. Fortunately, there have only been two verified cases of bears attacking humans in the Southeast, and to my knowledge, they did not take place in a backyard.

       While the chances of a bear showing up in your yard are slim, many backyard bear encounters take place every year. If one does show up, make every effort to ensure this wild experience safe for you and the bear.

              For more information concerning bears, email the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division at http://www.georgiawildlife.com or BearWise at http://www.bearwise.org. BearWise is an educational program designed by bear biologists from all of the 15 state wildlife agencies in the Southeast.

UNWANTED NIGHTTIME VISITORS TO BIRD FEEDERS

       My wife and I have noticed the last birds to our seed feeders are typically cardinals.  Long after the chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and house finches have gone to roost male northern cardinals seem to glow in the fading light of the day.  Once the cardinals finally call it quits for the day, as much as we probably don’t like to think about it, a number of unwanted guests are apt to visit our feeders under the cloak of darkness.

       To some extent, which animals will visit our feeders depends on where you live in the Peach State.  For example, if you reside in North Georgia or a handful of other locations scattered around the rest of the state where black bears make their home, during the warmer months of the year you might have a visit from a black bear.

       For the rest of us, our feeders are more likely to be visited by rodents, raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer.  Believe it or not, coyotes and foxes are also known to frequent feeders at night.  In most cases, these animals are attracted to seeds that have been flipped out of feeders or scattered on the ground. That being the case, one of the best ways to discourage nocturnal visits by these furry critters is to clean up any seed left on the ground.  This task can be made less daunting by putting out only as much seed as your think the birds will eat during the day.

       Deer can often be thwarted by not feeding inexpensive seed mixtures that often contain corn.  Corn is a favorite deer food.

       If marauding bears are a problem, you will have to take your feeders down before sunset.  If you don’t, you stand the very real chance of having feeders destroyed our hauled off into the woods.

      Should you want to get some idea what is actually visiting your bird feeding area at night, install a motion-activated trail camera aimed at your feeders.  If you do, you may be amazed at what is going bump in the night just outside your backdoor.

GRAY SQUIRRELS ARE GREAT ATHLETES

      For those of us that enjoy feeding birds and other wildlife in our yards, it will come as no surprise that the gray squirrel is one of the most accomplished animal athletes living just outside our backdoor. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples of this animal’s remarkable athletic prowess.

       If a cat or dog surprises a gray squirrel while it is foraging for seeds beneath one of our feeders, it can run away from this domestic predator at a speed of 14 mph. Once it reaches a nearby tree it can then scamper up the tree at 12 mph.

       Gray squirrels are also great jumpers. They can leap six feet or more from one branch or tree to another. They can also vault a distance of 16 feet when dropping down from one limb to another. In addition, a squirrel can spring vertically at least five feet high. To put this accomplishment in perspective, if we had this ability, we could leap upward from a sidewalk to the top of a five-story building.

       Is it any wonder, gray squirrels are prospering amid all of the threats posed by humans and their pets in backyards, cities and towns across the Peach State?