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).

Stick in the mud

red-eared slider by Charles Lam cc

[This reprint was originally published on January 14, 2012.] 

Shorter days and Jack Frost nipping at your nose means it’s the start of the serious season, filled with snowplows, tire chains, and 10-pound sacks of clay litter that will never feel a kitty’s caress.  In many parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s a long slog through snow, sleet, and freezing rain to get from December to daffodils.

Understandably, we look to Nature for role models. Native people aren’t unique in their ability to draw a connection between human and non-human animals—Madison Avenue is especially canny at choosing charismatic creatures to impersonate our enviable and endearing (or at least humorous) characteristics.  Particularly at this time of year, when mercury can’t seem to bootstrap its way past 32°F, you’ll find a lot of furry sales reps pitching warm and cozy wares in magazines and newspapers, on television and online. I assume the general idea behind this trend is that raw, gray days bring out the hibernator in all of us mammals.

Not to split hairs, but that’s not technically correct. Humans don’t hibernate, but we do go through some behavioral changes at this time of year, at least so far as jobs, school, and the other routines and rituals of modern life allow. times square blizzard by Asterio Tecson ccFunny, how those cold weather coping strategies make humans look strangely reptilian. Just watch—next time the Weather Channel predicts a cold front, with or without a “wintery mix,” check out all the necks and heads tucked back into Gortex shells, peeking out from fleece hoodies, swaths of scarves, and turned up coat collars as they hunch toward the warmth of home. Do you think they look more like bears, or turtles?

Now, there’s a bit of Class warfare at play here because homeothermic (body temperature largely uninfluenced by the surrounding environmental) hominid mammals aren’t often flattered by comparisons to scaly, poikilothermic (body temperature influence by the surrounding environment) cold-bloods. Knowing this, and well aware that you, dear reader, will read my claim with considerable skepticism, I’ve got an example ready to back me up: a familiar and easily identifiable semi-aquatic turtle called the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).Even nature neophytes will immediately recognize this species, a common resident of lakes and ponds in urban and suburban parks, as well as pet stores. Shell, legs, head and tail are inscribed with stripes and nested ovals of green and yellow, the “elegant script” referenced in its Latin name (although the vibrant colors do tend to fade somewhat with age and a thick coat of algae).

The red “ear” on either side of the head distinguishes the slider from all other North American turtle species and allows for a quick and definitive ID as they sunbathe on stones and logs. “Quick” being the operative word here; sliders don’t hear well, but they are very sensitive to vibrations that alert them to the presence of potential predators, and they can slip back into the safety of the water with surprising speed.

In the wild, the slider’s life cycle begins with courtship and mating as early as March or as late as July, depending on the region and the weather. Subsequently, the female heads for dry land to deposit a clutch of eggs, excavating with her hind legs to create a nest in the soil. Then she turns for home with nary a backward glance, and the turtles-to-be she leaves behind are on their own from that point forward. Two or three months later, depending on the average ambient temperature, hatchlings emerge from the nest and set out to conquer the world.

Most of them don’t make it past the first year—such is Testudine life… and death. Those who live to see their 2nd birthday, however, can reasonably expect a couple decades of celebrations, getting bigger with each passing year (females reach 10-13 in (25-33 cm), while males max out at 8-10 in (20-25 cm)).

In addition to predation, freezing temperatures are one of the biggest barriers to longevity that young turtles must navigate in the wild (HA! I’ll bet you thought I’d lost my original train of thought on winter and hibernation, didn’t you?).  No one expects to see a slider in a snowstorm, so it’s natural to assume they use sleep as a survival strategy.  Hey, it works for two of the most diverse Orders on Earth—Chiroptera (bats) and Rodentia (rodents)—so why not?sunning r-eared sliders by Alan Vernon ccBut reptiles take a different road.

Brumation is a period of decreased activity, but it doesn’t involve the extreme metabolic changes that occur during hibernation. ‘Round about October, as temperatures dip below 50°F, sliders begin to settle in at the bottom of their preferred body of water, or in some cases under stream banks and tree stumps, and just… hang out. They’re less social, they move a little more slowly, sleep a little later, watch more television (I’m sure there must be a turtle equivalent), and generally feel lethargic and unmotivated. On warmer days, they’ll drag themselves up from the depths to stretch their limbs, have some lunch, and catch some rays with a few friends… but as soon as old Sol goes into hiding they follow suit, retreating into their shells to become stick-in-the-muds until spring.

Social commentators have come up with any number of marketable catch phrases to describe the human desire to turn our backs on a less than hospitable world—cocooning, burrowing, vegging out, even hibernating. The admen (and women) may argue that it doesn’t have the same sizzle, but what we’re really talking about here is brumating.

Sound like anyone 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; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Charles Lam, Asterio Tecson, Jim, the PhotographerAlan Vernon, and Jack Wolf.

Us against the world

coyotes by larry lamsa creative commons license

Coyote couples are as destined to misfortune as any literary star-crossed lovers, but a lot more reproductively successful (Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons license)

[In honor of my visit to New Mexico, during which I’ve had far less time to write than expected, a reprint from February 2012.] 

Boy meets girl.

It’s such a familiar story I don’t even need to spell out the rest, right?

Ah, but folks do love their stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

Ok, ok… so a male and a female find one another.  They “meet-cute” (the classic contrivance of romantic comedies), or through the efforts of micro-managing parents (the historically classic approach), or online, or in one of a million completely unremarkable-to-everyone-else ways—the “how” doesn’t matter (except to the starry-eyed pair, of course). A spark catches and a bond is formed… perhaps by rite (mating or marriage rituals, depending on one’s religion, politics, or species), or at first sight, or possibly over time. They find a home, start a family, and live happily enough ever after (fairy tales tend to gloss over the details of that last part).

It’s a comforting, feel-good saga but it’s not the stuff of legends, or of Pulitzer Prize winning novels, or Oscar accolade dramas. No, for that we need a star-crossed couple, thwarted by outside forces. We need Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff.  Edward and Bella. A pair of coyotes.

coyote in grass by trey ratcliff, creative commons licenseWyle E. and the Mrs. may not be icons of romantic literature, but one would be hard pressed to find couples more destined to misfortune than those of the Canis latrans clan. It’s all here—blood and poison, class and caste, honor and artifice, cruelty and revenge… and then some. After all, the persecution most luckless lovers experience only lasts three Acts, or about 100,000 words. Coyotes have been wearing a target since shortly after European settlers, and their livestock, came to North America in the early 15th Century.

Many species have disappeared into extinction under far less pressure yet, despite hundreds of man-hours and billions of dollars spent annually to wipe coyotes off the face of the Earth, as a species they continue be fruitful and multiply. To survive. To thrive.

urban coyote by ken slade creative commons licenseUnlike their close relative the wolf (Canis lupus), the coyote’s range has expanded in response to human development and programs to exterminate wolves, a key natural competitor. Prior to 1700, coyotes were almost solely creatures of the prairies and deserts of the central United States and Mexico. Now they can be found as far west and north as Alaska, in all but the northernmost reaches of Canada, across the entire “lower 48,” as well as much of Central America, and in habitats as diverse as protected wildlands and urban centers.

How is this possible? Chalk it up to intelligence and adaptability. Behaviorally, coyotes are as flexible as a yoga instructor regarding everything from where to live, what to eat, and even family size and composition.

By 12 months of age—and there’s about a 60% chance a pup will survive his or her first year—coyotes are old enough to start looking for a mate. They don’t always leave home or settle down right away, though. Adults may live alone (for at least part of their life), in pairs, or in packs comprised of an alpha male and female and their offspring from previous years.  Once mated, they form perennial, monogamous bonds; however, on average, “till death do we part” is only a couple of years. In captivity, coyotes can live about as long as domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)—13 to 15 years—but in the wild few live to see their third birthday. Dying young is a familiar theme for the romantically doomed, be they canid or primate.

coyote pups by zac garrett creative commons licenseEveryone in the family unit—Mom, Dad, and any older sibs who haven’t left home—pitches in to rear the current generation of pups; it takes a village to raise coyote kids, too. Litters average four to seven pups, although—and here’s another example of that flexibility I mentioned earlier—coyotes litter size goes up or down based on how much food is available and how many of their brethren live in the neighborhood. In other words, when humans remove (almost always by some lethal method) coyotes from an area, causing the population density to fall, the next breeding season will see a rise in the number of pups per litter. And in the case of the loss of an alpha pair, the remaining pack members may disperse, find mates, and begin raising pups of their own, so the area ends up with more breeding pairs than before any effort was made to reduce their numbers. One could argue that, however counter-intuitive it may first appear, extermination programs are a great way to increase your coyote crop.

last laugh by matt knoth creative commons licenseWell, what do you know? Play your natural selection cards right, and it’s possible to turn the tables on those who try to sabotage your relationship and have the last laugh—talk about a plot twist!

Perhaps the folks who try to control coyotes would find it helpful to read a few Victorian romances. Then again, anyone who’s tried to keep besotted teenagers apart should understand that when it comes to ill-fated lovers, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Come to think of it, maybe Cyrano and Roxanne, Tristan and Isolde, and Jack and Rose should have taken a lesson or two from a couple of cunning characters dressed in fur. They may not have cheated death, but they’ve managed to leave behind generations of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to tell their tale.  From Once Upon a Time to…

The End.

EPILOGUE:  Lest anyone think I’m unfairly choosing sides in the war against coyotes and other wild predators, readers should know that I understand the narrative presented above is not the whole story. I used a literary device to focus attention on a particular aspect of the coyote’s natural history—pair-bonding and social structure—and I intend to return to this and other species featured on this blog again and again over time, as is necessary to flesh out these complex and fascinating creatures.

While I may not always agree with their production practices, I don’t begrudge farmers and ranchers their right to make a living and protect their investment. I’m an omnivore who depends on the plant and animal foods they produce. However, I do find it strange that many who own livestock will point to the fact that coyotes, wolves, and foxes kill cows, sheep, and chickens as proof of their inherent cruelty, and as justification for implementing lethal control measures—even though many, if not most, of these domestic animals are being raised as food and will eventually be killed by the same humans who cry foul when the grim reaper appears on four feet in a pasture instead of on two at the processing plant.

As a biologist, I know that life feeds on other life. That’s the way of the world and I don’t see it changing any time soon. I just think we should be honest about our motives (and I’m aware that I risk offending some readers with what I’m about to say): It’s not that we don’t want that lamb or calf to be killed and eaten; it’s that we want to be the only ones who get to eat. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed, because it perpetuates the idea that people are somehow removed from the natural world.

Here in the U.S., we’re already paying to have both livestock and predators on our public and private lands, and have done so for a long time. But the true cost of tonight’s meatloaf or hot wings isn’t visible on the grocery store receipt, in the form of the higher meat prices livestock producers might charge to pass along the cost of losses to predation (or non-lethal prevention methods). Instead, part of the price of our food is disguised, hidden as taxes that support inefficient, ineffective, and often brutally cruel control programs. Personally, I prefer to know how much my dinner really costs, financially and ecologically.

You may disagree, as is your right.

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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: Larry Lamsa (two coyotes and a pup); Trey Ratcliff (coyote in grass);  Ken Slade (coyote on the street); Zac Garrett (coyote pups); and  Matt Knoth (last laugh).

Hops-itality

pacific tree frog (photo: jacki dougan, creative commons license)

Frogs, including this Pacific tree frog, could use a little help as they try to survive in the 21st Century (Photo: Jacki Dougan, Creative Commons license)

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Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson asked the world to consider a simple question: imagine springtime without birdsong.

Silent Spring addressed an unlikely subject for what was to become a best-selling book—the effect of DDT and other pesticides that persist in body tissue, becoming more and more concentrated as they move up the food chain (a process known as biomagnification). Yet nearly everyone could easily understand that their own quality of life would be diminished should they step outside one sunny May morning to find the dawn chorus had been replaced with a deafening stillness.

green treefrog (Photo: sarowen, Creative Commons license)Thanks to Carson’s courageous stand—and the subsequent public outcry—songbirds and other avian species dodged a bullet.* Now there’s another set of wild voices in the spring choir who could use a hand—the amphibians.

More specifically, frogs.

There are now over 1,800 threatened amphibian species. At least 168 species have gone extinct in the last two decades due to factors such as habitat loss, water pollution, disease, climate change, and invasive species. Additionally, many areas in the U.S. have recently experienced severe drought, and England is currently experiencing its worst drought in decades.

Many frog species depend on ephemeral (temporary) water sources for breeding since they don’t support fish that would eat the eggs and tadpoles. If the ephemeral pools dry up before the young amphibians have time to metamorphose, or if there isn’t enough rain to create pools in the first place, it can result in a missed generation… and a fragile future for frogs.

Poison Dart Frog Sitting on a Leaf (Photo: MoleSon2, Creative Commons license)Kermit the Frog spoke from experience—it isn’t easy being green… or yellow, or red, or black, or blue.

Frogs are essential to the health of wetland, riparian, and coastal ecosystems. Tadpoles feed on algae, preventing blooms that can reduce oxygen levels. Frogs consume millions of insects each year, including mosquitoes and ticks carrying diseases that threaten the health of humans, their companion animals, and livestock. A wide variety of wild mammals (raccoons, opossums), birds (herons, hawks, geese), and reptiles (snakes) rely on frogs as part of their diet.

April 28th was the 4th Annual Save the Frogs Day, established to raise awareness and funds for amphibian conservation. Since many frog species are comfortable living in cities and suburbs, I thought I would pass along suggestions for homeowners who would like to offer some hoppin’ hospitality, courtesy of yesterday’s event organizers:

1.    A Wet Welcome Mat

Fall and spring are the best times to create a permanent oasis for frogs. Kits are available at many garden and home improvement stores, or simply use a container or dig a hole that is deep enough (at least 1 foot at one end) and line it with sand or a flexible plastic liner before adding water.  Keep in mind, you must provide a sloped ramp so the frogs can get out easily.  Slope the liner or build one out of rocks to gradually allow the frogs to get to ground level or out of the pond. (Some nurseries also have floating devices for swimming pools that can allow amphibians who might jump in a way out.)

Don’t clean the water. In fact, add floating plants such as lily pads or leaves to provide cover. Refill slowly and carefully if water levels get low.

Don’t put fish in your pond, as they will munch on your tadpoles and frogs.

2.    Shade & Shelter

Place your pond in a shady spot, preferably surrounded with native plants to attract a tasty bug feast of ladybugs, bumblebees, and other pollinators to also help beautify your yard. You can stack some rocks or turn over a half of a flowerpot beside the rim of the pond to give your frogs a place to sit and eat their lunch as it flies or crawls by.

glass frog (Photo: Josiah Townsend, Creative Commons license)3.    Go Organic

Don’t use pesticides or weed killers. Amphibians absorb water—and any chemicals in it—through their skin. Pesticides and weed killers can run off from land into water and can be lethal to amphibians. Certain weed killers also can alter hormones, changing male frogs into females and reducing the potential of frogs to perpetuate thriving populations.

4.    Patience, Grasshopper

Don’t be tempted to relocate frogs from other areas or stock your pond from pet stores. You may introduce diseases or invasive species and domestically raised frogs will not necessarily adapt to wild habitats. If you build it, frogs will come.

5.    Look & Listen

Become a frog watcher. You will appreciate these wonderful animals more if you can see them in action, and you can help their conservation in the process. The National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Watcher program allows citizen scientists to contribute to a growing database of North American wildlife, learn about the animals living in their region, and build a printable checklist of sightings.

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* Although the focus of this post is frogs, wild birds still face many challenges and threats to their long-term survival. You can check out one such hazard here. Others will be addressed in upcoming NDN posts.

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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: [from top to bottom] Jackie Dougan (Pacific tree frog in rose); sarowen (green treefrog); Sascha Gebhardt (poison dart frog); ucumari (bullfrog); Josiah Townsend (glass frog).

Bright-eyed and brushy-tailed

common brushtail possum (Photo: David Midgley, Creative Commons license)

Common brushtail possums know how to work the cute (Photo: David Midgley, Creative Commons license)

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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.

brushtail mother and child (Photo: mugley, Creative Commons license)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.

attic brushtail (Photo: play4smee, Creative Commons license)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!]

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* 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.

Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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).

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)

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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… wait a minute. You thought I was talking about people?

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 shown recently 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. That’s semantics. 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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* The full hour-long episode of Raccoon Nation, along with interesting behind-the-scenes extras, can now be viewed online.

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There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “Sign me up!”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

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NOTE:  As many of you know (or have figured out), I started this blog a little over a year ago because I’m committed to reconnecting people with the natural world, starting with the wildlife in their own backyard, neighborhood, county, and city or town.  My goal for 2012 is to increase the number of subscribed readers from ~150 (through both WordPress and Facebook) to 1,000.  To that end, Next-Door Nature is a new member of the Nature Blog Network (NBN), a wonderful resource for finding writers on just about every green topic you can imagine.

Want to help me reach my goal (and share your passion for wildlife at the same time)?

  • First, tell everyone you know about Next-Door Nature—by email, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon, Google+, and any other social media platform that comes to mind.
  • Second, go to the NBN site and submit a review (hopefully glowing) of Next-Door Nature.
  • Third… you tell me! If you have an idea for how to get the word out about this blog, please share. Leave a comment, or send an email. Thanks!
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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).

Us against the world

coyotes by larry lamsa creative commons license

Coyote couples are as destined to misfortune as any literary star-crossed lovers, but a lot more reproductively successful (Photo: Larry Lamsa, Creative Commons license)

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Boy meets girl.

It’s such a familiar story I probably don’t need to spell out the rest.

Ah, but folks like stories to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, don’t we? Ok, ok… so a male and a female find one another.  They “meet-cute” (the classic contrivance of romantic comedies), or through the efforts of micro-managing parents (the historically classic approach), or online, or in one of a million completely unremarkable everyday ways—the “how” doesn’t matter (to anyone else).  A spark catches. A bond is formed—over time, at first sight, or by rite (mating or marriage rituals, depending on one’s religion, politics, or species). They find a home, start a family, and live happily enough ever after (fairy tales tend to gloss over the details of that last part).

It’s a comforting, feel-good saga. But it’s not the stuff legends, of Pulitzer Prize novels, or Oscar winning dramas. No, for that we need a star-crossed couple, thwarted by outside forces. We need Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff.  Edward and Bella. Or a pair of coyotes.

coyote in grass by trey ratcliff, creative commons licenseWyle E. and the Mrs. may not be icons of romantic literature, but one would be hard pressed to find couples more destined to misfortune than those of the Canis latrans clan. It’s all here—blood, poison, class, caste, honor, artifice, cruelty, revenge… and then some. After all, the persecution most luckless lovers experience only lasts three Acts, or about 100,000 words. Coyotes have been wearing a target since shortly after European settlers, and their livestock, came to North America in the early 15th Century.

Many species have disappeared into extinction under far less pressure yet, despite hundreds of man-hours and billions of dollars spent annually to wipe coyotes off the face of the Earth, as a species they continue be fruitful and multiply, to survive, and even thrive.

urban coyote by ken slade creative commons licenseUnlike their close relative the wolf (Canis lupus), their range has expanded in response to human development (and programs to exterminate wolves, a key natural competitor). Prior to 1700, coyotes were creatures of the prairies and deserts of the central United States and Mexico. Now they can be found as far west and north as Alaska, in all but the northernmost reaches of Canada, across the entire “lower 48,” and much of Central America, and in habitats as diverse as protected wildlands and urban centers.

How is this possible? Chalk it up to intelligence and adaptability. Behaviorally, coyotes are as flexible as a yoga instructor about everything from where to live, what to eat, and even family size and composition.

By 12 months of age—and there’s about a 60% chance they’ll survive their first year—coyotes are old enough to start looking for a mate. They don’t always leave home or settle down right away, though. Adults may live alone (for at least part of their life), in pairs, or in packs comprised of an alpha male and female and their offspring from previous years.  Once mated, they form perennial, monogamous bonds; however, on average, “till death do we part” is only a couple of years. In captivity, coyotes can live about as long as domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)—13 to 15 years—but in the wild few live to see their third birthday. Dying young is a familiar theme for the romantically doomed, be they canid or primate.

coyote pups by zac garrett creative commons licenseEveryone in the family unit—Mom, Dad, and any older sibs who haven’t left home—pitches in to rear the current generation of pups; it takes a village to raise coyote kids, too. Litters average four to seven pups, although—and here’s another example of that flexibility I mentioned earlier—coyotes can adjust their litter size based on the how much food is available and how many of their brethren live in the neighborhood. In other words, if humans remove (almost always by some lethal method) coyotes from a particular area, the population density falls, and during the next breeding season the number of pups per litter will rise. In the case of a pack, the loss of an alpha pair may cause the other members to disperse and find mates, so the area ends up with more breeding pairs than before any effort was made to reduce their numbers. One could argue that, however counter-intuitive it may first appear, extermination programs are a great way to increase your coyote crop.

last laugh by matt knoth creative commons licenseWell, what do you know? Play your natural selection cards right, and it’s possible to turn the tables on those who try to sabotage your relationship and have the last laugh—talk about a plot twist!

Perhaps the folks who try to control coyotes would find it helpful to read a few Victorian romances. Then again, anyone who’s tried to keep besotted teenagers apart should understand that when it comes to ill-fated lovers, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Come to think of it, maybe Cyrano and Roxanne, Tristan and Isolde, and Jack and Rose should have taken a lesson or two from a couple of cunning characters dressed in fur. They may not have cheated death, but they might have managed to leave behind generations of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to tell their tale.  From Once Upon a Time to…

The End.

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EPILOGUE:  Lest anyone think I’m unfairly choosing sides in the war against coyotes and other wild predators, readers should know that I understand the narrative presented above is not the whole story. I used a literary device to focus attention on a particular aspect of the coyote’s natural history—pair-bonding and social structure—and I intend to return to this and other species featured on this blog again and again over time, as is necessary to flesh out these complex and fascinating creatures.

While I may not always agree with their production practices, I don’t begrudge farmers and ranchers their right to make a living and protect their investment. I’m an omnivore who depends on the plant and animal foods they produce. However, I do find it strange that many who own livestock will point to the fact that coyotes, wolves, and foxes kill cows, sheep, and chickens as proof of their inherent cruelty, and as justification for implementing lethal control measures—even though many, if not most, of these domestic animals are being raised for food and will eventually be killed by the same humans who cry foul when the grim reaper appears on four feet in a pasture instead of on two at the processing plant.

As a biologist, I know that life feeds on other life. That’s the way of the world and I don’t see it changing any time soon. I just think we should be honest about our motives (and I’m aware that I risk offending some readers with what I’m about to say). It’s not that we don’t want that lamb or calf to be killed and eaten, it’s that we want to be the only ones who get to eat. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed, because it perpetuates the idea that people are somehow removed from the natural world.

Here in the U.S., we’re already paying to have both livestock and predators on our public and private lands, and have done so for a long time.  But the true cost of tonight’s meatloaf or coq au vin isn’t visible on the grocery store receipt, in the form of the higher meat prices livestock producers might charge to pass along the cost of losses to predation (or non-lethal prevention methods). Instead, part of the price of our food is disguised, hidden as taxes that support inefficient, ineffective, and often brutally cruel control programs. Personally, I prefer to know how much my dinner really costs, financially and ecologically.

You may disagree, as is your right.

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There’s nothing quite like finding a little Next-Door Nature in your email inbox—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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: Larry Lamsa (two coyotes and a pup); Trey Ratcliff (coyote in grass);  Ken Slade (coyote on the street); Zac Garrett (coyote pups); and  Matt Knoth (last laugh).

Snow birds

snowy owls (Photo: winnu, Creative Commons license)

Record numbers of snowy owls have ventured south this winter, creating a not-often-in-a-lifetime opportunity for bird-lovers in Canada and parts of the U.S. (Photo: winnu, Creative Commons license)

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Sometimes you just need a change of scenery.

Most years, snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus*) are homebodies, satisfied to stay put in the sweeping, flat, treeless tundra, even as calendar pages flip past the holidays and into a new tax season.  Most of their snowbird neighbors take off each winter to visit second homes in warmer latitudes, but snowy owls prefer staycations. What’s not to like? The mosquitoes, midges, and biting flies disappeared with the first snow. You’ve got the place all to yourself so there’s less competition for a table at the best places to eat and hang out. Not to mention, traveling can be such a headache these days—choosing your route, navigating national borders, weather delays. By the time you reach your destination you’re more exhausted than when you left!

And yet…

snowy owl in flight by pat gaines cc

… every now and then there comes a year when the snowies watch with those enormous cadmium-yellow eyes as everyone else heads for the flyways, and beneath that placid, nearly expressionless exterior, wanderlust begins to stretch its wings… then flutter… flap… and soar.  Big Pharma claims to have the prescription for cabin fever (aka, seasonal affective disorder, the winter blues, February funk), but it’s a lot more fun to head south in search of adventure, and some landscape variation definitely provides relief.

Let’s not forget, the opportunity to try some new regional cuisine alone must be a huge tourism draw when you’ve been eating lemmings, day in, day out. I mean, just because everyone else is happy dining from the same menu all year long doesn’t mean you have to run with the crowd… right over the cliff. So to speak. Not when there’s bacalhoada in Baltimore, sushi in Seattle, oie rôtie in Quebec,  fagiano alla contadina on The Hill in St. Louis (my own hometown), hasenpfeffer in Philadelphia… the possibilities are vast as the Arctic landscape.

Whatever the reason, the travel bug spread through the snowy owl population this year like a flu epidemic. Thousands of these large, unmistakable owls have been observed from coast to coast in the U.S., and as far south as Oklahoma, delighting bird fans who never dreamed of adding this species to their lifelist.

snowy owl on a telephone pole (Photo: Todd Radenbaugh, Creative Commons license)If a snowy owl visits your town, word will likely spread fast. Weighing in at 3.5—6.5 lbs (1.6—2.9 kg), 2 ft (0.6 m) tall with a wingspan of about 5 ft (1.5 m), this heavy, northernmost North American owl is instantly recognizable and easy to spot. For one thing, it’s diurnal, meaning active during the day (most, but not all, other owls are nocturnal or active at night). Secondly, snowies aren’t shy and retiring, preferring to spend most of their time on a prominent lookout, waiting patiently for their next meal to make a move. Of course, if the surrounding countryside is covered in a blanket of white, they aren’t as conspicuous as when the ground is bare. That’s because snowy owls are a charcoal sketch on a clean, gessoed canvas—their eyes are the only deviation from grayscale. Even their legs and feet are feather-covered, not yellow or orange as is the case for many other avian species.

snowy owlet (Photo: Steve Brace, Creative Commons license)Snowy owlets begin life resembling human toddlers packed into warm down snowsuits, and they’re just as wobbly. As they develop, a heavy mantle of barred dark gray, taupe, and white feathers emerge. Females retain some of this dark scalloping even as they mature. Males, on the other hand, grow lighter with each molt until, while stoically seated, they resemble a snowman (not the three-perfect-spheres kind you see in cartoons and moviesthe fireplug-shaped ones made by real kids). Their demeanor changes dramatically when they take flight, however, from cuddly stuffed animal to sleek, efficient hunter.  Silent, too. Their primaries—flight feathers along the outer edge of a bird’s wing—look as if my hairstylist sister had textured the edge with her razor, so they don’t slice through the air with the same sharp-edged, audible signature of a hawk or eagle.owl vs hawk feathers

The 2011 breeding season produced a bumper lemming crop and, subsequently, larger owl clutch sizes and owlet survival rates. Biologists suspect this may explain why so many of these normally non-migratory birds have hit the road.  The Owl Research Institute  says the irruption (a sudden, unpredictable mass migration) of 2011-2012 is “unbelievable” and “the most significant wildlife event in decades.”

During my undergraduate days I did an internship at the World Bird Sanctuary, where I had a chance to work with snowy owls and other birds of prey. Sadly, I don’t expect to see any snowies myself this year unless I travel back home to Missouri in the next month or so. I live too far south now, even during an irruption of epic proportions, for snowy owls to darken my door. But if you live or travel in North America anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line (that’s the 39th parallel north for all you non-Southerners), keep your eyes peeled for snowmen perched on telephone poles.

Seeing is believing.

[Want to know if snowy owls are spending the winter near you? Check out this range map from eBird.]

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* The International Ornithological Union (IOU) once considered snowy owls the only member of a unique genus, Nyctea scandiaca, but DNA analysis, published in 2002, revealed they are closely related to the great horned owl and other members of the Bubo clan, so their official name was changed.

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Start your day with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!
© 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: winnu (identical owls); Pat Gaines (owl in flight); Todd Radenbaugh (owl on telephone pole); Steve Brace (snowy owlet);  BastienM (long-eared owl  feather, public domain); and David DeHetre (hawk feather).