Wildlife In Our Garden

One of the great benefits of a home garden is the diversity of life that it supports, which includes fauna as well as flora. Depending upon the plants growing in the space and its overall size, the garden may have both temporary and permanent residents. With the right mix of food, clean water, and cover, the gardener may play host to a wide variety of species. Of course, gardeners may not roll out the welcome mat to all wildlife, especially the kind that feast on our plants. Some we can deter; others we may choose to eliminate altogether. Slugs and Japanese beetles come to mind in our own garden.

Butterfly on cherry blossoms
Butterfly on cherry blossoms

I am fascinated by the members of the animal kingdom that have frequented our yard over many seasons. Our current home is bordered by a national forest, which means there are plenty of nesting spaces and protection from predators. Our garden serves as a small oasis and a source of food for many of the animals that venture out into the open. Each spring, our ornamental cherry tree is covered in butterflies that appear to dance around the branches as they feed on the nectar from the blossoms. As the season progresses, they are joined by moths and bees, making their way through the bloom cycles of the chaste tree, lantana, and the butterfly bushes. Everywhere we have lived we included bright-colored annuals in the summer landscape, which attract hummingbirds. I am continually mesmerized by their aerial acrobatics. For other avian species, both permanent residents and migrants, we offer a gurgling bird bath, a waterfall, and a seed feeder. At our previous residence on a lake, a pair of male and female ducks would occasionally come ashore, cross our lawn, and splash in our garden pond.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeder
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeder
Ducks at our pond
Ducks at our pond

Watching animals in the garden has provided me with countless hours of entertainment for most of my life. Photographing them has almost become an avocation. I plan and develop sections of the garden specifically with animals in mind, considering what they need, what will draw them, and how I can best observe them. I set up trail cameras to catch a glimpse of them in action.

Our photo-bombing squirrel
Our photo-bombing squirrel
Praying Mantis on our fence
Praying Mantis on our fence

Our garden is home to insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The frogs are in a class all to themselves, at least when it comes to their most noticeable contribution to the garden — sound. During the warm months of the year, they gather in and around our pool and fill the air with responsive croaking that is at times almost deafening. By contrast, the reptiles are so quiet and subtle. I came very close to stepping on a turtle before seeing it and walked past a snake resting on top of a shrub three times before noticing it all.

Black rat snake resting on our holly shrub
Black rat snake resting on our holly shrub

Admittedly, I don’t give all animals free access to the entire garden. Unfortunately, the deer and rabbits will take far more than their fair share. They will eat the plants they like all the way to the ground. I use Liquid Fence to deter them from my annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs, but they have plenty of grass and border foliage to sustain them. It wouldn’t be polite to completely bar them from the yard. After all, the name of our street is Running Deer Road. This is their home too.

Deer across the street
Deer across the street

Raccoons Are So Cute . . . and Deadly

What could be more adorable among wild animals than a raccoon?  With that signature black mask that looks like a small child dressed for Halloween and that distinctive striped, bushy tail, these waddling mammals are quite often photographed and recorded on video as they make their way through suburban neighborhoods, and even large cities, looking for an easy meal. Considering how adaptive they have become to residential areas and how broad their diet is, most meals are probably fairly easy indeed.  They are mostly nocturnal, spending the hours after dusk raiding trash cans or prowling around for frogs and crustaceans.  Watching them rub their faces or stand on their hinds legs with their front paws extended forward, observers are lured into thinking that raccoons are practically tame and even friendly.  Plenty of people have made pets of young raccoons, and as long as their diet and other environmental conditions are strictly controlled, they are probably harmless for the most part.  Nevertheless, the raccoon is not a domesticated species — it is wild.  Here lies the problem.

Raccoon at pond
Raccoon at pond

In captivity, raccoons can live up to 20 years; however, in the wild they rarely live more than 3-4 years.  That’s quite a significant spread.  They have very few natural predators, and humans are not as nearly interested in their pelts as was the case several generations ago (alas, Daniel Boone and Fess Parker have been dead for a while).  They are hunted for sport, but not widely.  What accounts for the difference?  Disease and infection are the greatest threat to longevity for raccoons, and because they share environments with humans, they are a greater risk than most people realize.  YouTube is full of videos of raccoons wandering around in backyards, playing in sandboxes, or even swimming in pools.  How cute!  How dangerous!!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an entire section of its website devoted to risks associated with close encounters with raccoons.  In addition to rabies, giardia, and leptospirosis, raccoons also spread the Baylisascaris infection from a specific type of roundworm.  The roundworm eggs are sometimes found in the feces of raccoons, and if ingested, they can cause a deadly infection.  Raccoons need water for digestion, and they also feed on amphibians, so they are naturally drawn to water, even swimming pools.  Frogs often gather along the waterline of pools and in the skimmers, which offers a feeding opportunity for raccoons.  They are creatures of habit, so once they start visiting a pool and find food, they will likely return.  Another habit they have is pooping in water, and they will often do so in the shallow walk-out sections of swimming pools.  If the feces is infected, it can introduce roundworm eggs into the water.  And the real kicker is this: chlorine doesn’t kill the eggs or the parasite!

It is simply not a good idea to attract raccoons to where people live, especially by intentionally feeding them.  Young children have a tendency to place their hands and objects in their mouths, which puts them at significant risk if they are playing in areas where raccoons are roaming around freely.  As cute as they are, raccoons are something you want to see on a hike through the forest, not in your backyard.

Right of Way

Before my wife, younger son, and I made our trip to Yellowstone this summer, we did like so many other families do before major trips and spent some time reading about the park, its unique features and characteristics, places of particular interest, and potential hazards to avoid.  I even watched a few videos about Yellowstone, both professionally-produced and amateur.  Of course, one of the major elements that brings millions to this park every year is the wildlife, and for most visitors, the principle of “the bigger the better” holds true.  Most of us want to see a bear, at least from a safe distance, but they tend to stay away from the roadways — we were lucky enough to see a mother and her cub the last day we were there.  The elk and moose are quite impressive in the size category too.  We saw several elk but not a moose.

The largest creature in the park, at least by weight, is one that is not very shy at all.  According to the National Park Service website about Yellowstone, this park “is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land and are among the few bison herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle. Unlike most other herds, this population has thousands of individuals that are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park and some nearby areas of Montana. They also exhibit wild behavior like their ancient ancestors, congregating during the breeding season to compete for mates, as well as migration and exploration that result in the use of new habitat areas. These behaviors have enabled the successful restoration of a population that was on the brink of extinction just over a century ago.”

We knew that bison often made their way to the major roadways in the park and that traffic could be stopped for significant periods of time for herds of the animals to pass.  What we didn’t expect was that sometimes the bison actually use the roads as a path, slowly ambling their way along the pavement, almost as if they are curious about the visitors and have arrived for an inspection.  There are close to 5,000 bison in the park, so sightings of large herds are frequent.  Professional and amateur photographers come out before daybreak to claim their favorite spots on small hills in the bison hotspots, such as Hayden Valley, to get the best shots of the beasts in their natural environment.  However, as we discovered on our first day at Yellowstone, you can get a pretty good close-up photograph of a bison from the window of your car, as so many visitors have been doing for years.  I took this one from my window as we waited for a group of the animals to clear the road.

Bison
Yellowstone bison

Notice that these hooved creatures are following the center yellow line, almost as if it were a trail marker.  They were walking along slowly, seemingly with no fear or even regard for the nearby vehicles and their occupants.  The dangerous assumption by some park visitors is that these are harmless animals, but as calm as they seem to be, they can become extremely aggressive and dangerous if approached or if they feel threatened.  Park literature and signs are abundant warning people to stay a very safe distance from all wild animals in the park , especially bears and bison.  Several visitors are seriously injured each year from foolish encounters with bison.

As these massive animals passed our car, I was taken with how they brought everything to a standstill, commanding the right of way.  They marched through like royalty participating in a parade — the trooping of the colors as it were.  In many ways, the park is theirs, along with the other multitude of species that call Yellowstone home, as it should be.  I wish people would always keep in mind that we are only visitors, and as such, we should be on our best behavior to ensure that places like Yellowstone are preserved and treasured.