Winter is the best time to spot dens and nests. Usually, we think of bird nests, and we see abandoned ones topped with mounds of snow along roadsides and in shrubs. When we look up, we also spot large clusters of leaves and sticks – squirrel nests.
Squirrels make two types of nests: dens and dreys. Dens are cavities in trees and dreys are the large balls of leaves and sticks that squirrels fashion. From the ground, these dreys look small, but they are really good sized.
Taking in the view from the safety of a tree den.
When squirrel families mature in late summer, the young venture forth to find new lodgings. If the population of squirrels is low and the availability of hollows in trees is high, then squirrels take the dens. These are hollow spaces inside the trunk that squirrels line with leaves and bits of fur and bark. Squirrels do not create these hollows but use them. Wood rot and woodpeckers create the spaces and squirrels make the most of them. Dens offer great protection from the elements and predators and they are warmer. So, squirrels conserve their energy when they must “hole up” during winter storms. When the worst of the harsh weather passes, squirrels begin to stir, digging for nuts and raiding bird feeders.
Squirrels make their dreys near sturdy forks in branches or close to the tree trunk. They will be high up for protection from predators. Usually, a tree might support one or two squirrel nests, but occasionally, we see half a dozen scattered throughout a wide-branching deciduous tree. Squirrel condominiums. These might be secondary homes or extensions of families. Secondary homes tend to be more loosely constructed and are scattered near the main home tree and serve as shelter in case a squirrel gets caught out in the elements or is being chased by a predator.
Each nest begins with a study base of twigs. Scientists have discovered that sometimes squirrels weave grapevines into the structure along with leaves, bark, moss, and twigs for added support. After all, the nest sways in the branches and get buffeted by winds, rain, and snow, so it needs to be strong. Inside, the nest is dry and warm.
When you are driving or walking look up and spot the nests of one of our most industrious small mammals. Squirrels mate in January and soon the young will be born – in the bleak mid-winter maybe in a squirrel condominium near you!
Below is a guest blog by Arianne Waseen about a visit by an opossum. Thanks, Arianne!
“Possum come aknockin’ at the door.”
“I went out in the afternoon a few weeks ago to look for eggs. I opened up the large door on the front of our coop, and in the nest box was something grey and furry and curled up in a little ball. My first thought was that it was a cat, but looking more closely it was definitely possum fur. I yelled and jumped a bit, and ran in to tell my husband and mother-in-law to come take a look. By the time we got back the possum had woken up. We opened up a little door we have at the back of the nest box and my mother in law encouraged the possum to jump down by prodding it with a broom from the front of the nest box. It jumped down and ran off. The opossum has come back a few times, and while it has not harmed our chickens, we are getting fewer eggs than we should be, and the possum has suspiciously glossy fur.”
Many landowners face challenges caused by abundant deer. This animal evolved under heavy predation by wolves, bears, mountain lions, and Native American hunters. Their survival strategy, in addition to being well camouflaged and fleet, is to have many babies. A healthy doe normally bears one fawn when she is just one year old and twins or triplets in subsequent years. Wild predators have been extirpated but deer continue to reproduce at a rapid rate. When they are too numerous, over browsing of crops, trees, shrubs, and wildflowers devastates ecosystems. Deer numbers need to be kept in balance with their habitat to protect natural beauty and devastation.
Modern hunting is an effective substitute for predators. Deer hunting is popular but many hunters, or potential hunters, lack a place to hunt. Many landowners suffer deer damage but don’t hunt.
Successful match making between hunters and landowners can work toward their mutual benefit. However, the relationship is most successful when hunters are managed by the landowners with expectations clearly articulated BEFORE permission is granted to access property.
Most hunters are ethical but they sometimes stretch understandings, especially verbal ones. For example, if a landowner gives permission for one person to hunt, he/she sometimes assumes that gives them license to invite their relatives or friends to hunt the property. And, they may assume that this is perpetual permission and that they can hunt any species at any legal time without additional permission. Also, to control deer populations it is essential to harvest does, yet many hunters seek only big bucks. Landowners using hunting as a management tool may need to insist that does be taken.
Attached is a sheet of expectations that a landowner might present to anyone wishing to hunt. It articulates expectations and clarifies the relationship between landowner and hunter.
HUNTING PERMISSION FORM
to be presented to person seeking permission to hunt
I, (name of hunter)_______________________________understand that I am being given permission to hunt on the property of
(name of landowner)____________________________________________. In exchange for this privilege I agree to abide by the following understandings:
- I will abide by all local, state, and federal game laws and will be properly licensed to pursue the species and gender of animal the landowner is allowing me to hunt.
- I understand that permission is granted only to me and that this does not extend to relatives or friends unless the landowner specifically grants them permission.
- Permission is granted to hunt only the following animals:
- Permission is granted to only use the following weapons:
- Permission is granted to only hunt the following seasons or dates:
- Permission to hunt is for this year only and must be renewed in future years.
- I will not erect stands or blinds any earlier than one week before the start of the season. I will remove blinds, stands, and anything else I brought on the property within one week of the end of the season.
- I will not put nails, screws, or any other metal objects in trees.
- I will inform the owner of animals I harvest.
- I will treat the land with respect and will hunt in a safe and ethical manner.
- I will provide the landowner with meat if requested.
Hunter’s name Printed______________________________________
Signature of Hunter__________________________________________________ Landowner________________________________________________________________
Vehicle that will be parked near or on landowner’s property:
This week Winding Pathways will feature two blogs that cover the “ins and outs” of harvesting deer, landowner responsibilities and a sample agreement between landowners and deer hunters. This blog includes The Law, Equipment, and Ways to Process a Deer. The next blog on this topic will cover how landowners can manage hunters on their land and a sample agreement form.
Frustrated homeowners often discover their landscape plants, flowers, and vegetables devoured by hungry urban and suburban deer.
Although we can find them annoying, deer are amazing. Deer are resourceful and adaptable. In many rural areas, their former habitat has been transformed into seas of corn, soybeans, or other crops. The hedgerows, woodlots, and brushy patches that once offered deer shelter have disappeared. So, they moved into town.
Many suburban and even urban areas offer a perfect place for deer to live. Parks and protected natural areas have secure places to live, and vegetable gardens, flower beds, and fruit trees are outstanding deer food. It’s no wonder so many towns are home to robust deer herds.
Although most people love seeing wildlife and enjoy having a few deer around when the garden is raided attitudes change quickly. In response, Winding Pathways and many garden books and blogs offer tips on how to protect trees and plants from hungry deer. Some hardly work, while others, especially secure fencing around gardens, keep deer out. Unfortunately keeping the hungry animals at bay is a never-ending and sometimes expensive task.
Many gardeners are proud to produce local organic vegetables. They might consider the deer that raid their garden a local, organic, free-ranging source of delicious meat. When done according to state and local laws, converting a deer to family food in no way threatens deer herds. They rapidly reproduce, making deer a perpetual and sustainable food source.
Killing, dressing, and preparing deer meat is an unknown and somewhat mysterious process for suburbanites who have no experience with bows or firearms or converting a live animal to a meal. This blog will give them a basic idea how to do it.
To us shooting a deer is food gathering, much like picking spring nettles or mulberries. We view deer as an opportunity to harvest local, organic, free-range meat.
In the United States wildlife does not belong to a private landowner. It is the property of the people – all the people. Some wildlife protection laws are set by the Federal Government but individual states have the most responsibility for setting and enforcing laws that protect wildlife yet allow people to harvest certain species. Hunting is an important tool in reducing overabundant game species, such as deer.
Anyone wishing to harvest a deer must heed the laws of the state they live in. Generally, this means purchasing a license and hunting certain types of animals only during open seasons. The type of weapon used is also specified by the state.
Traditionally towns and cities have banned hunting and shooting of any sort for safety reasons. However burgeoning deer numbers and resulting vegetation damage and car collisions encouraged town councils to relook at their ordinances. Many have altered ordinances to allow citizens to harvest deer, even in fairly densely populated (by people) areas. State laws always apply and cities normally add their own regulations, mostly to ensure the safety of residents.
Our town of Cedar Rapids is a good example. People are allowed to buy licenses to harvest deer within city limits using bows and arrows if they:
- Attend a training session
- Prove proficiency with archery equipment
- Purchase tags and licenses
- Bring harvested deer to a fire station for officials to check
- Use only permitted weapons during legal seasons
- Inform neighbors of hunting
- And several other specific requirements.
Hunting has reduced, but hardly eliminated, vegetation damage and deer/car collisions. It has put thousands of pounds of nutritious meat on the tables of many families.
So, if anyone wants to harvest a deer they should first check with their city or town to see if it is legal and what specific requirements are in place.
Generally, anyone living outside city limits and a distance from neighbors only needs to abide by state hunting laws. These tend to be much less restrictive than urban or suburban hunting. Check your state’s Department of Natural Resources for information. Normally deer hunting regulations are posted online.
Two Ways to Harvest a Deer on Your Property
There are essentially two ways to convert a garden devouring deer to steaks, burgers, and chops. They are:
- Inviting a hunter to shoot a deer on your property. This eliminates the need to own a weapon, shoot an animal, and skin, dress and package it. It’s the easy way for most people but it’s not always simple. See the related Winding Pathways Blog on Tips for managing hunters on your land. Salespeople in local sporting goods stores can help locate a bowhunter. Landowners should request that their hunter provide them with some wrapped and frozen meat.
- Do it yourself. The rest of this blog is general information on how to shoot, process, and eat a deer.
DEER HUNTING EQUIPMENT
There are generally four types of devices legal and effective for killing a deer. A brief description follows:
BOW AND ARROW: Archery is the favored and often only legal way to kill a deer in cities and towns. Skilled archers are amazingly effective in quickly killing a deer. Unlike firearms bows are quiet. Arrows have a very limited range with 40 yards being about the maximum. It requires hunters to be close to their quarry. Usually, bowhunters place a stand up in a tree. Deer rarely look up when roaming around and often come close to archers perched high. Also, being in a tree requires a downward shot toward the ground. The shooting angle and limited range make archery a safe hunting method in areas of dense human population. It is not easy and skilled archers spend many hours throughout the year practicing to be accurate shots. An upside is that archery is fun. Many people enjoy target shooting, and this can be combined with bow hunting.
SHOTGUNS: Often states require firearm hunters to use shotguns in areas with dense human populations. Shotguns discharge either a single projectile called a “slug”, or a few large diameter pellets, called “buckshot”. Most states require hunters to use slugs. These tend to be heavy and relatively low in velocity. When fired from a smoothbore shotgun they are accurate only at a range of 50 yards or so. Newer rifled barreled shotguns using slugs made for them are more accurate and can humanely kill a deer at 125 yards or even longer. Deer slugs tend to not travel a long distance so are commonly mandated near towns.
RIFLES: High powered rifles are generally only allowed in areas of low human density away from cities. In the hands of a competent person, they are very accurate at a much longer range than shotguns. Rifles come in a wide range of calibers that launch bullets of different weights and velocities. It gets complicated, but generally, rifles aren’t allowed or used in places where the human density is high.
MUZZLELOADING RIFLES: Before cartridge rifles were invented muzzleloading rifles were the norm. These require loading powder and bullet from the bore or end of the barrel. It is a somewhat slow process and muzzleloaders are single shot since it takes a while to reload. Generally, muzzleloaders shoot large heavy bullets at a slower velocity than cartridge rifles. They can be very accurate at relatively short range. Winding Pathways is outside city limits and we use a muzzleloader to take a deer on our property each year.
An excellent way to learn how to safely and effectively shoot a firearm is to locate a local shooting range or sporting goods store that sells firearms. Many offer training and excellent information. Our next-door neighbor at Winding Pathways owns a nearby store called Cedar Valley Outfitters. It holds regular firearms training classes and will arrange private lessons to help novices learn how to safely handle and accurately shoot a firearm. Unlike big box stores that sell firearms smaller locally owned gun stores are likely to offer training. A resource to help locate a store or shooting range is the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
PREPARING TO HUNT A DEER
Think a year ahead. It will likely take that long for a novice to decide to convert a deer to food, research the local and state laws, purchase an appropriate bow or firearm, and learn to shoot it accurately. Finding a mentor may speed the process.
WHAT TO DO ONCE THE DEER IS ON THE GROUND
The easiest way to process a deer is to take it to a locker and pay a professional butcher to covert the carcass into cuts. Most also will grind it or process it into sausage of many types.
Butchering a deer at home is not hard. It takes us about three hours to convert a carcass to cuts of wrapped meat in the freezer.
Hunters normally eviscerate a deer immediately after shooting it. This makes the carcass lighter to transport and helps it cool quicker. The best way to learn how to do this is to tag along with an experienced hunter and learn first-hand. YouTube Videos also show how to do it. It is important to cool meat quickly to prevent spoilage. At Winding Pathways, we quickly bring a freshly killed deer to our garage where we have a simple block and tackle that lets us hang the deer by its hind legs. This allows us to easily skin and eviscerate it. Once completed we wash the carcass with water and cover it with a clean sheet to keep dirt and insects away from the meat. If the weather is cool – in the mid to high 30s or 40s – we let the meat age for a couple of days before cutting it into pieces ready for the freezer.
A veteran meat cutter is the best instructor to show how to cut a deer into steaks, roasts, chops, stew meat. Because our freezer is small we bone out all the meat. We prepare a few roasts and several steaks but much of the deer is cut up into chunks for stew or put into great-grandma’s old hand cranked grinder and converted to ground meat. We can fit a butchered medium-sized deer into our small freezer and eat it throughout the winter.
Many YouTube videos show how to skin, butcher, and freeze deer meat. Some include cooking tips. One of the better ones is called FIELD DRESSING, SKINNING, BUTCHERING TO FREEZING-LARGE GAME PROCESSING-DEER.
COOKING AND EATING DEER
When properly processed and cooked deer meat is delicious. It is very lean so tends to be somewhat drier than beef. Many people make the mistake of overcooking venison. We cook it to the same degree of doneness as we would a similar piece of beef. Most of our venison is chunks used in winter stew or ground meat used in place of beef hamburger in chili, spaghetti sauce, and many other dishes.
We like opossums and are always happy to see one shuffling off when we startle it after dark. This amazing animal gets too little respect and appreciation by people who consider them dirty, stupid, and ugly. They are just the opposite!
Opossums are doing something right. They’re survivors who have been on the planet far longer that humans. Often called ‘possums, they were once common only in southern states. Their fur is sparse and doesn’t cover tails or ears, so winter is rough on them. Warming temperatures are helping this animal move north, and they’re now common in Maine, Minnesota and other more northern states where they once were absent.
‘Possums are our only native marsupial. Like kangaroos, female opossums have a pouch to nourish their young. Born after only a 13-day pregnancy tiny babies make their way into her pouch where they remain for about 100 days feeding on mom’s milk. Once they leave the pouch they follow her around learning how to fend for themselves.
Mostly nocturnal, possums aren’t choosy eaters. They love over ripe fruit, especially persimmons but they’ll also snack on insects, worms, dead animals, and nearly any other animal they can catch or find. Think of them as a gardener’s assistant because they gravitate to decaying material.
New research reveals an important diet item. They enjoy eating ticks! ‘Possums groom often and any tick that climbs aboard one and attempts to bite is in for a surprise. The grooming animal is likely to find the tick and quickly devour it. Fewer than 4% of ticks that climb on a O’possum successfully enjoy a blood meal. The rest become a meal themselves.
We’re lucky to have opossums in our yard. We enjoy sharing space with these ancient, clean, and useful animals. We hope you also have a neighborhood ‘possum. Be sure to share a photo of your ‘possum with us. For information on the opossum/tick relationship go to Cary Institute.
A guest blog by Susan Fehsinger, New Hampshire
“I’ve spent most of my life in southern New Hampshire. Growing up, we never heard of bears being anywhere near our area, but their population has been growing rapidly. Now, we hear of them regularly. Our first live rural sighting was about 15 years ago. Since then, we either have seen them or evidence of them at least once a year.
“We live in the country on 16 acres and the nearest house is about 300 feet away across the road. There is plenty of bear habitat and they are becoming very common. Last year I was taking a walk along a class 6 road (a road that is not maintained any longer but is often used) when a black bear strolled up from the river and across the road about 30 yards ahead. I froze. S/he turned and looked at me for a long 10 or 15 seconds before continuing into the woods. Did I have my phone? Yes. Did I think to snap a photo? Nope.
“One morning this spring about 6:45, when the sky was fully light, I began to hear noises and thought our cat was running around upstairs. After a while, though, I looked out the window which opens onto our screen porch. Two bears were tearing into the stone retaining wall at its foundation. They were pulling out the seeds that the chipmunks had stored there. Both were fully grown and one of them was the largest I have ever seen in this area. The strangest part of this experience was that they didn’t spook at all. I called my husband and we both stood at the glass door taking pictures and talking.
“The population of our small town is growing, yet we are seeing more wildlife that used to be rare. I saw my first bobcat a year or so ago, also. It’s great to know that wildlife is doing well and large predators are around. We humans just need to be aware of potential danger — for us in case of a confrontation, and for them, if our behavior causes them to habituate to people. Fish and Game does not want to have to kill an animal that’s only crime is looking for food that we provide them.
“Beginning in early spring we are told to bring in bird feeders (and in my case stop using the screen porch as an extra refrigerator!) It’s definitely good advice because bears are excellent at finding any and all available food. Usually, the ones we see in early spring are females with cubs, and they can be very dangerous if a human gets between “mom” and her little ones. The fact that “my” bears were digging into a stonewall to get at seeds stored by chipmunks underlies how good they are at their job — feeding themselves and their cubs. We can learn to outsmart them, but they’ve been perfecting their food-finding skills for a long time and their senses are much better than ours. We have to become aware and vigilant so we can enjoy the fact that they’re here among us — just not too close.”
Check out these links below about bears, habitat and behaviors
. Many of these sites refer to “wild” places like parks and the North Woods. And, remember that the advice on respecting bears, keeping your distance
, and storing food all to avoid bear encounters is similar and are great tips for suburban and urban dwellers.
Bear Standing Up
Bear moving off to the bird feeder.