Bears & Birds

Guest Blog by Jackie Hull,
in the foothills of Virginia

Bears Barely Tolerable Behavior

Black Bears create havoc with Feeders

Bear Raiding Feeders

Well, the bear did it again. It tore up some of the spindles on the porch railing, tipped over a couple of the vegetable pots, and yanked a six-foot portion of our picket fence off the posts. All this to remind me that I should not feed the birds this time of year. It’s May.

So what to do but put away all the feeders? Maybe I can try again in the fall when bears retreat to the dens for their winter snooze.

This pretty much gave me great moments of sadness especially since I’ve had to shed other favorite activities.

Bird Antics Bring Joy

But today was a day of great surprises. My beautiful main stays, the birds, were everywhere. As I sat in the kitchen peering out the window, I spotted the adult turkeys poking their heads above the uncut hay. I could feel their parental thoughts “The coast is clear so keep scrambling forward.” The chicks were not seen but definitely there. A goldfinch zipped over them. Then I saw two wood thrashers near the holly tree scavenging for insects. Oh, my look how that crow struts!

Wren

Wrens are Chatterers

Listen, that’s the wren by the back door. She keeps chattering to remind me she built her condo in the hanging planter. Then a flash of bright red caught my eye as I walked onto the porch. It’s a cardinal. Then the female house finch flicked from her nest over the front door light. She doesn’t like me stepping onto the porch. She is quite timid.

Even though the feeders have been down for nearly two months, the birds have kept their vigil at my country home much to my delight. They are in the trees, along the lane, and in the hayfield. What a great day!

What’s the Deal with Furless Tailed Squirrels?

The birds we share Winding Pathways with have a good life. Our property has old trees, prairies, and bushes to provide lots of natural food plus nooks and crannies for chickadees, nuthatches, and other species to hide and shelter from tough weather.

Bushy Tail on Squirrel

Squirrel tails have many uses.

Birds aren’t the only animals that gorge on the sunflower seeds and corn we daily put in the backyard. Deer, raccoons, and opossums sometimes visit at night. And squirrels constantly work the day shift.

Two Species

Two squirrel species visit our feeders. Grays are more of an eastern species that prefer woodlands with big trees, while Fox Squirrels prefer edges – places where woods meet prairies, cornfields, or meadows. They are most common in the Midwest.

Furless tail on squirrel

Even in winter the squirrels’ fur looks healthy…except for their tails.

In spring 2021 through winter 2022, we have noticed that many squirrels, especially grays, had few tail hairs, making them look like rat tails. That’s not good for a squirrel.

 

 

 

 

Squirrel leaps to branch

Squirrels use tails for balance.

Their bushy tail is more than an ornament. We’ve observed three important uses. It helps them balance. Notice this when you see squirrels cross wires or balance on tiny branches bouncing in the wind. On cold and wet days, we see squirrels drape their tail over their back, perhaps like putting another blanket on the bed or a poncho. Twice we’ve seen squirrels fall from tall oaks. Both times they “spread eagle” in the air with their legs and tails outstretched. They descended with their body horizontal, hit the ground with a thump, and took off running, apparently unhurt. So, their tail helped them parachute down.

Furless Tails

According to Dr. Neil Bernstein, a squirrel lacking a tail may have been in a mating fight with another male and came out the loser. Four of our resident squirrels have a tail but each lacks hair. It could be mange, but this often leaves a bare patch of skin on the animal’s body. Our squirrels have perfect body hair.

Loss of tail hair could be caused by a fungal disease called dermatophytosis. Often this causes hairs to break off, rather than shed from the skin. A squirrel with this condition has short bristles. We think that’s the case with our squirrels.

Often otherwise healthy squirrels recover from mange or dermatophytosis. We hope ours will.

How Do Squirrels Foil Hawks?

Guest Blogger, Dr. No More Squirrels
(Photos by Dr. NMS)

Much of my time and energy has been spent battling a 1-pound enemy – the gray squirrel.  I love feeding and watching birds, but with a neighborhood full of acorn-bearing oak trees I feel no guilt at all at not wanting to pay for bird food and letting the squirrels eat it.  Through trial and error, I have found how to place all our feeders so that they are always out of the reach of squirrels.  Almost always.  Every few months a new guy shows up; a determined daredevil squirrel who figures out how to slide 20 feet down the string holding a feeder to get to the mother lode.

When that happens, it’s time for an involuntary relocation.

This was the case on a frigid January morning here in Minneapolis.  My live trap was set and within minutes I heard it snap shut.  But what I then saw was a shock.  The squirrel was trapped all right, but sitting next to the trap was an immature red-tailed hawk!  She hopped onto the trap and all around it, trying to get at what she thought would be an easy breakfast.

Minutes later, she gave up and flew to a nearby perch to contemplate how she had been beaten by a 1-pound ball of gray fur.

I knew exactly how she felt.

Deer and COVID-19

Two years ago, hardly anyone knew what the novel Coronavirus was, but since then this crafty virus and the nasty disease it causes, COVID-19, has hardly been all over the news.  Like most people we thought it was a disease of only humans.

We were astonished to learn that a high percent of Iowa tested deer has been found positive for COVID.   With deer hunting season approaching we wondered if deer pose a threat to people either butchering an animal or eating the meat. So, we contacted Dr. Tyler Harms.  He’s the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Deer Program Leader.

Gloves and knives for cleaning deer.

Dr. Tyler Harms, head of deer project in Iowa recommends safety gloves and hand washing when processing and preparing venison.

According to him the threat seems minimal, however, he recommends the following actions for anyone processing a deer:

  • Wear rubber gloves when processing an animal.
  • Wash hands and equipment thoroughly after handling deer meat

According to Dr. Harms, Iowa’s deer are asymptomatic. They don’t seem to be getting sick or dying.

 

 

 

 

Buck in woods

Bucks are still active in December.

December is Iowa’s main deer hunting season. Over 100,000 animals are likely to be harvested. Here at Winding Pathways, we enjoy venison as local, organic, free-range meat.  But we’ll be sure to follow Dr. Harm’s advice when handling meat.

 

 

 

In many ways COVID is a mysterious disease. Where it came from remains a hazy mystery, and its variants continue to perplex people.  Now it’s been found in animals.  Iowa’s deer aren’t the only animals that test positive.  The disease has been found in leopards in zoos and mink.   It’s likely that many other animals and deer nearly everywhere carry COVID.  How they got it and how it’s spread is a mystery.

What Is YOUR Pogo Story?

Readers’ Adventures With Pogo Possum

The Pogo Possum adventures really resonated with people.  So, Winding Pathways is sharing some of these.

SA enthusiastically wrote: I love that you named him Pogo. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

JH has a thoughtful perspective: Pogo certainly has some caring humans. I agree with you that they are very interesting critters. I just wish the rest of the world that zips by in four-wheeled contraptions would think likewise instead of hitting them.

MH shared: We found one in our house. I was gone for a week. I like fresh air at night so left an outside door open that had a small hole in the screen my husband called to say there was a pile of poop in the living room. On investigation, he found one hidden behind our TV console. We guessed he came in through the screen.

From Colleges to Communities Pogo Resonates

MM told about Kirkwood Community College’s adventures: While at Kirkwood, when the original greenhouses were attached to my Grounds Department building, we found a female, with babies, living in the north greenhouse. Once Stacey, the students, and my crew understood the benefits of having this tenant, we left her and her babies alone. Occasionally, one of the babies would explore the greenhouse, but with a little coaxing, he or she would return to the nest. I was fortunate to see the mother finally take her young out of the greenhouse, exposing them to their new life outside of the greenhouse environment. I don’t know if it was the same opossum or one of the babies, but one of them must have been paying rent, as each year we welcomed a resident, with babies. I do miss the interaction and YES, I was providing a bit of food, as well as the occasional rat or mouse courtesy of the raptor building behind our greenhouses.

SR What a lovely story about Pogo, your cozy little possum neighbor! Friends not far from you have another small one who scoots on into the garage for cat food whenever the door is open. One day she found it curled up for a daytime nap inside the watering can in her garage. What a handy handle to walk it on back outside. The sleepy little creature just looked up blinking its eyes and smacking its possum smile. Then it ambled right out of the watering can once she put it down on its side. I dare anyone to try this with a raccoon or even a groundhog.

AF Too cute to pass up commenting on. We too have a possum neighbor.

PL succinctly wrote: Love Pogo!!!

Thank you, all for sharing your Pogo adventures!  This looks like a periodic series on an ancient, maligned and interesting resident among us.

Thank you, all for sharing your Pogo adventures!  This looks like a periodic series on an ancient, maligned, and interesting resident among us.

Why are Possums Out in the Winter?

Bright sun and warm breezes broke Iowa’s February subzero weather. Being outside unencumbered by thick gloves, boots, and coats felt great, and we even enjoyed a cup of coffee sitting outside on the sunny side of our home. We weren’t alone.  A glance at the bird feeder one late afternoon revealed a friend we hadn’t seen in months.  An opossum was enjoying a meal of seeds while basking in the relative warmth. We suspect the animal had spent frigid days and nights dormant under a brush pile.

Many people don’t like possums but we do. They’re fascinating – and helpful! The Iowa DNR lists these little-known facts about Iowa’s only marsupial, an animal that cares for its young in a pouch similar to the Australian kangaroo.

Fun Facts About Opossums

  • Possums are virtually immune to rabies.
  • A copperhead or rattlesnake might bite a possum and be surprised. These ancient animals are immune to their poison and will likely gobble up the hapless snake for lunch. Not so much in Iowa. Poisonous snakes are rare here and only found in a few areas.
  • No other native mammal has as many teeth. Opossums have 50. When approached they’ll often open their mouth and show them off. They also might hiss, but our possums didn’t make any threatening moves.
  • Possums play possum. It discourages some predators but doesn’t work with cars. Many are killed as they crossroads. Do avoid hitting them.
  • Possums have hind feet that look a bit like a human hand. Their tracks in the snow are distinctive.
  • Female opossums have 13 teats. Twelve are in a circle in her pouch with one in the center.
  • Babies are tiny. The size of a dime. After birth, they finish developing in mom’s pouch. When they are older, they’ll often ride on her back.
  • Some sources say opossums reduce tick numbers. They often groom themselves and consider any tick they find a tasty snack.

We enjoy seeing our opossum friends. On cold nights we sometimes put a little cat or dog food out for them. Life’s not easy for these animals with naked tails and thin fur, so we try to help them.