Archives

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.

WHERE A COYOTE LIVES CAN AFFECT ITS HEALTH

       The coyote’s name is on the long list of animals that are not native to Georgia.  However, much to our dismay, they are living here and have spread across the state.  They are now living in rural and urban areas alike.  This scenario has also played out across other states.  With this in mind, biologists at the University of Alberta conducted a study to determine if coyotes living in and around humans in urban areas are just as healthy and their cousins that inhabit rural habitats.

       Here in Georgia urban coyotes are now feeding on foods tossed into garbage cans, tossed out of the windows of cars racing down the highway, seeds scattered beneath our bird feeders, as well as food left outside our homes for the family dog.  They are preying on domestic pets such as dogs, cats.  They are also attacking goats, sheep, and other livestock.

      As expected, the researchers found coyotes living in the city eat lots of processed foods such as fast food, dinners tossed in the garbage.  The researchers even found coyotes consume pieces of gloves, and the wrappers placed around burritos and the like.  These items are a far cry from the foods one would expect to find in the typical diets those coyotes living away from humanity.

       Their data collected in this study showed the coyotes feeding in backyards and other food-rich locales are less healthy.  These coyotes possess less kidney fat.  This is a clear indication they are not eating a nutritious diet.  The fact that their spleens are also larger is a sign that the human food they are gobbling up is having a deleterious impact on their immune systems.

       It would seem that coyotes that have adopted an urban lifestyle are paying the price for living away from the natural world.

       While we cannot eliminate the coyotes that are living close to us, we can stop unwittingly contributing to their dining choices.  For example, we all need to secure our garbage cans so coyotes cannot dine on our leftovers.  We can also make a point of not leaving pet food outside overnight.  If we adopt these and other simple measures, we will be helping ensure coyotes will not make our yards part of their feeding territories.

EATING FIRE ANTS MAY HELP FENCE LIZARDS DEVELOP AN IMMUNITY AGAINST FIRE ANT VENOM

        Since fire ants were accidentally introduced into the United States during the twentieth century, they have plagued both humans and native wildlife.  However, findings of research conducted by biologists at Pennsylvania State University suggest that fence lizards that eat fire ants increase their immunity to the fire ant venom. 

       The researchers found that blood tests of the fence lizards that consumed dead fire ants three times a week developed three different types of increased immunity against the fire ant venom.

       It is interesting to note that being stung by the fire ants did increase the lizards’ immunity against future stings.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE FOR BUMBLEBEES TO SPEND A COOL FALL NIGHT

       The Confederate rose brings spectacular beauty to yards across Georgia.  However, my wife, Donna, and I have found that its showy blossoms are also used as places for bumblebees to escape the cold on chilly autumn nights.

       This large multi-stemmed shrub or small tree was brought to North America in the 1600s.  Since then it has been widely planted throughout the Southeast.  It popularity stems from the fact that, from late summer until frost, it bears scores of white blossoms that measure up to six inches in diameter.  These flowers eventually turn light pink before finally becoming rose-colored.

       While my wife and I thoroughly enjoy the beauty the flowers bring to our yard, our discovery that these stunning blooms provide bumblebees with warm refuges on chilly fall nights has heightened our appreciation for the plant.

       For quite some time, I had not given any thought to this interesting behavior until late one afternoon this past week.  Late one afternoon I noticed that my wife, was looking deep into the one of the blossoms adorning a Confederate rose growing alongside our driveway.  I walked up to find out what had caught her attention.  When she said she was looking at a bumblebee that had settled in for the night deep inside a Confederate rose bloom, I peered down into the throat of the flower and spotted the insect.  As we stood nearby discussing her find, a couple of other bumblebees flew into other blossoms.

       When I returned to the flowers well after dark, sure enough, the bumblebees were still there awaiting morning when temperatures warmed to the point where they could utilize the muscles that control their wings and fly away.

       A number of animals seek cover on chilly nights.  Many birds and mammals retreat to natural cavities, nesting boxes, thick vegetation, and other places.  However, I doubt that many spend cold nights nestled in cover as beautiful a Confederate rose blossom.

       If you have a Confederate rose growing in your yard, before the blossoms nipped by a frost, as the sun is setting check them out.  If bumblebees are still flying about in your neck of the woods, chances are one or more might be using some of gorgeous blooms for nighttime cover also.

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.

CAN WOOLLY BEAR CATERPILLARS PREDICT THE WEATHER?

       This week I made an exciting find.  While walking from my office to the house, I just happened to look down and spotted a woolly bear caterpillar curled up in the gravel.  This was the first woolly bear I have seen this year.

       The woolly bear is the caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).  Stiff bristles cloak the caterpillar’s body giving it a fuzzy appearance.  A rusty band extends across the midsection of the insect.  Black bristles cover the front and rear portions of the insect.

       When I spotted to fuzzy caterpillar, it brought back fond memories of my childhood.  Back then, it was commonly believed the width of the rusty band can be used to predict the weather.  According to popular folklore when the rusty band is wide, we are in for a mild winter.  Conversely, when it is narrow we will have to suffer through a severe winter.

       Entomologists tell us that the width of the rusty band is controlled by the age of the caterpillar and not the impending weather.  As the caterpillar ages it goes through a series of molts.  With each molt, the black bristles that comprise two black bands are progressively replaced with rusty bristles.  Consequently, the width of the rusty band is broadest when the caterpillar molts for the last time.

       From the looks of the caterpillar I found, if the woolly bear can actually predict the weather, the winter in my neck of the woods should not be too severe.

       If you find a woolly bear crawling across your lawn or driveway, make a note of the width of its rusty band.  Then next spring pull out the note and see if the woolly bear’s prediction was right or wrong.

MUSHROOMS FEED GRAY SQUIRRELS AND OTHER CRITTERS TOO

      Often as we walk about our yards, we find partially eaten mushrooms.  Invariably we assume gray squirrels have devoured them.  Although this is often the case, the truth of the matter is a wide range of backyard wildlife visitors may have dined on what most of us would consider an unusual wildlife food.

       In addition to the gray squirrel, the larger fox squirrel also feeds on mushrooms.  Among the other mammals you might spot eating mushrooms in your backyard are eastern chipmunks, armadillos, eastern cottontails, opossums, wood rats, white-footed mice, raccoons, striped skunks, and of course white-tailed deer.

       Even birds such as brown thrashers, cardinals, and crows will dine on mushrooms.  Some birds, like blue jays and American robins, will actually pluck out insects and other invertebrates hidden inside mushrooms.

       Who would have thought mushrooms provide food to so many of our backyard wildlife neighbors?

BACKYARD SECRET–SPIDERS ARE BIG EATERS

        Remarkably, spiders annually eat more insects than bats and birds combined.  In spite of this, they are one of the least appreciated animals that inhabit our yards. 

       With that in mind, the next time that you spot a spider in your garden, don’t kill it.  Spiders play a key role in the ecology of our yards.  As such, they help control all sorts of insects and other invertebrates.  In addition, they are important sources of protein for scores of animals such as birds.  For example, tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds and great crested flycatchers are just two of the birds that dine on spiders.

SPIDER ALERT

        I know that you are going to be elated to learn that a new spider has taken up residence in Georgia.  This large colorful arachnid is the joro spider and is native to China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.    

       According to University of Georgia biologists, that spider was initially located in Hochston, Georgia in 1983.  The current range of the joro spider in the Peach State includes Hall, Jackson, Gwinnett, and Madison Counties in Georgia’s northeast quadrant.  The spider has also turned up in Greenville, South Carolina.

       While nobody knows how it made its way to the United States, Richard Hoebeke, curator of the University of Georgia’s Museum of Natural History believes that the showy spiders probably hitched a ride to Georgia on shipping crates transported on container ships from ports in Japan and China.                        

 

JORO SPIDER photo submitted by D. Kizlowski/UGA

       The joro spider is not a spider that lurks in the dark corners of old barns or haunted houses.  While in has been found living in plain sight in woodlands; it also seems to prefer to live near humans.  The first indication that joro spiders are living nearby is often the appearance of a large orb-shaped web.  When the light catches these webs just right, they take on a golden sheen.

       The female joro spider has a body that measures 0.68-0.98 inches in length.  In addition, when spread out, its eight legs span anywhere from three to four inches.

       Many folks are afraid a spider will bite them.  Fortunately, the joro spider is not aggressive.  However, for some unknown reason if a joro spider bites you, unless you are highly allegoric to its venom, the bite will give about the same amount of discomfort as a bee sting.

       Based on how far the joro spider has expanded its range in well less than a decade, it appears it will continue its range expansion unabated.  Meanwhile, the UGA biologists working at the Museum of Natural History are requesting our help in plotting the spider’s marc across the state. 

       With that in mind, if you spot what you believe to be a joro spider, take a picture of it, and send it to Richard Hoebeke at rhoebeke@uga.edu along with the date and location of your sighting.  

DISCOURAGING BEARS FROM PAYING YOU A VISIT

       When most Georgia homeowners fuss about the problems caused by wild animals making a nuisance around their home they are typically referring to the likes of white-tailed deer, opossums, raccoons, and eastern chipmunks.  However, some of us also have to contend with an animal that takes being a nuisance to a new level.  The animal I am talking about is the black bear.     

       Some 4,100 black bears live in the Peach State.  Most of these large animals never have a conflict with humans.  However, as the state’s black bear population grows, and humans continue to convert bear habitat into residential areas, it is highly likely that human-bear encounters will increase.  However, when a bear destroys a valuable bird feeder, explores a front porch, or scatters trash across a yard people often become frightened and are left wondering what can be done to ensure such events will cease.

       According to Adam Hammond, Georgia’s state bear biologist, “Avoiding problems with bears is usually simple, though it may not always be convenient.” 

                          photo credit: GA DNR Wildlife Resources Division

       In an effort to assist homeowners deal with bear problems, the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and 14 other state wildlife agencies have developed an educational program named BearWise.  Below you will find six BearWise recommendations that will help you safely deal with bears in your yard.

  1. Never feed or approach a bear.
  2. Secure food, garbage, and recycling. Since bears are attracted to food odors, don’t store garbage or other food-related items outside.
  3. Remove bird feeders when bears are active in your area.
  4. Never leave pet food outdoors.
  5. Thoroughly clean outdoor grills after they have been used. In addition, store grills insecure locations.
  6. If you happen to see a bear close by, notify your neighbors.  If you and your neighbors take preventative measures, bears will not be able to find food and will look elsewhere for a free meal.

              One the other hand, if you and your neighbors do not take preventative measures to discourage bears, chances are bear problems will become more frequent.  This, in turn, can lead to increased property damage and potentially dangerous encounters between humans, pets, and bears.

              More detailed information can be obtained by visiting www.bearwise.org