Now that the nesting season is in full swing, the birds nesting in our backyards face formidable odds trying to fledge their young. As we all know, many nesting attempts end in failure due the fact predators eat both eggs and young.
A list of the better-known nest predators includes crows, blue jays, raccoons, rat snakes, and opossums. However, there are a number of other animals that also eat eggs and/or nestlings. For example, would you believe deer mice, flying squirrels, and eastern chipmunks also raid bird nests?
I find it amazing that cardinals, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and other backyard nesters are able to raise as many young as they do.
The gray squirrel is one of the most common animals found in backyards across Georgia. Indeed, it has proven to be able to coexist with humans.
One reason they flourish in our backyards is linked to the fact they are omnivores. In other words, they can eat both animals and plants. In fact, studies have shown they can consume upwards of 60 species of plants alone. We all know they will eat anything from tomatoes to various nuts, berries, buds and the like. In addition, they will also eat mushrooms.
Recently while walking about my backyard on an unseasonably balmy winter afternoon, I happened across evidence that a gray squirrel had recently been dining of a mushroom. The mushroom had been knocked over and pieces of the fragile plant were strewn about. When I looked closely at the pieces, I could actually see tooth marks left by the hungry squirrel. Then next day I found, since the last time I visited the feeding site, a squirrel had eaten even more of the mushroom. Prudent homeowners would never try to eat a mushroom without being sure the mushroom was not poisonous. Even then, you cannot be sure what you are eating. I have a friend that fancied himself as being a mushroom expert. One on fateful occasion, his misidentification of a mushroom landed him and his family in the hospital.
Eating a poison mushroom is not a concern for the gray squirrel. Remarkably, they seem to be able to eat any mushroom without risking becoming sick or killed. In fact, researchers have found gray squirrels have the ability to eat mushrooms containing deadly amanita (deathcap) toxins with impunity. The gray squirrel is one of only a handful of animals capable of this gastronomic fete.
Who would have ever thought that the animal that eats our vegetables, destroys our bird nesting boxes, eats more than its fair share of seeds at our feeders, and even invades our attics is a uniquely special animal? I know I didn’t.
Two species of moles inhabit Georgia. The eastern mole ranges across the entire state except northeast Georgia. In this corner of the state, it is replaced by the star-nosed mole.
The eastern mole prefers eating earthworms; however, it will also devour snails, centipedes, and both adult and larval insects including ants. In fact, this rarely seen backyard resident will even burrow into ant mounds in search of tangy ants.
If you hear or see one wild animal in a western movie, chances are it is going to be a coyote. Indeed, the coyote is synonymous with the western United States, which occupies a wide variety of habitats ranging from scrublands to open grazing lands.
For a variety of reasons, during the past century coyotes were released throughout the eastern United States. As a result, nowadays coyotes can be found in Georgia and every other state east of the Mississippi River.
This western import has proven to be extremely adaptable to the habitat conditions in its new home. While most of the coyotes live in forested and farmlands, others have staked out territories in urban and suburban areas.
As a result, it is indeed possible that coyotes will be spotted in your backyard. When I tell people about this possibility, their reaction is typically, “Coyotes in my backyard? How can I reduce the chances that will never occur?”
Recently Maureen Murray, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia, recently published the results of a study regarding the movements of urban coyotes in Edmonton, Alberta in The Journal of Wildlife Management. The researcher’s findings may help us understand why coyotes visit some yards and not others.
The study suggests coyotes seem to prefer yards that offered plenty of cover such as thick shrubbery. They also more often frequent yards that were unfenced than those that are fenced. In addition, the animals seem to be drawn to yards where seed litters the ground beneath bird feeders, berries collect beneath shrubs and trees, garbage cans are knocked over, and where an open compost pile is located.
Another interesting finding was during the study the coyotes that were most likely to be seen in yards during the daytime suffered from sarcoptic mange.
Who would have ever thought coyotes would one day inhabit backyards in the Peach State?
Watching gray squirrels in your backyard can be fascinating, particularly when you understand a little about their behavior. For example, if you watch squirrels for a while, you will notice that they are not social butterflies. By that I mean, that they do not hang out in groups like wild turkeys and chickens. Typically, about the only time they get together is during mating season, or when they are drawn together by an abundance of food such as a pecan tree full of nuts.
This lack of tolerance among gray squirrels can be seen around your bird feeders. If you keep a close eye on squirrels as they conduct a raid on your feeders, you should notice when they converge on such a treasure trove of food, they rarely feed closer than four to four and a half feet from each other.
In addition, you might even be able to recognize that feeding squirrels have a pecking order. Male squirrels typically dominate all other squirrels. Adult males and females both dominate juveniles and squirrels that have moved in from other areas are at the bottom of the pecking order.
Unbelievably, a gray squirrel can consume the equivalent of its own weight in food weekly.
Did you know young bats are called pups?
A rarely seen backyard resident throughout Georgia is the Southern flying squirrel. Although this small mammal cannot actually fly, it can glide 80 yards or more.
I have always enjoyed being a backyard detective. Whenever I take a walk around my property I am constantly looking for wildlife, or telltale signs that tell me that they have visited my yard. On many occasions, I would never know that a particular animal had ventured into my yard if I was not able to read the signs it left behind.
On a recent early morning walk, I stumbled across a green loblolly pine cone that was missing some of its scales, the core of a pine cone, as well as a number of green pine cone scales. Since I have found similar items in my yard over the years, I immediately knew the identify of the animal left these clues behind.
In this case, these items told me that a gray squirrel had ben feasting on loblolly pine seeds high above in the canopy of a tall loblolly growing in my backyard. It seems that gray squirrels like to dine on the unripe seeds found at the base of the tree’s green pine cones. In order to reach these delicacies, the squirrels have to dismantle a green pine cone one scale at a time to reach the seeds.
When a squirrel finishes with cone, it simply drops the core to the ground. I suspect that the pine cone that was missing only a few scales was accidentally dropped by a hungry squirrel.
Over the years I have encouraged my daughter and granddaughter to join the ranks of backyard sleuths that are always looking for clues that are hiding in plain sight. To this day, they routinely call me up to share their backyard discoveries. When they do, I like to believe that I played at least a small roll in enhancing their appreciation of the natural world that exists just beyond their backdoor.