Much like black bears, raccoons develop a voracious appetite in the fall and accumulate a life-sustaining layer of fat as a result (which comprises 50% of their weight). Although raccoons are opportunists and will eat just about anything (except tomatoes), nuts (acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts, especially) and corn are the food of choice at this time of year.
When the temperature consistently drops to 26-28° F. raccoons typically seek shelter in dens (hollow trees, woodchuck and fox burrows). They are not true hibernators, but do enter a state of torpor for weeks and even months at a time when the temperature is low, the snow is deep and the wind is blowing. It’s not unusual for several raccoons, usually relatives, to den together.
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Because yellowjackets do not produce or store honey one might wonder why striped skunks, raccoons and black bears frequently dig up their underground nests. It is the young yellowjackets (larvae), not honey, that is so highly prized by these insect-eating predators. At this time of year it is crucial for them, especially black bears who go for months without eating or drinking during hibernation, to consume enough protein to survive the winter.
Whereas adult yellowjackets consume sugary sources of food such as fruit and nectar, larvae feed on insects, meat and fish masticated by the adult workers that feed them. This makes the larvae a highly desirable, protein-rich source of food. (Yellowjacket larvae reciprocate the favor of being fed by secreting a sugary material that the adults eat.)
Three to five thousand adult yellowjackets can inhabit a nest, along with ten to fifteen thousand larvae. Predators take advantage of this by raiding the nests before frost kills both the adults (except for fertilized young queens) and larvae in the fall. Yellowjackets are most active during the day and return to their underground nest at night. Thus, animals that raid them at night, such as raccoons, striped skunks and black bears, are usually very successful in obtaining a large meal. Occasionally, as in this photo, the yellowjackets manage to drive off predators with their stings, leaving their nest intact, but more often than not the nest is destroyed and the inhabitants eaten. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op of yellowjacket nest (circled in red) dug up by a black bear – note size of rock unearthed.)
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The pollinated and fertilized white flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) have recently developed into the red fruit for which this plant is named. Many people are familiar with its relative, Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), which produces dark purple fruit that is used to make jams, jellies, pies and elderberry wine. While Red Elderberry fruit can be used to make all of these, its raw berries are toxic. Red Elderberry’s popularity is greatest with pollinators, birds and four-footed mammals.
The cyanide-producing toxins in its flowers, (raw) fruit, stems, bark, leaves and roots do not seem to discourage wildlife’s attraction to Red Elderberry. The odor of its flowers, its nectar, and its highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees, wasps and flies. At least 50 species of songbirds eat the bright red fruits, including red-eyed vireos, ruffed grouse, song sparrows, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, and thrushes. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also eat the fruit. Porcupines, mice and snowshoe hares eat the buds and bark in winter. The foliage is usually avoided by herbivores, although white-tailed deer and moose browse on it occasionally.
Even in mid-February, there are signs of spring. Tracks of animals that hole up during the cold winter months and emerge when the nights are warmer are starting to be seen.
Raccoons often seek shelter in dens for months at a time during the winter (they don’t technically hibernate, but experience torpor). When night temperatures rise above freezing they abandon their hollow tree cavities, often following streams or visiting wetlands. Although they occasionally may forage for aquatic prey such as fish or crayfish, Raccoons in New England eat very little during the winter. Rather, they utilize the fat they store in the fall, which is often more than 40% of their body weight. By the time spring arrives, they may have lost half of their fall weight.
If you find tracks this time of year that lead to or away from a den they may well be those of a male Raccoon who has emerged to seek out a mate.
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North American River Otters are not territorial in the classic sense of marking territorial boundaries. Instead they mark prime resource areas within their territory. Often, the site is near their den or a productive food area. They visit these sites repeatedly to urinate, defecate and roll around on the ground – so much so that the surrounding vegetation is often dead or dying and is referred to as a “brown-out.”
If an otter has been eating fish, its scat is often just a pile of fish scales. However, if it has been dining on crayfish and it is fresh, the scat can be tubular. No matter what form otter scat takes, a tell-tale sign (in addition to fish scales and/or crayfish exoskeletons) is the presence of clear, white or yellow mucus (scat-jellies). It is not always deposited, but occasionally you do find it. The origin of this mucus is not known – most likely it’s from the otter’s intestinal tract or its anal glands. Research shows that the presence of mucous deposits in some otter species indicates reduced prey availability or reproductive state. (Photo: Tubular otter scat is circled in red. Mucus is on right side of photo. Thanks to David Putnam and Natalie Starr for yesterday’s and today’s photo op.)
Reasons why Mystery Photo was not
Black Bear: Scat consists primarily of crayfish remains.
Beaver: Beavers defecate only in water, and individual pellets consist of tiny woody fragments resembling sawdust.
Raccoon: Raccoons have latrines where multiple scat is deposited, similar to otters. However, only otters deposit mucus.
Winter’s coming and in the Northeast, Striped Skunks are preparing for the cold months ahead. Before they usurp the abandoned quarters of a Muskrat or Red or Gray Fox (or bunk with a willing Opossum or Raccoon), they spend a great deal of time foraging and putting on life-sustaining fat. Even though a state of torpor slows their metabolism down during the coldest months, skunks must bulk up in the fall, as they lose up to 65 percent of their body weight over the winter. Thus, they meander far and wide looking for food this time of year. In addition, this year’s young are still dispersing. For these reasons, you may have encountered the smell of skunk or the sad sight of striped roadkills in your travels lately.
Female Snapping Turtles spend a lot of time and effort finding suitable sandy soil in which to dig their nest and lay their eggs. Some turtles have been found laying their eggs as far as a mile from the nearest water source. Once she has laid her eggs and covered them with soil, the female snapper returns to her pond, leaving her eggs to hatch on their own, and the hatchlings to fend for themselves.
It is estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of all turtle nests are destroyed by predators, weather conditions and accidental disturbances. Most of the damage is done by predators – skunks, raccoons, foxes, crows, among others. Most nests are discovered by smell, and most are raided at night. The fluid that coats the eggs, that is lost by the mother during egg laying or is lost through breaks in the eggs, produces a smell that is easily detected by predators. While a majority of nest raids happen within the first 48 hours of the eggs being laid, studies have shown that predation occurs over the entire incubation period (June – September). The pictured Snapping Turtle nest was dug up and the eggs consumed 10 days after they were laid.
If you are aware of a spot where a turtle dug a nest and laid eggs, you can try to protect the nest from predators by placing either a bottomless wire cage or an oven rack over the nest site, and putting a heavy rock on top. The tiny hatchlings will be able to escape through the openings but hopefully, if the rock is heavy enough, raccoons and skunks will become discouraged and give up trying to reach the nest.
The next Naturally Curious post will be on 7/5/17.
Yesterday’s mystery tracks were those of a raccoon that was following a partially-open stream, emerging from the water only when it was necessary to cross ice in order to get to the next patch of open water. Temperatures have been on the mild side recently, so raccoons have been active. During very cold periods raccoons become lethargic and tend to seek shelter in hollow trees or other retreats where they may remain for up to a month or so. When the temperature at night rises above 32°F., they become active, but little or no food is consumed. Instead, they live off body fat (up to 30% of their weight) they accumulated in the fall. In addition to recent warm weather coaxing Raccoons to become active, February is the peak of their mating season.
(Muskrat, Otter and Beaver were the three other 5-toed, water-loving mammals that received the most “votes,” all viable guesses. The Raccoon’s front and hind feet are more dissimilar from each other than those of Muskrats or Otters are, and a Beaver’s hind feet are webbed and considerably larger than a Raccoon’s.)
The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.
Most raccoons in the Northeast are born in April or early May and spend the next seven weeks inside a tree cavity (brush piles and underground burrows are known but not prevalent denning sites) living off their mother’s milk. Four to six weeks go by before the young are able to stand upright, but soon thereafter they are climbing and hanging out of the cavity entrance. The young raccoons are in the process of being weaned when they leave their den at the age of seven weeks. For the next month or so the mother raccoon and her offspring forage together; by the age of five months the young are doing a lot of foraging on their own. Often the family remains together into the late fall or even winter. During cold winter weather, they typically will den together, and the following spring when the new litter arrives, the one-year-old raccoons disperse. (Thanks to Andrea Ambros for photo op.)
With the warm weather we’ve been experiencing, raccoons have remained active, primarily between sunset and midnight. (They tend to hole up, sometimes in groups, during very cold or stormy weather, becoming lethargic and living off of stored body fat.) Until winter weather really arrives, an early morning walk along a stream will often result in the discovery of a raccoon’s flat-footed footprints. When walking in snow that isn’t very deep (see photo) the track pattern of a raccoon is very distinct – with diagonal sets of paired tracks, one hind foot (lower track)and one front (upper track). When the snow is deep, raccoons often “direct register” – place their hind foot almost exactly where their front foot was placed, so that it is no longer a trail of paired tracks, but single tracks, which are more easily confused with other mammals’ tracks.
Raccoons defecate in communal sites called latrines. Often these latrines are located on a raised, flat surface or at the base of a tree. Over time, the scat accumulates. Should you come upon a latrine, it’s best not to investigate too closely, as raccoon feces harbor roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) eggs which can be easily ingested and cause harm (serious eye disease, spinal cord or brain damage, or even death) to humans. One of these roundworms can produce more than 100,000 eggs a day, and the eggs remain viable for years in the soil.
When raccoons emerge from their communal (as many as 23 raccoons) winter dens, which they are doing now, the juveniles (those born last spring) disperse. Young males may travel as far as 170 miles, but usually establish their territories no further than 14 miles from their birth place. Juvenile females usually remain in their birth area, establishing a home range that either overlaps with or is included within the range of their mother. This time of year is also the peak of the breeding season for adult raccoons. Both males and females have multiple mates.
Ninety percent of a coyote’s diet is animal matter, including creatures as varied as meadow voles, mice, muskrats, raccoons, beetles and grasshoppers — basically, anything it can outrun. Coyotes have the reputation as major predators of deer. While research confirms that deer (and rabbits) comprise a good portion of a coyote’s diet in the Northeast, the majority of the deer that coyotes consume is scavenged as carrion (see photo). Because they cannot move as fast as adult deer, fawns are more vulnerable to coyote predation.
In the Northeast, raccoons spend the fall fattening up, for little, if any, food is consumed during the winter. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts and hazelnuts are favorite foods. For as long as insects are available, they form a large part of a raccoon’s diet – delicacies include larvae of dug-up yellow jacket and bumblebee nests, and honeybees as well as the honey the bees have stored for the winter. Birds and rabbits injured by hunters, mice, bats, wild grapes and an occasional crayfish provide raccoons with enough sustenance so that fat makes up almost 50% of their body weight as they head into winter.
While signs of their presence, such as tracks, are still visible, they soon will be scarce. On the coldest winter days, raccoons will seek shelter in hollow trees, sometimes holing up for as long as a month at a time. Communal denning sometimes occurs, with up to 23 raccoons having been found in the same den. Considered “deep sleepers,” raccoons do not lower their metabolism significantly, and therefore are not considered true hibernators.
Not everyone enjoys discovering what an animal eats by dissecting its scat, but for those of us who do, the revelations can be worth the effort. One quick glance at the shape and size of the pictured scat confirmed that a raccoon had been in the vicinity and bits of crayfish exoskeleton in it indicated that the raccoon fed from the nearby pond. Further examination of the contents revealed that raccoons are fast enough to catch dragonflies – something I wouldn’t have necessarily known and most likely wouldn’t observe in the field. Who would have guessed that raccoons are quick enough or interested enough in dragonflies to catch them? (NB: Do not do as I did – do not touch or dissect raccoon scat as it can contain bacteria, ticks and Baylisascaris roundworms which can cause neurological damage.)
As an aside, I thought it might be of interest for readers to know what goes into the making of a Naturally Curious post. The following describes my morning yesterday: out for a walk, visit a pond, see scat on a big, wooden raft that has floated near shore, manage to leap onto raft to take a picture of the scat, photograph scat and then look up to see that my leap has shoved the raft away from the edge of the pond, and I’ve drifted out into the middle of said pond. Balancing the camera on the raft, I paddle, first with one hand and then with both (at one corner), trying to move this 15’ x 15’ wooden structure in the direction I want it to go. Make a little progress, but not much. Beloved chocolate lab swims up to raft, I hold onto her neck and she pulls us to shore, camera intact. And I haven’t even begun to dissect, photograph, label and write about the contents of what led me on this adventure!
A Porcupine’s 30,000 quills effectively defend it against two and four-legged enemies, and occasionally against its own species. Rarely, however, do we see evidence of this mode of defense outside of our family dogs, most of whom are challenged when it comes to learning from the experience. From the size of the quills in this Beaver, one can assume it came in contact with either the Porcupine’s upper back or neck, where the quills are longest (up to 4”). How and where this encounter took place is a mystery. Porcupines can and do swim – their quills are filled with a spongy material which may enhance their buoyancy. So it’s within the realm of possibility that these two rodents met in the water, but that seems unlikely. While some quill injuries result in death, a surprising number of victims recover. One researcher observed that the quills he saw in a raccoon’s muzzle were worn down to a stubble within a week. Due to tiny barbs on the end of the quill that contacts another animal, it can work itself into an animal’s body, but those in this Beaver will hopefully come to rest against its jawbones. As long as the Beaver can eat, its chances of survival are good. It is unlikely to get an infection from the quills, as they’re coated with fatty acids that inhibit the growth of bacteria (in case the Porcupine stabs itself?)
A Ruffed Grouse’s nest is pretty basic – just a shallow bowl on the forest floor, created by the hen grouse tossing leaves over her shoulder and having them fall on her back, slip down to the ground and form a bowl. Ruffed Grouse lay anywhere from 9 to 14 eggs at intervals of 25 to 30 hours, which means it takes about two weeks for a hen to lay an average clutch of 11 eggs. Each of her eggs weighs about 4 percent of her body weight — the entire clutch will be equal to about half of her weight. Once incubation starts (when the last egg is laid) the hen’s behavior goes from wandering around and feeding voraciously, to sitting on the nest and barely moving. Because of this behavior, as well as her cryptic coloration, an incubating Ruffed Grouse hen is much more likely to see you before you see her. She will stay motionless on her nest, even in the face of danger, hiding her eggs. Once she is certain she has been spotted, she will fly off the nest, exposing her eggs. Foxes, crows, ravens, chipmunks, skunks, bobcats and raccoons are some of the predators responsible for the loss of 25% – 40% of grouse nests each year. After the precocial Ruffed Grouse chicks hatch during the first two weeks of June, they will be led away from the nest site by the hen. Within 24 hours they will be feeding on insects and within a week they may double their weight! (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)
While observing the antics of a litter of red fox kits recently, I was witness to an encounter between the kits’ mother and a very large raccoon. The vixen started barking incessantly when she saw the raccoon, and slowly moved closer and closer to it until she was within 10 feet of it. After a short standoff, the raccoon lunged towards the fox, which ran a few feet away and then turned and chased the raccoon in the opposite direction. They took turns chasing each other until the fox eventually drove the raccoon away from her den and kits. While raccoons are omnivores, and a large part of their late spring diet is animals (mainly frogs, fish, crayfish and invertebrates, but also mammals, including squirrels, rabbits and young muskrats). I have never heard of raccoons preying on fox kits, but the mother fox’s behavior indicated that she was not comfortable with the raccoon being so close to her litter. (The following day I noticed that the nose of the runt of the litter had been bitten multiple times. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.)
According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.
During the recent warm spell raccoons were actively roaming the woods, visiting open water and leaving signs of their presence. When cold weather arrives in the fall, raccoons search out hollow trees, logs, crevices, etc. in which to den. They become dormant, but do not hibernate. If the temperature rises above 30 degrees F. at night as it did during the last week, they become active, but now that the temperature has dropped to sub-zero temperatures at night, they have retreated back to their dens. During mild winters, raccoons remain active; during colder winters, they are usually dormant between late November and March. A winter with vacillating temperatures, such as the one we’re experiencing, has them going in and out of dormancy.
Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata , a member of the Walnut family, is named after the shaggy appearance of the bark on older trees. Shagbark Hickory produces nuts which initially are covered with thick husks. As time goes on, the green husks turn brown and open, exposing the nuts, which fall to the ground if squirrels haven’t managed to eat them while they are still on the tree. It takes about ten years for a Shagbark Hickory tree to start producing nuts, but large quantities are not produced until it’s 40 years old. Nut production continues (a good crop every three to five years) for at least 100 years. Shagbark Hickory nuts are very sweet and highly nutritious. They were a staple food for the Algonquians and squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, mice, bears, foxes, rabbits, wood ducks and wild turkey also feed on these excellent sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates.
In New England, Raccoons prepare for winter by eating extra food during the fall. Being omnivores, they eat everything from crayfish and mice to nuts and corn. The latter two items are particularly important, as these high carbohydrate foods allow the Raccoons to put on considerable fat reserves for the cold winter months. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, Raccoons are wasteful when it comes to harvesting corn, because they don’t really like sweet corn all that much. You could fool the Raccoon that deposited this pile on the forest floor adjacent to a Vermont corn field. It gorged on so many ears of corn that it got sick, and there wasn’t a hint of anything but corn kernels that came out of its stomach. (The pile was well over a foot in length.)
Nectar from flowers and sugar from running sap (especially at Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes) or overripe fruit provide most, but not all, of the nutrition that butterflies need. The males of some species will also drink at muddy puddles or damp earth for mineral salts and on scat or animal carcasses to get amino acids and other vital nutrients. This added nutrition is needed for them to generate spermatophores, the packets of sperm and nutrients that are transferred to the female during mating. (Photo is of a White Admiral, Limenitis arthemis arthemis, feeding on blackberry seed-laden Raccoon scat.)