Marvelous mammals, part 1 – at the homestead

Judging from how many blogs I’ve written about birds, you might assume that I’m mainly a devotee of avian wildlife but that is certainly not the case. Without a doubt, I do love birds, but I really enjoy observing, learning about and photographing all kinds of other wildlife.  Fortunately, my own yard provides me with some opportunities for that as I have a number of regular mammalian visitors. Sometimes, their visits entail a bit of drama but often their presence is quite peaceful.

The Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) like to visit the front porch to see if there’s something of interest among the potted plants or to take a drink from a water source.

These cute little rodents are more than willing to mingle with the ground-feeding birds looking for seed under the feeders. They scurry away as fast as their little legs will carry them when birds of prey appear – and they can certainly run quickly!

 

When it’s very cold, I sometimes offer them a small tray of seed just for themselves on the porch. They scarf down the goodies, filling their cheek pouches to what seems like almost bursting before dashing away to store the goodies for later consumption.

 

A pair of Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) lives in my yard and both mom and dad are very good about taking care of their young. I don’t see them much in the winter but expect they will be out and about again in the spring, doing their “leapfrogging” courtship ritual.

When it’s breeding season, I may see raccoons (Procyon lotor) in the daytime but lately they have been coming to the yard at night to pick up whatever seed is left on the ground from the daytime visitors. My wildlife cam caught a not-so-clear photo of this happening.

Another visitor who mostly comes at night is the opossum (Didelphis virginiana), one of my favorites given their propensity to eat lots and lots of ticks! Many people seem to think that they are ugly or scary, but I actually think they are kind of cute.

The largest mammalian visitors I see daily are the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). I’ve loved them ever since I got to know a particular individual, whom I named Schatje (Dutch for “dear”). She approached me when she was a yearling and made friends with me, sitting next to me in the grass and thereafter bringing her newborn fawns to the yard right after their births. She unfortunately died in a car accident after some years, but through her I learned to really appreciate these mammals.

Some people dislike deer intensely because they eat their flowers and prized shrubs. But I’ve found that consistent application of a deer repellent on my plants keeps them off the vegetation that I want to preserve. Also, I let them eat bird seed and sometimes apple slices that I put out for the ground-feeding birds like white-throated sparrows, Eastern towhees, dark-sided juncos, American crows (the apple lovers) and brown thrashers.

So I’ve been watching the deer for many years now and a very odd occurrence happened over the past half year. At least four deer have appeared with broken hind legs or feet. When “Mama”, a doe with twins, showed up with a terrible break on her leg, I wondered if it happened when she jumped a fence. The bone was jutting out and it was obviously very painful. She hobbled on three legs.

What was amazing was the fact that her two-year-old son began caring for her. He already had a nice set of antlers and by rights should have left to join the stag group in the neighborhood, but he stayed with her and tended the wound, licking it, and also grooming her! I had not heard of a stag doing that before, so I named him Sweetie. He stayed with her for months!

Mama kept caring for her twins (a male and female). (The past couple years, she had only had male offspring so that cut down on the number of deer we might otherwise have had). And she tended her wound on her own as well.

Mama also had to withstand the advances of the dominant neighborhood stag, who was intent on mating with her. Sweetie tried to be there to fend off the interloper, but he had to give in and move off as he was no match for the big buck. Mama tried to get away, but he kept trying to mount her – unsuccessfully, since her back quarters would collapse as she could not bear any weight on the broken leg. She finally got away and ran, which must have been terribly painful for her.

 

Mama could not stand up for herself with the hurt leg so she began being bullied by another doe who showed up. That deer, who I called Bossy, was ill-tempered and a bit nasty; she even would chase her own son away from seed on the ground, even when her son also got a broken leg!

Then two adult males turned up with breaks – one had a broken foot. I wondered if someone was feeding them deer corn, which can be bad for their health and affect their hooves so that perhaps leg breaks would happen more easily. Or was someone taking potshots at them? It remains a mystery, but I’ve learned that the deer can overcome something like this although the healing takes months.

And then we come to my “nemesis” yard mammal, the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). As all bird-feeding people know, squirrels will do their utmost to eat all and any bird food that is put out — this has generated an industry devoted to producing squirrel baffles and “squirrel-proof” feeders. Even when I had smeared a bit of suet on a holly bush for the ruby-crowned kinglet who was sometimes crowded away from the feeder, a squirrel discovered the treat there and consumed what s/he could.

I’ve been fairly fortunate in having the baffles work until recently, when a couple squirrels used their little brains to figure out ways to get around them. It was my belief that I had put the feeder poles sufficiently far from the roof or large tree branches so that the squirrel couldn’t make the leap. One kept trying over and over and finally succeeded in lengthening his/her “long jump”!

I moved the poles further away. But two poles were about five feet apart and I then saw a squirrel use a strategy that really looked very clever to me. S/he would take a run at one pole, launch him/herself onto the pole at high velocity just under the baffle and then turn to vault from that height up and over the baffles on the neighboring pole! I really did admire the creature’s ingenuity and gained a new respect for their intelligence.

After moving the feeder poles further apart, I then noticed that a couple feeders on one pole were being emptied quickly. Looking out my window one day, I saw a squirrel perched atop the pole, enjoying seed after having managed to move the baffles down the pole. How was s/he doing that?

 

I set aside time to watch and discovered the squirrel’s secret.

 

The animal was hanging onto the raccoon baffle, biting it and jerking down at the same time. This eventually loosened the screws in the apparatus on which the baffle rested so that the baffle finally slid down the pole!

 

The screws have now been tightened and the next move is up to the squirrels. They are clever and tenacious. This was further brought home to me when a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) recently landed on a squirrel nest and did its best to extricate the mammal with its claws. The hawk eventually had to leave without its envisioned meal.

The yard mammals are certainly entertaining. If any of you readers have had interesting experiences with them, I’d love to hear about them in comments on this blog’s page! (Except for cats running free outside – goodbye from my two indoor cats, Ogi and Moasi!)

7 thoughts on “Marvelous mammals, part 1 – at the homestead

  1. Lots of great mammals in here…and of course I loved the young buck who cared for his injured mother. In spite of all the bird seed robbing, the snowy squirrel portrait was so wonderful…makes it worth all the feeder woes! A pleasure to read, and I do wonder why you have so many injured deer. Is it possible somewhere in the woods there is some abandoned section of barbed wire that is injuring your deer? I’ve actually never seen an injured deer in my yard, so it isn’t a common occurrence in this neighborhood. They are lucky to have you for support…gives them the chance to rest and yet still find some food.

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    • Thanks for your comments, Mary. Sweetie is such a wonderful son; that was a behavior that surprised and delighted me. Every day he was cleaning Mama’s wound. I’m really curious if he will hang around with her when spring and summer come again. I don’t recall seeing barbed wire in woods in our neighborhood but I guess it would be possible. I’d never seen injuries like this until Mama’s injury last July, which was followed by the other hurt deer. It’s a real mystery but I hope it doesn’t continue anymore. I did notice that the deer became more skittish the last year so I think some people are chasing them out of their yards; even if the birds have eaten all the seed, deer will come and rest in my yard so they feel safer there.

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  2. Oh the deer thing broke my heart along with their legs.
    You have many of the same birds I have, but yours are eastern versions and mine are either western, or Californian, like the towhee.
    “Eastern towhees, dark-sided juncos, American crows (the apple lovers) and brown thrashers.”

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  3. Enjoyed this post Maria:) Especially the hawk on the squirrel nest – interesting that the squirrels could escape! My most common yard mammals are my ever-present fox squirrels, however I do have occasional bobcats and black bears (when not hibernating). A bobcat dens each year underneath my nextdoor neighbor’s deck. She sometimes leaves her kittens in my back yard when she goes off to hunt. I’ve watched her bring back voles for lunch:) My desk faces by back deck and because of the window glare, they seem to be completely unable to see me. I have videos and photos. The bears are beautiful to see, but they make it difficult to feed the birds. For years, I could just bring in the feeders at night, but now they have become bold and come at all times of the day. They try to climb walls and trees to get to the feeders. I don’t want them becoming accustomed to being close to humans, for their own good. Many neighborhoods in CO that are a bit more urban than mine have foxes, but we have a good number of coyotes and they actually hunt foxes, so sadly – no foxes. We do have a good number of mule deer and we also actually have elk. There is a herd of about 300 that lives on several thousand acres of ranch land that abuts my community. They come into our open spaces and love the local golf course. While I don’t have them in my yard often, years ago I did have a mother that had separated from the herd to give birth down in my ravine. I discovered her washing her newborn that was standing splay-legged beside her.

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  4. Thanks for sharing which animals you are seeing, Gina! I can understand why you don’t want to encourage the bears, especially if they are become ever bolder in an effort to get at the feeders. It had occurred to me that coyotes in our vicinity might also have accounted for a lack of foxes in the yard the past couple years; they have been seen on occasion here, too. I would really love to see the bobcats. They are beautiful animals – I “adopted” one at local rescue shelter for exotic animals near here; she was actually a bobcat-lynx hybrid and very beautiful. It must be so cool to see the kits growing up. Seeing the elk tending her newborn calf must have been a wonderful experience, too. We are so lucky when we get to witness those instances!

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  5. Story shared by email from a friend in response to this (and the next) blog: LK wrote: “I’ve enjoyed your last two blogs on mammals. The story about your deer and her son is very touching, and I hope they make it through the winter okay. You didn’t mention raccoons, so here is a story about two that I think really shows their intelligence. At one place I once lived, two raccoons started coming into the yard and hanging around, and for some reason which I don’t remember, I decided to capture them and release them elsewhere. I borrowed two large have-a-heart traps and set them out. That week I was surprised to see the food inside disappear without capturing any raccoons, and one night I got lucky to see what they were doing. The release on the door of the trap was at the top of the trap. One raccoon would sit on the top of the trap thus keeping the door from operating, and the other would go inside and get the food without being caught. I thought that was so clever that I returned the traps to their owner and left the raccoons alone. Eventually they moved on.”

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