Consider, if you will, the sartorial importance of tail attire. To bare, or not to bare… that is the question. The answer might seem to be of little consequence, but for marsupials living in cities and suburbs some strategically placed fur can make all the difference.
That’s because naked tails make people nervous. I blame this bias on the Black Death. Of course, now we know the true culprit in that famous pandemic of 1347 was not the rat, but the infected fleas that hitched a ride on those hapless rodents. Since standards of human hygiene at the time were rather… haphazard, shall we say, there were plenty of opportunities for the insects to hop onto a handy human. We may not remember why rodents make us uneasy but the bias remains to this day.
How else do you square our acceptance and even advocacy of squirrels and chipmunks, for example, with our abhorrence of rats and mice? As Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame so wisely observed, “A squirrel is just a rat with a cuter outfit.” Clothes make the man and the mammal.
The same could be said of the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and its cousin the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Both are omnivorous marsupials of similar size and weight. However, the former has a hirsute terminus while the latter’s prehensile appendage is as furless as a snake. Brushtails are the source of much frustration among Aussie homeowners who, nonetheless, demonstrate great fondness for this plush-toy wannabe. The North American model does not enjoy a similar degree of affection from its human neighbors (to put it mildly).
Is this inequity mere coincidence? I think not—if you ask me it’s blatant bare-tail bigotry!
Personally, I find the adult Virginia opossum to be a handsome creature and their young ones winsome and endearing. But—let’s face it—we only have one marsupial here in the U.S., so there’s no competition for best in show.
It’s a different story in Australia, where possums* and the closely related gliders account for approximately 30 of the continent’s 140 marsupial species. Brushtails are attractive animals by any aesthetic standard, with thick, luxurious fur that ranges in color from silver-gray to cream, brown, black, and even red, depending on the subspecies.
As the name implies, the common brushtail is a familiar resident along much of coastal Australia including the major metropolitan areas such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. Suited to a wide variety of habitats, from rainforests to semiarid regions, this semi-arboreal (tree-dwelling) possum has adapted readily to urban life, trading traditional tree cavities for a home under the eaves.
Brushtails can breed at any time during the year, but there are two peak seasons—from September to November (southern hemisphere spring) and from March to May (Australian autumn). Following a 16-18 day gestation, the female gives birth to a single blind and extremely underdeveloped child who scrambles unaided up to her pouch. Once inside, it will attach to a teat and remain there for another four or five months, after which it will either stay home at the den while Mom goes out to forage or ride along on her back, sharing any groceries she finds while learning what and where to eat. Male possums are not involved in child-rearing.
Human or non-human—if you want to succeed in the urban jungle, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a pretty face. Brushtails have large ears perched on a rounded head, a pink nose and dark liquid eyes… and they don’t seem at all shy about working their assets to full advantage. They may have learned a thing or two from eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), introduced to Australia sometime between 1900 and the 1930s—there’s just something about watching a furry creature nosh while holding the treat with two hands that people find irresistible, apparently, because hand-feeding fruit treats is a popular past-time.
There’s a down side to this Down Under hospitality, though. With warm, dry sleeping berths and plenty to eat, brushtails haven’t found it necessary to step lightly on the Earth… or in the attic either. Their heavy-footed nocturnal comings and goings and loud vocalizations are responsible for plenty of sleepless nights and lost tempers. Brushtails often wake the neighborhood dogs as they wander through the neighborhood via utility poles and fencing, creating the same kind of hard feelings directed at Virginia opossums on the other side of the globe, for the exact same reason.
When not snacking on handouts from the produce section they will munch on magnolias, roses, and other selections from the flower garden as well as on eucalyptus and other trees—Aussies do not consider this one of the brushtail’s more appealing qualities. And, like their northern hemisphere kin, brushtails will dumpster dive and help themselves to the back porch pet food smorgasbord, resulting in much hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing by Homo sapiens.
Yet, somehow, brushtails seem largely immune to the vilification of their less charismatic cousins. To the cute (and furry-tailed) go the spoils, I guess—it’s an all too familiar tail and decidedly unjust. But as my mother (and probably yours too) always said, “Who told you life is fair?”
One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t a ‘possum.
[This one is for Barb at Passionate About Pets and People. Thanks for your support and encouragement!]
* Although both are marsupials, it is commonly accepted that the Americas have opossums (colloquially referred to as ‘possums) while Australia has possums. Yes, it is confusing. No, I don’t know why or how this came to be. Even in the 21st Century there remain great unsolved mysteries.
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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: David Midgley (brushtail eating an orange); mugley (mother and baby); and play4smee (attic brushtail).
Add another accomplishment to my resume as official wildlife guru and animal-vehicle biologist for NPR’s Car Talk—the 14th most popular radio show on the U.S. airwaves and the 6th most popular if you exclude shows that feature a some kind of shock-jock (and that, I’m sure hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi would agree, is pretty shocking).
No April fooling. In addition to answering questions for their Wildlife & Your Car FAQ page and helping a Wyoming caller understand why horses consider the hood of her car an appropriate alternative to chewing gum, I’m now a guest blogger on the site as well.
Wrangers Escort Gremlins shares some listener tips for preventing and humanely discouraging packrats and other rodents from turning your engine compartment into an apartment and an ingenious method for convincing snakes (pet pythons as well as serpent strangers) to vacate the interior of your preferred form of motorized transportation. Why wait? Click and Clack on over to the blog site before you find yourself staring into a pair of beady eyes or on the receiving end of a forked-tongue raspberry. And while you’re there, feel free to add comments on my post and offer any tips you may have for dealing with vehicle-wildlife conflicts. You never know… maybe your advice will be featured further down the road.
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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 Tom Fischer Photography for making his work available through a Creative Commons license.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans throw out 34 million tons of food each year—an average of 93 thousand tons per day, and some experts estimate the amount triples on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food for thought, while making another trip to the garbage can following our national day of feasting. Waste not, want not… so the proverb goes. But does anything digestible really ever go to waste? Only if you think food is wasted when humans don’t consume it.
We live on a planet where, if someone can eat it, bet your bottom dollar someone does eat it. Within a biotic community there are three basic trophic (feeding) levels: producers, consumers, and decomposers. Producers transform energy from the Sun into sugar (i.e. food)—that’s the work of green plants. Primary consumers eat the plants, secondary or tertiary consumers eat the animals that eat the plants. Decomposers transform both dead plants and animals back into their abiotic components (e.g., water, nitrogen, CO2). All three groups work together to create food, move it through the community, and return the abiotics back to the environment for another trip through the system.
Food travels through the community in food chains and food webs. A food chain is a simplistic model, a subset, for illustrating the relationship between a community’s trophic levels. For example:
Sun > violets > caterpillars > black-capped vireo > sharp-shinned hawk > black vulture > bacteria
The food web is a more realistic and complex model of the relationship between members of the biotic community. It takes into consideration the fact that most consumers eat more than one thing—vireos don’t just eat caterpillars, they eat a variety of insects, insect larvae, and spiders; sharp-shinned hawks eat all kinds of songbirds, plus some small mammals, and an occasional large insect; black vultures will eat almost any kind of meat, although they seem to prefer it well “aged.” A species can, and usually does, belong to more than one chain within the web. Very little is wasted, and everything that lives eventually takes a turn at eating and being eaten (with the exception of modern humans in the “developed” world, primarily due to our funereal laws and customs).
A large portion of the human population may have disentangled themselves from food webs, but we remain an indirect source of nutrition for many non-human animals, and not just those we feed intentionally, such as our companion animals and livestock. Easy access to consistently plentiful human-produced food waste is a primary reason behind the success of many wild species in urban and suburban habitats. Garbage is also one of the main sources of conflict between wildlife and humans. This is due, largely, to the fact that—and I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say this—the human race has some definite control issues when it comes to food.
The concept of owning food seems to be uniquely human, as is the idea that we should be able to stipulate who gets access to calories that we think of as “ours,” including future-food (crops and livestock), faux-food (from Petco or Wild Birds Unlimited), and former-food (garbage).
Skeptical? How many times have you heard a bird-feeding acquaintance complain when squirrels invite themselves to dinner? Or even when the wrong kind of bird drops in for a snack? How about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which spends millions of dollars annually on research and other efforts to reduce or eliminate wild species that like to avail themselves to a helping of the harvest? Consider, also, the time, money, and energy spent trying to keep wild creatures out of garbage cans and dumpsters, so their contents can be transported to the landfill and buried to prevent other non-humans from turning it into a meal.
Of course, there are valid reasons for managing food waste, including aesthetics and hygiene. Garbage stinks, and no one wants to live in the middle of a kitchen midden. You may be willing to share your cast off cuisine with resourceful furred and feathered recyclers, but human neighbors tend to be less than forgiving about garbage-strewn lawns. Picking chicken bones and greasy bits of aluminum foil out of the Zoysia grass isn’t all that fun; even less so when you’re running late for work. It’s mornings like these when homeowners begin to formulate battle plans.
It’s a war we’ll never win. At its core, this is a first-come-first-serve, finders- keepers-losers-weepers kind of world, especially when it comes to food. Sure, a brief détente may be achieved through an exclusion technology arms race. Some may even seek vigilante justice against an individual opossum or raccoon, a flock of seagulls or crows.
Victory will be short-lived. There will always be more where those came from because our leftovers are the raw materials from which the next generation of wild dumpster divers are created. Urban wildlife are adaptive, creative, resourceful, and fecund. They are adept exploiters of the humans with whom they live.
Still, in most ways it’s a symbiotic relationship. They take the food we no longer want and, in exchange, add to our quality of life in ways that are easy to recognize and hard to measure. Moreover, by refusing to accept that we are masters of the universe they keep us humble. And for that, I am thankful.
© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available for use through a Creative Commons license: Rémi Lanvin (red squirrel); Jerry Oldenettel (herring gull); and Gary Oppenheim (opossum).
Could there be a holiday more representative of the true nature of American culture than Thanksgiving? Considered the least commercial of our national holidays, yet the true theme of the day is consumption. Family, food, and football are all available in quantities large enough to cause a bit of indigestion. Moreover, the entire event is just a warm up, an appetizer that signals the start of a dietary and retail feeding frenzy.
A turkey is the holiday’s traditional mascot, not to mention the main course, but I’d like to suggest a different and even more appropriate talisman for a day devoted to stuffing one’s face—the garter snake (Thamnophis spp.).
Thought to resemble the fanciful bands that held up men’s and ladies’ hosiery in a pre-elastic era, garter snakes are as American as pumpkin pies and pigskins. The most widely distributed reptile genus in North America, you’ll find them slithering from sea to shining sea across 49 states, including Alaska—the only snake able to make that claim. Remarkable in their ability to adjust to a wide range of habitats, garter snakes live on purple mountain ranges, in amber waves of grain, across the fruited plains, and everywhere in-between.
The genus includes 26 species and dozens of subspecies. Most include the “garter” tag as part of their common name, but the western ribbon snake (Thamnophis proximus) and its subspecies are part of the tribe too. Morphologically diverse—even within a species—the unifying theme is one or more stripes that run the length of the body (with or without spots). Some, like the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), favor an understated tan or brown background with yellow stripes. Other color combos may include: red-orange, black, and creamy yellow (coast garter snake, Thamnophis elegans terrestris); black with a pale teal green stripe and red spots (red-spotted garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus); and even a striking electric blue paired with black (Puget Sound garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii).
Garter snakes are not picky eaters, and this characteristic has also helped them to spread out across the continent. These legless wonders will eat just about member of the Animal Kingdom they can catch and devour, including slugs, earthworms, fish, frogs and toads, lizards and other snakes, birds (including their eggs and nestlings), and small mammals, including rodents.
You’ve heard the phrase “His eyes were bigger than his stomach”? Well, that’s never really a problem for an animal whose stomach, along with the skin, muscles, ribs, throat, and mouth, can expand to accommodate up to 20% of its body weight in a single swallow. Imagine the kind of advantage you’d have in an eating contest if you could loosen your jaw, open wide (150° compared to 45° for the average human), and send a whole turkey down the hatch! Chewing? Why bother? Snakes don’t. They don’t have the choppers for it, although some have a few small teeth that curve toward the back of the mouth and help the reptile “walk” the upper and lower jaws over and around their meal. Concerned about how to breath while a roasted 30 pound tom or hen is passing through your gullet? No worries… if you’re a snake your windpipe is located near the front of your mouth and can move out of the way. If you’re not a snake (and I mean that literally—your in-laws’ opinion doesn’t count)… you may want to reconsider using a knife and fork.
Still, when your favorite team is lining up for the opening kickoff on the 55” LCD HDTV with Surround Sound, and Grandma is standing between you and the game with a third helping plate and a look that says responding to her offering with “no thanks, I couldn’t eat another bite” may not kill her, but it will significantly shorten her life—you have to admit, the ability to swallow food whole would sure come in handy.
© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their photos available for use through a Creative Commons license: Frank Miles/USFWS (2 common garter snakes); randomtruth (coast garter snake); Jonathan Crowe (red-spotted garter snake); and Dan Dzurisin (Purget Sound garter snake).
Sinatra was wrong.
I’m sorry Ol’ Blue Eyes, but the line that says if you can make it in a big city you can make it anywhere doesn’t hold true for everyone. For a lot of wild species, especially those who can tolerate living close to human beings, Gotham—and nearly every other town and suburb—has some significant advantages over small-town and no-town life.
Let’s start with the basics. All living creatures need, at minimum, four things to survive: air, water, food, and space. Air is equally available in most habitats (generally speaking), so one place is about as good as another when you’re looking to put down roots. City mouse, country mouse—neither has an oxygen advantage. Call it a draw.
However, finding something to fill your stomach and quench your thirst can be a full-time job in undeveloped areas, while living near people pretty much guarantees that #2 and #3 on that list will be plentiful. Parched? Even in arid regions, even during a drought, water is much easier to find in the city. Think birdbaths, hoses, fountains, sprinkler systems, swimming pools, park ponds and lakes. Chalk one up for the city critter.
Hungry? You’ve got your birdseed, your suet, your stale white bread—people hand that stuff out like there’s no tomorrow. Then there’s the never-ending supply of second-hand snack dispensers, available in medium (trash cans), large (dumpsters), and big-gulp (landfills). Plus you’ve got your “repurposed” vittles—garden produce, fruit trees and bushes, grass seed, expensive landscaping plants, pet food… and pets. Advantage urbanites.
The one thing that’s hard to come by for both human and non-human city residents is quality real estate. Actually, it’s the fact that food and water are so bountiful that creates the wild housing crisis. In “natural” habitats, these resources are finite so the creatures living there vigorously defend access to them by establishing territories to exclude new residents, especially during breeding season. In the built environment, as illustrated above, food and water are, for all practical purposes, limitless. The carrying capacity of an urban or suburban landscape is much higher than surrounding undeveloped habitat, in large part because food, in all its myriad forms, is removed from rural areas and trucked into the city on a daily basis.
More food = more critters… but the space available for nesting and denning sites doesn’t expand at a similar pace. In fact, development removes many natural denning and nesting sites, so finding a nice traditional home takes more effort. Is it any wonder that urban wildlife—comprised primarily of the most adaptable of species—start thinking creatively about dryer vents, chimneys, attics, garages, decks, and sheds?
Now, most of the people I meet fall into one of two major camps regarding wildlife: “love-love-love-it,” and “live-and-let-live.” It’s only after a human-wildlife conflict of some kind has occurred, usually resulting in an expense for the human, that people start bad-mouthing their furry, feathery, and scaly neighbors.
Prevention is the best conflict resolution strategy I know. Autumn is when many animals begin to look for a place to hide out from old man winter, and sunny fall days are also a great time to get outside and tackle those wild-proofing maintenance and repair chores around the house and garden. Once you’ve made it more difficult for squatters to move in, staying on friendly terms with next-door nature is a breeze. There’s a nice little bonus for doing your chores, too—by sealing up all those potential entryways you’ll keep out the cold winds, reducing your heating bill and your carbon footprint. Such a deal!
- Remove overhanging tree limbs that serve as bridges to your attic and chimney
- Ask a professional to cap your chimneys (and while s/he is up there, might as well have them do a little sweeping to reduce the chance of a flue fire)
- Cover all attic vents with caps made of ½” mesh hardware cloth
- Replace any loose shingles and rotting soffit and fascia boards (great time to check for evidence of termites, too)
- Fill any hole ≥ ¼” in diameter with calk, hardware cloth, or galvanized sheet metal
- Seal gaps around window air conditioners, cables, and pipes
- Remove firewood and brush piles from next to buildings
For more helpful instructions, along with a wealth of information on humane methods for preventing and solving all sorts of human-wildlife conflicts, I highly recommend a book titled Wild Neighbors by John Hadidian of the Humane Society of the United States, available new and used from all the usual online booksellers.
P.S. Homes are but one venue where human-wildlife conflicts occur. To hear about a few others, check out last week’s With Good Reason broadcast/podcast, Beyond Campfires and Cookies. The focus of the second feature story is none other than yours truly.