When the Wind Blows

neonate songbird

Wild youngsters may end up on the ground when their nests are blown out of trees by violent storms (Photo: Ryan Keene, Creative Commons license)

[Reprint from April 2011… but still useful information during this windy season.].

Late Thursday evening a sound came blasting through dreams and memory to my sleeping brain.  It’s been years—decades even—since I lived in Tornado Alley, where March meant The Wizard of Oz on television and being hustled into the basement at all hours of the day and night while my dad watched the sky and listened to the radio until the National Weather Service ended the Warning or Watch period.

I still have a vivid memory of my first tornado warning after moving to West Texas as a young adult. I heard the siren blast and… froze. Standing in the middle of my kitchen, I had no idea where one is supposed to go when your house doesn’t have a basement. Turning on the radio, a pre-recorded emergency announcement instructed listeners to head for the bathroom. This didn’t make any sense to me at all but I scurried obediently down the hall, imagining myself flying through the air in a bathtub like Calvin and Hobbes hurdling through space in their wagon, or like Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb in Dr. Strangelove.

My parents and my personal history have taught me to take tornados seriously. And I do.

All these years later, when the wind started howling loud enough to make the vent over my stove wail, my eyes flew open. I leapt up, threw back the covers, hustled into the living room and out onto the patio. My turn to keep the night-watch vigil, looking for the bruised, greenish-gray, flat-light sky I still associate with twisters. All I saw were clouds high above, scuttling quickly past, and the flags on a nearby municipal building snapping out a furious beat. Damaging wind speeds, to be sure, but no tornado.

great spotted woodpecker nestlings

Cavity nests offer protection from storms… unless the entire tree goes down (Photo: by Graham Gavaghan, Creative Commons license)

When I ran a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas, springtime storms always brought a deluge of baby animals into our shelter. Nests cradling baby birds and squirrels were blown out of branches, and even cavity-nesters weren’t safe when the storm was strong enough to uproot entire trees. Permitted wildlife rehabbers are trained to provide the care wildlings need to grow up healthy and return to the wild, but it’s always best to reunite offspring with their parents… if possible. As a result, rehabilitators have come up with a variety of creative reunion methods and techniques. After a tornado or hurricane churns through a neighborhood, though, the wild adults, if they survived, may be too disoriented to find their babies.

If you come across a wild baby on the ground, for whatever reason, and you’re not sure if it needs help or what to do, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for advice. State and provincial wildlife agencies that require a permit to rehabilitate wildlife legally will usually post a list of individuals on their website. Additionally, readers in North America may find the following links helpful:

WildlifeRehabber.Org

Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC)

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA)

young squirrels in rehab

Wildlife rehabilitators are trained to meet the special needs of wild infants (Photo: by Carol Vinzant, Creative Commons license)

You may be offered instructions for how to help bring mother and child back together, or be asked to transport the animal to an individual or a center for care.  Just as important, you’ll be told how to protect your own health and safety while being a good Samaritan.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the photographers for using the Creative Commons license.

Blinded by the light

black-and-white warbler (Photo: Friends of Mount Auburn, Creative Commons license)

Black-and-white warblers are just one of hundreds of species and millions of individual birds currently making their way southward… and running into some major obstacles (Photo: Sandy Selesky, Creative Commons license)

.[This post from March 2012 bears repeating as we enter the Spring migration season.]

I’ve never been much for following trends. I’m more of a swim-against -the-current kind of gal. For example, I wrote this post while flying north-to-south across North America on a Delta jet, while at the same time millions of migratory birds were flying south-to-north along ancient sky routes.warbling vireo (Photo: Eric Bégin, Creative Commons license)By the time I get back home to southwestern Virginia there’s a good chance that wood-warblers will already be there, including one of the more easy-to-identify species, the black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia). And it shouldn’t be too long before blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) come back to my neighborhood. How do I know this? I’ve been using a great resource to help me figure out what to watch for—The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wealth of information, including real-time bird migration reports and forecasts.

Sadly, one of the best, and worst, places to see a diverse array of migratory birds is at the base of tall buildings. The birds you’ll find are likely to be dead or injured. Others will be too exhausted to fly any further, making them very vulnerable to the scavenger species who have learned that migration season in the city means food is literally falling from the sky. One expert estimates as many as 100 million birds die in collisions with buildings every year. Songbirds are particularly susceptible to this hazard.

At night, migrating birds seem to be strongly attracted to artificial light and once inside the neon and fluorescent glow they’re reluctant to return to the darkness. High-rise glass and light are a deadly combination for these travelers—those that don’t collide with the buildings fly around and around as if caught in a sci-fi tractor beam until they drop from fatigue.blue-gray gnatcatcher (Photo: Jerry Oldenettel, Creative Commons license)In some cities, bird-loving volunteers organize rescue teams who arrive before sunrise to beat gulls, free-roaming cats, raccoons, coyotes, and others to the survivors. The injured are transported to wildlife rehabilitators for care, the dead are collected and counted.  The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors have reported finding an average of 5,000 birds on the streets and sidewalks during the annual spring and fall migrations. In Toronto alone the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) has documented bird-building collisions for over 140 species.

No one wants to add to his or her birding life list this way.

Thankfully, FLAP has some simple suggestions for reducing the carnage:

  • Turn off the office lights and close the blinds when you leave at the end of the day, and ask your co-workers to do the same.
  • Talk to the building’s maintenance supervisor and cleaning staff to explain their critical role in creating a bird-friendly building.
  • If you notice dead and/or injured birds on the ground around your building, consider organizing a group of coworkers to serve as rescuers and team with wildlife rehabilitators in your area.
  • FLAP recommends keeping a supply of paper grocery bags on hand for rescues. Once a bird has been placed inside the top can be folded over and stapled shut. This does not create an air-tight seal so there’s no need to poke air holes in the bag, and the darkness inside the bag will help calm the bird so it doesn’t injure itself further.

Before you forget, why not leave a reminder on your computer screen or near your office door? If you make it just a little harder to see migratory birds in the urban jungle you may end up making it just a little easier to continue seeing migratory birds in the future.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Sandy Selesky, Friends of Mount Auburn (black-and-white warbler); Eric Bégin (warbling vireo);   Jerry Oldenettel (blue-gray gnatcatcher); and Joe Penniston (downtown Chicago at night).

No particular place to go

snail

Snails are gastropods–a word that translates as “stomach-foot” (Photo: Sally Crossthwaite, Creative Commons license)

.[reprint from March 2011]

Back when I lived in a large apartment community in this southwestern Virginia college town, I stepped onto the sidewalk one morning for a pre-breakfast stroll with my terrier-boy Dash, and saw a shimmering calligraphy on the concrete up ahead. Living in close proximity to undergrads had taught me to watch my step on Monday mornings… but this didn’t look like party residue.

Since it resembled writing, I thought for a moment it might be chalk—a message decipherable only by Greeks (the collegiate variety, not the folks in Athens)— but that didn’t explain the silvery quality of the text.

Finally, I drew close enough to solve the mystery. It wasn’t writing at all. The weather had finally turned warm enough, temporarily, for the local gastropod to take a stroll along a slime trail.

Wait… can you stroll when you have no legs and only one foot?

Stroll, stride, saunter… call it what you will. Snails get from point A to point B by gliding along a secreted track of mucus that hardens into a kind of Slip ‘n Slide® when exposed to air. The animals ride waves created by a band of muscles that travel along a foot that spans from the tail to the head. Surfing the slime they wander over roadways, through the woods, and up the walls of grandmother’s house or any other structure in their path.

snail trail

Snails secrete a mucus trail that serves as a kind of slo-mo Slip ‘n Slide® (Photo: Krstnn Hrmnsn, Creative Commons license)

Progress appears painfully slow to bipeds and quadrupeds, but the meandering trails suggest snail excursions are all about the journey, not the destination. You have to admit, they never rush—unlike many of their harried human neighbors.

Of course, it’s a smaller world for some. An average speed of 0.03 mph must be fast enough for a garden snail to get where s/he needs to go (snails are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female sex organs, so s/he is particularly apt here).

Before you dismiss the lowly snail as too pedestrian to warrant admiration, you should know that the National Science Foundation supported a research collaboration between the University of California at San Diego (USA) and Stanford University (USA) to better understand the locomotion of snails and slugs, their shell-less cousins. The goal was to create robots that mimic snails, propelling themselves up and down walls, along ceilings, and across other challenging surfaces.

An examination of the mucus trail has proven fascinating as well. When common periwinkle snails are traveling along a vertical surface, the secretions have more adhesive qualities than when the animal is moving along a horizontal surface; the chemical structure of the mucus changes depending on the demands of the route.

But wait—there’s more!

A study by researchers at the University of Sunderland (UK) found that snails conserve energy by reusing slime trails. They will retrace their step to return to a previous resting site—a much safer strategy than hoping to stumble on an appropriate new location in time to avoid the dehydrating rays of the sun. Snails will also follow the trails of their cohorts to find dinner and a date. Essentially, they’re playing follow-the-leader.

So maybe a snail’s life is filled with fun and games. And wouldn’t you just love to see a group of gastropods do the Hokey-Pokey?

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

Appalachian Spring

American robin

[Reprint from March 2011].

Walking in the rain near the central drill field on campus earlier this week, I happened upon the beginning of a mid-afternoon rehearsal for the arrival of spring. The American Robin Ballet Company had taken their places on the lawn, dark taupe cloaks and carmine waistcoats vivid against the pale green and buff turf. They appeared frozen in place, waiting for the orchestra’s opening chords. Then all at once they began to move, not in sync but each using the same choreography.

Step… step… step… then a brief, brisk run… pliérelevé. Repeat.

Adagio (step… step… step)… allegro (step,step,step)… pliérelevé.  Repeat.

bird skeletonActually, if you think about it, it’s natural to see robins and other songbirds as dancers. For one thing, they are almost always on at least demi pointe—what you and I might call our tippy-toes. That’s because what we think of as the bird’s foot is actually only toes, and what we might initially think of as the knee is actually the ankle.

But for the corps de ballet in this show, function is as important as form. It may look like a dance but in fact it’s a hunt… or a very stylish way to shop for groceries. Take your pick.

The appearance of robins is considered by many to signal the arrival of spring; however, in some parts of North America robins are year-round residents. In winter they may form enormous nighttime roosts of over a hundred thousand individual birds. There is strength—and warmth—in numbers.

In spring and summer, after pairs have formed for pas de deux, males and females participate in the care and feeding of their offspring. However, females sleep on the nest, warming eggs or nestlings, while the males continue to gather each evening to sleep at the roost. As young robins gain their independence, they leave the nest and join the males at night.Robins are territorial, but unlike many birds, males are more protective of their mate and nest site than of feeding grounds, which often overlap. So while cardinals and even hummingbirds are known for aggressive intra-species defense of food resources, it’s not unusual to see groups of red-breasted dancers on a single grassy stage, even at the height of breeding season, and especially during winter, with its unpredictable weather and food supply.

When a robin stops suddenly, stands stock still, cocks its head to one side, dips slightly, then rises for another series of steps, the audience may assume the bird is listening intently. But ornithologists believe robins are actually looking for signs of digging that reveal the location of a worm.

They—the birds, not the ornithologists (well, maybe some of the ornithologists)—also consume other invertebrates, such as snails and insects, and a wide variety of wild fruits. Exactly the kind of high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat diet ballerinas and danseurs need to remain light on their feet. I could almost hear Martha Graham calling out…

Places everyone… and five, six, seven, eight… GRAND JETÉ!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. The cover photo is by Di Qiu (CCL); the bird skeleton drawing, from Illustrations of Zoology by W Ramsay Smith and J S Newell (1889), is in the public domain; the snowy robins are by Ingrid Taylar (CCL).

Like cats… and dogs

red fox

The red fox is a canine with many cat-like characteristics and behaviors (Photo: Matt Knoth, Creative Commons license)

.[Reprint from March 2011]

Gazing blearily through coffee steam, a ghostly figure wafting through the early morning haze caught Lisa’s eye. “At first, it was just a ginger-orange and white shadow, and I thought, “Oh, no… another stray cat.”

The specter became more substantial as it moved closer.

“I saw that it wasn’t a cat after all. It stopped at the edge of my patio and began to watch me. There we sat, two redheads—one natural, one augmented—staring straight into each other’s eyes.”

An understandable case of mistaken identity. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has some strikingly feline features: a sleek, slender-boned physique; long, sensitive whiskers; flexible feet with partially retractable claws on the front paws; thin, dagger-like canine teeth; and a tail that accounts for 1/3 of the animal’s total length… it all contributes to the illusion.Add to that eyes with vertically slit pupils and you start to understand why the red fox is known as the “cat-like canid.”

Their hunting strategy is more felid, too. Canines tend to rely less on stealth, often hunting in packs using a tag-team approach to run down prey.  Cats, with the exception of African lions (Panthera leo), are solitary hunters who stalk and ambush prey with an explosion of speed. Canids are relay runners; felids—and foxes—are sprinters who dispatch dinner with a quick, sustained bite, in contrast to the multi-wound or bite-and-shake method employed by most canines.Biologists suggest that the behavioral similarities between foxes and cats could be the result of convergent evolution: the development of an identical trait in unrelated lineages. Comparable adaptations, they explain, arise when species occupy similar niches—insect, bird, and bat flight are commonly sited examples. Foxes and small felines target similar prey, so one should not be surprised that analogous hunting strategies evolved in these species.

Seems reasonable enough… but it’s harder to explain some of the V. vulpes‘ other felid behaviors. Their young hiss and spit like kittens, while adult vocalizations include cat-like shrieks and mewing cries. And then there’s the “lateral threat display.” You know it as the classic Halloween scaredy-cat pose—back arched, fur erect. See it and you immediately think, “cat,” not “dog.”

We humans like categories. You’re hip-hop or honky-tonk, freak or geek, fact or fiction, apple or orange. Pick your pigeonhole, please, and kindly stay in it.

So what are we to do about a creature who refuses to comply with our “either/or” worldview?

If you’re an urban wildlife enthusiast, you smile and shake your head in wonder at the boundless diversity of this bright blue gem of a planet, and your luck at having landed on it.

If you’re a taxonomist, you lay awake at night, grinding your teeth.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Matt Knoth (cover); Dave C (eyes); Bernard Stam (hunting); and Dave C (napping).

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

Prodigal sons (and daughters)

next-door nature, mountain lion, cougar, dispersal, Midwest

Cougars are one of several predator species returning to historic ranges, even when they include highly developed areas (Photo: Wayne Dumbleton, Creative Commons license)

[Reprint from 2012]

Midwesterners are welcoming the return of some long-absent natives.

On second thought, “welcoming” is probably an overstatement… because just as in the famous biblical parable, not everyone is thrilled about this reunion.

A rigorous statistical study to be published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management confirmed the presence of 178 cougars (Puma concolor) in the Midwestern U.S. states of Missouri (10), Nebraska (67), North Dakota (31), Oklahoma (12), South Dakota (11), and Texas (12). Single incident reports were documented in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, historic photo, market huntingOnce found throughout North America, from the Canadian Yukon south to the Chilean Patagonia and all 48 contiguous United States, cougar populations dropped precipitously over most of their historic range following European colonization of the continent. The 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular, were hard times for all wild predators. Eradication programs aimed at protecting livestock interests were common. Bounties for cougar pelts, combined with sport hunting and a reduced prey base, lead to extirpation of the species east of the Rockies, with the exception of a small subspecies population in Florida (the Florida panther, Puma concolor corryi).

You’ve heard of a coat of many colors? How about a cat of many names? Cougars are almost interchangeably known as mountain lions and pumas, but regional variants include catamount, panther, painter, ghost cat, screamer… and that’s just the English nomenclature.The cougar has had more than it’s share of scientific names, too. Originally considered the largest member of the Felis clan, a genus that includes both the domestic cat (F. catus) and the somewhat larger jungle cat (F. chaus), in 1993 taxonomists created a new Puma group based on similar genetic structure and composed of two members—P. concolor and P. yagouaroundi, the much smaller jaguarondi, found in Central and South America. Another homecoming of sorts, I guess you could say, although whether the members are happy about their new blended family is anyone’s guess.

As the forth largest of all the world’s cats, adult cougars reach shoulder heights of between 24-35 inches (60-90 cm), nose-to-tail lengths of between 6.5-8 ft (2-2.4 m, females and males, respectively), and average weights of 100-150 lbs (42-62 kg; females and males, respectively).  It’s interesting to note that the closer a cougar lives to the equator the smaller it will likely be; the largest cougars are those found closest to the poles.

The species gets its name from the Latin word for “plain” or “one color” and that’s generally true for individual animals (as long as you ignore the lighter belly, throat and chin). At the population level there’s significant color variation, from golden to silvery-grey or even coppery-red. Cougar kittens don’t start out concolor—they are spotted with ringed tails but these markings fade as the youngsters mature.next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, dispersal, historic range, midwestAdult cougars have a sleek but muscular physique and are able climbers and strong swimmers, with exceptional leaping and powerful sprinting skills. Despite their speed, these cats are typically ambush predators that quietly stalk and then, if possible, drop silently down onto prey from above, breaking the neck or delivering a suffocating bite.

Cougars are obligate carnivores, which means to survive most of their calories must come from meat. What’s less important is whether the main course is mouse, squirrel, rabbit or raccoon, mutton, venison or veal. This failure to discriminate between wild game and domestic livestock has resulted in a long and bitter feud with ranchers that continues to this day.

The 1960s, however, were witness to a sea change in American attitudes toward the environment in general and predators specifically—at least in the urban and suburban areas that were rapidly becoming home to a majority of citizens. Public pressure to change management policies created greater legal protection for cougars and their numbers began to increase. Over subsequent decades, pressure to disperse has obviously increased as well, as western cougar habitat reaches carrying capacity.

Which brings us right back to where we started, with cougars recolonizing the center of the continent. They use what researchers call a “stepping stone” pattern. Young animals say goodbye to Mom (male cougars are absentee dads) and go looking for adventure. Travel the highways and byways, stop at an interesting locale, scout out dating and dining options then move along. Sometimes quite far along… as was the case with a male cougar who made it to Connecticut before being hit and killed by a vehicle.  Leaving home is what most young mammals, including humans, are programmed to do. I’m as good an example as any, having dispersed from Missouri at 21 to explore all three North American coasts and beyond.
next-door nature, cougar, mountain lion, dispersal, midwest
Cougars may have returned to their old stomping grounds but don’t expect fireworks or any other hoopla. As a native who left the area and has returned many times (although never to stay) I can assure you this homecoming will be a low-key affair.

We Midwesterners don’t like to call attention to ourselves, you know.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license:  Wayne Dumbleton (cover); USFWS/Public Domain (historic photo of a market cougar hunter); Anthonut (profile); Susan Shepard (climbing down); NaturesFan1226 (sharpening claws).

Hide and seek

meadow vole by manual crank

Meadow voles are sometimes referred to as mice and moles, but there is a difference (photo: Leo Papandreou, Creative Commons license)

[I’m attending a faculty retreat in a remote location this week so I decided to run this reprint from 2011. I’ll be back with new Next-Door Nature soon!]

Winter weekend mornings are perfect for catching a little extra shut-eye, but my fur-covered drill sergeant thinks it’s important to rise and shine on schedule, seven days a week. I can’t seem to dissuade him from this mindset.

There’s a snooze button on clock radios and even on my iPhone, but wire-haired fox terriers don’t come with that feature, as either standard or optional equipment. Snug in my blanket burrow, my sympathy for small, ground-dwelling creatures is renewed every time Dash excavates me from beneath the covers and insists, “GET UP! It’s time to OPEN YOUR EYES!!”

Once we’re wrapped in an appropriate number of layers and out the door he begins to search in earnest for that one perfect piece of real estate on which to make his mark. This takes some time—Dash has strong feelings about the importance of a job well-done. As we mosey along I often find myself absent-mindedly scanning the terrain as well (although I use my eyes instead of my nose, and with a different objective).

We had slightly warmer temperatures in southwestern Virginia this past weekend so there was more wildlife activity than when the mercury huddled near zero, and I noticed etchings in the dun-colored grass near our usual pathway.

meadow vole surface runway system 1

At first I thought the scribbles were the result of melting ice, but somehow that didn’t feel right. I took a closer look…

close up of meadow vole surface runway system

…and began to develop a hypothesis:  meadow voles. But if a vole was the engineer behind this winding road, where was the signature grassy-igloo nest?

meadow vole nestAha—I knew it! And not just one… there was a second nest.  I could read what had happened as if a book lay open before me. A blanket of white stuff builds up in the shadows and becomes a snowy fortress for an intrepid rodent willing to do a little mining. Food and building materials close at hand, there’s no need to venture out into the outside world of hungry predators.

Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) claim many an alias: meadow mice, field mice, round moles, meadow moles. They are neither moles nor mice, but they are more closely related to the latter than the former. Moles are insectivores. Mice and voles are rodents. Unsurprisingly, then, there are physical similarities. Voles have shorter legs and tails than mice, but it’s dentition—their teeth—that caused mammalogists to set them apart from others gnawers. The upper cheek tooth row is relatively long compared to other rodents, and the third premolar has some distinguishing characteristics. Yeah, I realize that’s an observation that borders on nit-picking but taxonomists are a crowd that believes the key to life is in the details.

As soon as Dash finished his business, I dropped him off back home so I could take a closer look—you can’t sneak up on a rodent with an inquisitive terrier in tow. Smartphone in hand, I examined the carefully arranged, perfectly spherical, palm-sized mound of dried grass and wondered… had the nest become a nursery? Had the vole family tree added another branch? I listened carefully, but if a creature was stirring it wasn’t loud enough to register against my eardrums. The weather forecast calls for a general warming trend but I wondered… would the nest prove warm enough without its outer ice-cave shell?

meadow vole runway and nest Who was I kidding? I’m a woman of the natural world and I could see the writing on the sod. What had once been a well-camouflaged hideaway now looked like a treasure map for predators. If the other companion canines in our neighborhood overlooked these nests while on their quest for bladder relief, it’s unlikely the raccoons, opossums, and even tree squirrels in the woods just beyond the pavement would be so clueless.

I’m a tender-hearted soul, I’ll admit. I’m also a biologist and, therefore, an equal-opportunity empathizer. I hate to think of vulnerable pink babies being gobbled down, but I wouldn’t like to see a starving raccoon either. Some creatures die so other may live. It’s the way of this world.

But while they are alive, in the course of going about the business of living, voles make a unique if fleeting mark on the world that can be discovered and appreciated by anyone who will open her eyes.

Thank you, Drill Sergeant Dash, sir!

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

Urban development

Raccoons by John Biehler, Creative Commons license

Just hangin’ on the corner with the homies… smart, bored, and looking for trouble (Photo: John Biehler, Creative Commons license)

[Another reprint, this one from February 2012. I’ve been traveling over the holidays and due to some family-related changes to the itinerary I haven’t had much time to write. New stuff is coming, though. I promise. And is there a better way to start a new year than with raccoons? I think not!]

World War II had barely ended when researchers began to notice a major migration under way in North America, from undeveloped and agricultural areas to cities and suburbs.  Now, in the early 21st Century, the urban population is over 20 times that of the early-1940s—in some places, more than 50% higher than the surrounding rural landscape. With growth has come all the problems that naturally occur as a community becomes overcrowded: housing shortages and squatting; dumpster diving; increases in theft and property damage; sanitation-related public health concerns. sometimes, we all need a little help getting through the day... by jmtimages, creative commons licenseAll of this has a tendency to make established residents less tolerant of immigrants, even when the new neighbors are clever, ambitious, hard-working, good parents, and undeniably cute as all get-out.

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) may be new to the urban scene, but… oh, you probably thought I was talking about people, right?

That’s understandable, I suppose. Just about everything I’ve said to this point could apply to humans as well. There’s no denying that Homo sapiens is now an urban species. The tipping point (>50% of humans living in areas of high population density) came around 2007. Each year, more of us are lured by the promise of better-paying jobs, more housing options, access to social services and chain restaurants, bigger shopping malls, a larger dating pool, and high-speed Internet connections. In other cases, concrete tentacles sprawl past the city limit signs to grab up and devour surrounding countryside, forcing rural residents to choose between relocating to land that hasn’t yet caught developers’ eyes and becoming accidental townies.

urban raccoons by liz west ccThe “built environment” is intended to meet the wants and needs of our own kind, but raccoons may be better suited for what we’ve constructed than the target real estate market.

Raccoon Nation, a documentary that aired in the U.S. on the PBS “Nature” series, and in Canada on the CBC News Network series “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki,” makes a strong case in support of that thesis.* As filmmakers follow the furry urbanites in their native North America (including Chicago and Toronto—known as the “raccoon capital of the world”), as well as in Germany and Japan (where they were intentionally introduced), it’s hard not to notice the similarities between those who construct cities and those who exploit them and their work.

How alike are we? Let’s build this case from the ground up.

raccoon paw and human handFeet—humans and raccoons are both plantigrade. In other words, we walk with the entire foot planted firmly on the dirt… make that asphalt. There are other examples (elephants, kangaroos, and pandas come to mind), but the majority of mammals walk on their tippy toes (more on this in a future blog post).

Hands—okay, technically raccoons don’t have hands, they have two more feet. Or you could say they do have hands but they just happen to use theirs for walking. That’s all semantics, though. Look closely and you’ll see one reason it’s so hard to invent a raccoon-proof container—a paw that looks a lot like a palm and a digit that’s as close to the functionality of an opposable thumb as it gets for non-primates.

dumpster raccoons by zeetz jones ccStomachs—the best way to avoid starvation long enough to pass your genes along to the next generation is to cultivate the ability to eat anything and everything you can cram in your mouth that contains a calorie. The human diet is astonishingly diverse, and urban raccoons gobble up everything we leave on our plates and toss in the trash… plus a lot of stuff we would rather not eat. Some researchers suggest that omnivory played a crucial role in human development—by providing a more consistent and more nutritious diet, and because finding potential new foods, determining whether they are edible, and figuring out how to eat them pushed our brains to create new neural pathways. Which brings us to…

Brains—raccoons and people also share a high level of behavioral plasticity, a term that implies the ability to change. Flexibility, adaptability, and life-long learning (well… we both have that capacity; whether we use it or not is another issue). With no email to check, no AYSO games to attend, no need to commute, and only one significant predator (those commuting automobiles), raccoons have plenty of time for learning. Each day is devoted to DIY personal growth, lifestyle enhancement, and honing useful skills, such as…

  • how to turn a garbage can or dumpster into a convenience store;
  • how to tight-rope walk a fence (great for avoiding the neighbor’s dog);
  • how to shimmy down a tree branch onto a rooftop;
  • how to turn a loose shingle on that roof into an attic entrance;
  • how to turn that attic into a cozy, rent-free nursery.

Whether you find these critters endearing or exasperating, it’s never fun to clean up refuse that’s strewn across your yard, and there’s no denying they can and do cause damage to property. Ironically, our attempts to outwit them are molding these savvy metropolitan mammals to better fit the world we built for ourselves. And here’s the other reason I will never invest my hard-earned money in some inventor’s guaranteed raccoon-proof fill-in-the-blank: because no human being will ever have as much time to devote to keeping a raccoon out of something as raccoons, often working in teams, are willing and able to devote to cracking the code. By trying to thwart them, we’re simply selecting for the traits that make a more worthy opponent and a better urban animal. An über-coon, if you like.

bipedal raccoons by David~O ccBefore you know it, they’ll be standing upright in line right beside us at Starbucks, waiting for a Venti Caramel Macchiato to help them wake up for the night shift.

Urban raccoons share another, disturbing commonality with their human neighbors—the toll exacted by easy access to a plentiful, high fat, high sugar, high calorie diet. Diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease may do more to limit their numbers, in the long run, than all the Hav-A-Heart trap-toting home and business owners, urban wildlife biologists, and nuisance wildlife control operators combined. Cleverness and dexterity are no match for the fearful symmetry of a predatory heart attack or kidney failure.

No wonder they call it the urban jungle.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: John Biehler (3 sepia raccoons); jmtimages (mother & child); Liz West (supper club); Stuti Sakhalkar (human handprint); Jon Stogner (raccoon pawprint); Zeetz Jones (dumpster ); David~O (bipedal).