Although muskrats are primarily nocturnal, you occasionally see them in the daytime, especially in the spring and fall. They often reside in ponds or marshes, where they live in the pond bank or build their own house out of mud, cattails and other available plant material. Muskrats are herbivores, favoring cattail roots, arrowhead, bur reed, pickerelweed and other aquatic vegetation. The pictured muskrat is not feeding, however — more often than not muskrats eat their food where they find it, especially during the warmer months. It is doing its share of parental care — this is the time of year when the first of several litters of muskrats are born. While the mother nurses her four or so young, the father spends time gathering bedding material for his offspring. The muskrat in this photograph spent a morning cutting and gathering several mouthfuls of grasses growing by the side of the pond. When he couldn’t fit one more blade of grass in his mouth he would scurry down the bank and disappear into a burrow which most likely led to a chamber where his young are being raised. Like their beaver cousins, muskrats tend to keep a tidy house and forage for fresh bedding for their young with some regularity.
This is the time of year when two-year-old beavers leave their lodges and strike out on their own, primarily because the woods surrounding a pond usually can’t support more than one family of beavers. Beavers are exceptionally territorial; once they’ve established a lodge, they do not take kindly to interlopers. In order to make this perfectly clear to house-hunting young beavers, in the spring resident beavers build what are called scent mounds — piles (up to three feet in height, but usually much smaller) of mud, leaves and pond-bottom debris — around the perimeter of their territory. They then smear castoreum, a substance that comes from their castor sacs, over the mound. Chemicals in the castoreum convey to roaming young beavers that this particular pond is spoken for.
It’s possible that this chipmunk is preparing a nesting chamber in her underground burrow, judging from the amount of dirt that is on her. Sometime between February and early April chipmunks mate. Roughly a month later they give birth to 3 to 5 young in a bulky nest of leaves inside a 24” x 15” x 10” chamber. Within a week, hair and stripes will be evident on the young chipmunks. In about a month, they will venture out of the burrow, looking like small adults.
It’s not easy being a female porcupine. You mate in the fall and are either pregnant (7 months) or lactating (4 months) for the next 11 months before you have one month’s break and begin this cycle all over again. This time of year porcupines are giving birth to one young that is covered in fur and quills and weighs about a pound. The young porcupette is born headfirst in a sac, in order to protect the mother from quill damage. Its quills are soft at birth, but harden within an hour. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)
A study of coyote prey (through stomach contents) in the Adirondack Mountains of New York revealed that beavers were second only to white-tailed deer. This photograph shows that, possibly for the last time this winter, a coyote recently took advantage of a still-frozen-but-fast-thawing pond by walking across it in an attempt to reach an active beaver lodge. Once there the coyote attempted to dig into it in order to reach the inhabitants. A hard, two-to three-foot-thick wall of frozen mud, logs and sticks kept the beavers well protected, as it was designed to.
At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)
A recent exploration of some rocky ledges, a favorite winter denning site of porcupines, revealed a virtual maze of trails leading to roughly a dozen crevices where porcupines sought shelter. A look inside these crevices confirmed that porcupines leave something to be desired when it comes to keeping house. Unlike many other animals that keep their dens pristine (e.g. beavers only defecate in water, never in their lodge), porcupines don’t feel the necessity to roust themselves when nature calls. As a result, the floor of their den consists of years of accumulated scat (and urine). In some cases, the pile of scat in these ledge dens was so high that it made you wonder how a porcupine could even fit into the crevice, and indeed, in some cases, porcupines do have to dig their way out of their den. When it became aware of my presence, the pictured porcupine assumed its characteristic defense posture, exposing its quill-filled back and upper tail surface to the intruder. It needn’t have worried, as the opening was barely wide enough to get the camera into, much less the photographer!
It’s fairly obvious when there are active porcupines in the woods, as they leave all kinds of signs. The females, who often spend the day in a hollow tree or rock den, come out at night to eat (males often spend several days up in a tree), and leave very pronounced 6” – 9” trails back and forth to their feeding trees. Along this trail, in addition to an occasional quill, there are often pellets of scat as well as urine, which both your eyes and your nose can detect. Porcupines discard the tips of hemlock branches when they’re through eating the tender buds and leaves up in the canopy, and consequently the ground under a feeding tree is often littered with “nip twigs.”
Most songbirds only use their nest once. After their young have fledged, the nest is usually abandoned. In the natural world, recycling has been a way of life for a long time, and abandoned bird nests are not about to be wasted. In the spring, the material used in old nests is often re-used by birds building new nests. But long before this occurs, white-footed mice and deer mice, both of which remain active year round, often use old nests as larders where they store food for the winter. Occasionally they even renovate a nest in the fall in order to make a snug, winter home. They do this by constructing a roof (of milkweed fluff in this photograph) over the nest, which serves to insulate it. Use caution if you come upon such a nest– it could well be inhabited! (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for the photo op!)
Mice and voles are commonly lumped together, probably because the differences between them are so slight. Both are small, furry rodents, but mice generally have large eyes, large ears and long tails (close to or greater than the length of their bodies). Voles have smaller eyes, smaller ears (often concealed in their fur), and shorter tails. Voles tend to be active day and night, whereas mice are mainly nocturnal. ( Meadow voles are commonly referred to as “field mice,” which tends to add to the confusion regarding these two groups of mammals!) There are five species of mice in New England (white-footed, deer, house, meadow jumping and woodland jumping), and four species of voles (meadow, southern red-backed, rock and woodland).
Thanks to a dusting of snow we are suddenly privy to the comings and goings of the creatures we live amongst. Some animals are small enough to remain hidden once winter snows arrive, because they live in the subnivean layer between the surface of the ground and the snow. But when the snow is too shallow for them to create this network of tunnels, their movements are easily discernible. The pictured meadow vole trail shows where the vole initially tried (unsuccessfully) to tunnel under the snow (it wasn’t deep enough), at the bottom of the photograph. It then scampered over the grass until it stopped to rest for a moment, leaving a whole body imprint, including its short tail. It’s fairly unusual to see the entire body print of small rodents such as voles and mice, for they are so vulnerable out in the open that they rarely stop long enough to leave one.
By the end of this month or the beginning of November, most Eastern Chipmunks will have gathered and stored their winter food supply underground in a special chamber which they will visit every two or three weeks throughout the winter, grabbing a bite to eat. Up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds can be stored here, which means many trips from the food source to the larder. In order to minimize the number of trips, chipmunks cram their cheek pouches as full as possible. The contents that researchers have found in one chipmunk’s two pouches include the following (each entry represents the contents of one chipmunk’s pouches): 31 kernels of corn, 13 prune pits, 70 sunflower seeds, 32 beechnuts, 6 acorns.
Shorter days and longer nights trigger a flurry of activity for beavers. There is a lodge to be built, rebuilt, enlarged or repaired and a dam to be built, repaired or reinforced. As, or more, important than these tasks is cutting, gathering and transporting a supply of food for winter. Once the pond is frozen, the only food available to beavers is that which they have stockpiled under the ice. Thus, beavers spend many an autumn night adding to a growing pile of submerged branches close to the lodge. More thought is put into the harvesting of a winter food supply than one might imagine. Before cutting down a tree a beaver often tests its readiness by biting into the bark. If it is not in just the right condition — for instance, if there is still too much sap in the tree — they may speed up the drying of the bark by girdling it, and returning in several days to cut it down. If limbs and branches are stored underwater before the bark is ready, they will ferment and sour, making them unfit for food.
Now is the time when your garden is most likely to have visits from resident woodchucks. These large, herbivorous rodents are eating fast and furiously as the days get shorter, in an effort to put on a layer of fat that will sustain them through hibernation. The middle of the day is typically spent sunning themselves, but early morning and evening will find woodchucks eating and putting on a layer of fat equaling about a third of their weight. They lose anywhere from 20% – 37% of their body weight during hibernation. If they don’t gain enough weight now, they won’t survive until green grass and other plants are available again in the spring. Hopefully knowing this will make sharing your garden with an uninvited guest a bit easier.
Eastern chipmunks typically have two litters a year, each consisting of 1 to 8 young (4 to 5 is usual). They give birth mid-April to mid-May and mid-July to mid-August. The chipmunk in the accompanying photograph has a mouth full of dead leaves which it is carrying back to its underground tunnel where it makes a bulky, leaf nest for its young. When they are born, the young chipmunks are roughly 2 ½ inches long and weigh .11 oz. In about a month start looking for tiny chipmunks – the young are weaned and start venturing out of their tunnels in mid-June.
Roughly a month ago woodchucks were at the peak of their mating season. New England’s largest member of the Squirrel family is about to give birth to two to six young chucks. In preparation for this event, dead grasses are gathered and carried by mouth to the underground nest chamber, which is about 15 inches in diameter. Woodchucks are tidy rodents — the female covers her young’s waste with new bedding placed directly over the old, and when the nest becomes too bulky or unsanitary, the matted material is removed and fresh bedding is added.
Contrary to their name, fishers seldom eat fish. While they prey on a wide range of animals and even plants, their preference is for small mammals (80% of their diet), snowshoe hares and porcupines. Because fishers are well equipped to kill porcupines, and because there is little competition for them, porcupines are an important prey of fishers –up to 35% of fisher diet samples contain the remains of porcupines, as this photograph of fisher scat attests to. There is no mistaking the bumpy porcupine foot pads (and quills)!
Given the amount of time porcupines spend in trees, it’s not surprising to see that their feet are well adapted for climbing. Long, curved nails that grip the bark, as well as “pebbly” foot pads designed to prevent slipping allow this prickly rodent to climb just about anywhere it wants to. (Hind foot pictured.)
Although some ponds have had open water in spots all winter, many have remained frozen over until the recent warm weather started to melt the ice. The first open water often appears close to the lodge and along the dam of a beaver pond. It doesn’t take long for resident beavers to detect an opening, for it’s a ticket to fresh food! The first plant that beavers head for, if it’s growing in the area, is skunk cabbage. Being the first wildflower to push up through the snow, it’s usually available when ponds first open up. Aspen, willow and alder leaves, grasses, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of water lilies, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and algae are eaten in the spring and summer by these large rodents we think of as strictly bark eaters. Photograph by Kay Shumway.
A sure sign of spring is the emergence of woodchucks, the largest members of the Squirrel family in New England, after a long winter’s sleep. Their arousal is easily noted, for when the males wake up, they do some excavating of their tunnel, scattering dirt all around it which is easily spotted on the snow (if there is still any snow left). Equally obvious is the muddy trail they leave when in search of a female. Mating takes place in March and April, and the resulting litters of 2 to 6 young are born a month later.