Raccoons, Flying Squirrels and Other Nocturnal Visitors

Early one September morning a disturbing sight greeted us. The metal post holding a suet feeder high off the ground was bent. The feeder was gone. After a search we finally found it where our nocturnal thieves had abandoned it after devouring the suet.

Many people are frustrated when daytime squirrels gobble up feeder seed, but other mammals visit feeders unseen after sunset. Not all are as rough on feeders as raccoons and all night visitors are interesting but they can also be frustrating.

raccoon in tree

Raccoons are strong and hungry.

Up in the wee hours sleepless or just to get a snack? Shine a flashlight beam on the feeder. You may spot raccoons, deer, flying squirrels, or even a bear! They all like birdseed and some relish suet.

Raccoons

Raccoons live nearly everywhere, even in big cities. Our son once sent a picture he took of one raiding a dumpster in New York City. Occasionally they are out on cloudy days but mostly they are nocturnal.

Raccoons are common, numerous, powerful, and gregarious. Sometimes a whole family visits a feeder after dark. Excellent climbers, if they can’t shinny up a slippery metal pole to reach seed, they might just bend it over as they did at Winding Pathways. They love suet but also eat corn, sunflower seeds, and many other foods people put out for birds.

Flying Squirrels

One of the most endearing animals to visit feeders are flying squirrels. There are two species but both are nocturnal and are almost never seen during daylight. Flying squirrels often live in big dead hollow trees and are more common than most people realize.

Flying squirrels are misnamed mammals. They can’t fly. They should be called gliding squirrels, for they spread loose skin on their sides and glide from the top of a tree to the ground – or bird feeder. These mammals weigh only about two ounces, about half that of an Eastern chipmunk.  In comparison, a mature gray squirrel is ten times heavier at about 20 ounces.

Flying squirrels are shy and beautiful. Seeing one is a thrill.

Deer

Deer In Garden

Deer In Garden Photo by S. Fehsinger

Like raccoons and flying squirrels, deer love birdseed.  Sometimes they visit during the day but we see them more often after dark. If a feeder is well seed stocked in the evening but is empty come morning deer are likely culprits. Look for their tracks and droppings to confirm the visit.

 

 

 

 

Bear in Suburban yard

Bears make themselves at home anywhere.

Bears

Gads.  Bears at the feeder! Could be. We don’t live in bear country but they are common over much of the United States. Mostly nocturnal, they love birdseed and suet. A 300-pound bear can rip down the most armored feeder and they’re skilled trash can scroungers as well.

 

 

 

Opossum

A ‘possum snuffling for food. Photo J. Jones

Skunks, Possums, and Rats

Skunks, opossums, and Norway Rats all love birdseed. Like flying squirrels and raccoons, they are nocturnal. Skunks and possums are native animals that can be comical, but no one wants rats around. They are dangerous pests capable of spreading disease and gnawing on houses.

REDUCING NOCTURNAL FEEDER VISITORS

There’s an effective way to discourage nocturnal feeding wildlife. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Only put out the amount of seed birds are likely to eat in a day. Empty feeders may attract nocturnal animals but pickings are slim and discouraging.
  2. Better yet bring all feeders inside by sunset. Store them overnight in a metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid to keep mice from being tempted to raid it even if it’s indoors.

Feeding birds is entertaining and educational. We love having colorful activity just outside our window. We’re not thrilled when raccoons tear up the feeders, so when midnight raiders help themselves, we bring feeders in each evening.

Treasuring Our Trees

Winding Pathways is partnering with Cornell College, Indian Creek Nature Center, Peoples Church, Prairiewoods, and Trees Forever to present Treasuring our Trees.

Join us via ZOOM to honor and remember the fallen trees in the Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas following the Derecho of August 10, 2020.  Sunday, October 25, 12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m. Learn more at www.prairiewoods.org.
Join using Zoom meeting ID 829 4883 0080 & password 056503.

Prairie Restoration – Part Six – Post Derecho

The August 10 derecho changed Cedar Rapids, and Winding Pathways wasn’t spared.   We lost 47 of our 53 large trees during the 40-minute windstorm. It greatly altered our restoration plans. Here’s what we did or plan to do in response to the loss of trees.

Tiny prairie plant

Prairie plant

New prairie plot:  We planted this in early May. As expected, we only saw a glimpse of prairie plants in its first growing season, although early prairie plants give us promise that many more will appear next year.  We will try to burn it either this fall or early next spring.

The derecho helped the prairie by felling or breaking four Douglas firs, one black oak, and one green ash. Two of these trees cast some morning shade on the prairie. The rest shaded it some in the late afternoon. They’re gone, so the site will enjoy more sunshine, and prairie loves sun. We mourned the tree loss but the prairie will benefit.

The trees didn’t go easily. Several tumbled into the prairie. They were big and filled with branches, leaves, and needles. We prioritized removing them. Many chainsaw and brush hauling hours later we had the trees moved into a big brush pile in the back. The sun now shines on the prairie planting. We’ll keep you posted.

Derecho Creates Opportunity

After we cleared fallen trees from the prairie, we turned to many trees that tumbled down on the north and east ends of our land. It’s taken hours to cut shattered trees and cut pathways through fallen logs so we can walk our own land easily. This land was once shady.  Now the sun hits the ground. The storm transitioned the land from dense forest to savanna – a landscape of occasional trees and rich plant growth hugging the ground. Wildlife will transition as the habitat changes. Because of this change in the forest, some bird species may decline temporarily and others will thrive.

Open woodland birds:  Robins, cardinals, white-eyed vireos, flickers, and Downey, red-bellied, and red-headed woodpeckers.

Mature forest birds:   Scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, wood thrushes, and pileated and hairy woodpeckers.

Shade and Sunshine

We didn’t lose all our forest trees. Just most of them. The loss of shade creates opportunities for ground-hugging plants to thrive, including baby trees. We’re already found some tiny black raspberry plants growing and many oak and hackberry seedlings.

To make sure that appropriate native savanna plants establish in the now sunny areas we ordered a native seed mix from Pheasants Forever that we’ll plant this fall.

We will keep you posted on changes in our prairies and new savanna.

 

What Did the Derecho Do to Wildlife?

We’ll remember August 10, 2020, forever. On that day the wind changed Eastern Iowa and Winding Pathways in a way that will persist for a century. In 40 minutes, straight-line wind gusts up to 140 miles an hour toppled or broke 47 of our 53 trees. Two landed on our roof.

Our property adjoins Faulkes Heritage Woods, a 110-acre preserve of tall old trees, mostly oaks. The derecho felled most of its big trees that tumbled into a jumbled mass of trunks, branches, and leaves.

Wondering how the great change would impact wildlife, we quickly noticed two short term impacts. August and September are usually slow months for bird feeder visitors as birds normally have plenty of wild food. As soon as the wind calmed, all was still. Faithfully, Rich found and filled the feeders.  The next morning, we noticed heavy use by house finches, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, and chickadees. It was almost like the feeding frenzy that happens as a winter blizzard approaches.

Short Term Impacts

Deer In Woods

Trails are disrupted.

We quickly realized that deer, raccoons, coyotes, woodchucks, squirrels, and even chipmunks experienced a life-changing event. Their travel corridors changed as huge trees blocked deer trails, for example. They had to find new routes through the debris. One afternoon we saw a mother deer and fawn walking on the one remaining “open” trail around our prairie. Then, they crawled under a fallen tree and disappeared into the maze of branches.  The ever clever raccoons have become more than pests as they tear up feeders and raid garbage cans. Also, the storm destroyed this year’s acorn and walnut crop, nuts that many species require. That is why the birds came so readily to the feeders. And still do!

 

Longer-Term Impacts

We are now watching for the long term impacts of the loss of so many trees. Our good friend, Jim Berry, is the former executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in New York. We asked him what we might expect following the loss of so many big trees in Faulkes Woods and our property.

“There are winners and losers. I would expect to see fewer wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and scarlet tanagers. They prefer mature forests. The more open woods and sunshine hitting the ground will cause an increase in cardinals, robins, and white-eyed vireos,” he said.

We have been fortunate to enjoy seven woodpecker species over the years. Some will benefit and some will lose from the great woods opening windstorm.  According to Jim red-headed, red-bellied, and downy woodpeckers are likely to increase. So will flickers.

But sapsuckers and hairy and pileated woodpeckers that like the old trees and a closed canopy will probably decline.

The loss of hollow trees that shelter animals and the destroyed nut crop are going to make this a lean winter for squirrels. Deer, blue jays, woodchucks, chipmunks, and wild turkeys will also miss the acorns that normally rain down each fall.

We were saddened to lose so many trees but look forward to watching the forest restore itself. We’re also watching to see changes in wildlife.

How Do You Protect Your Newly Planted Trees?

People in Eastern Iowa planting young trees to replace those shattered by the August 10 Derecho need to remember an important step.  Protect those vulnerable and valuable young trees.

Here is our story. A distressing sight greeted us one September morning a few years ago as we walked to the mailbox to get the newspaper. Overnight a deer had chosen our favorite young maple tree to polish his antlers. He was thorough and had rubbed the bark off all around the two-inch diameter trunk. It was girdled and doomed.

We should have known better. Buck deer start growing their antlers in April and by about Labor Day, they are full size. Antlers are formed by a blood-rich skin called velvet.   By late summer it has dried and bucks rub it off polishing up their antlers for dominance battles with rivals. By neglecting to protect our tree we gave a buck a great rubbing place. And doomed our tree to an early death.

Deer begin rubbing in early fall and sometimes continue until the deer mating season approaches in early November. Deer live in most American cities and regularly roam through suburbs. They are as happy to rub their antlers on an ornamental tree in the front yard as on one back in the woods. It’s never good for the tree.

Deer seem to prefer to rub on saplings with trunks a few inches in diameter. They especially seem to prefer pine and black cherry trees but we have even lost young spruces to their rubs. One thing is predictable. The tree that a family most treasures is the one a buck is likely to destroy.

Damage is preventable. We now run a four-foot-high circle of wire mesh around the tree and wire it to a fence post hammered securely into the ground. Once a tree reaches five or six inches in diameter deer rarely bother them, so the wire is only needed for a few years.

Be sure to water your new, young fall-planted tree. And, protect it with wire mesh.