The first time I saw common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus) it was growing along the fence-line of a vacant lot that I walked past every day on the way to work in Toronto. I admired the blue-green leaves and the scented tassel of pale pink flowers; the fat, beaked seedpods; and the gossamer-parachuted seeds. It was with sorrow that I learned it was an unwelcome weed.
Fast forward thirty years, and I now live an hour’s drive from the northern boundary of the city, and have a semi-wild garden in which native plants (weeds, if you will) are tolerated around the edges. Always looking to expand my garden, I decided to do something with a grassy clearing among the wild apple trees behind the barn. Since the area is hidden from view, by the barn in one direction, and by bushes and trees in the others, I decided to call it my Secret Garden.
After enlisting my spouse’s help to mark out the boundaries of the garden, weed-whack the knee-high grasses and weeds, and then apply weed-killer, I began the process of digging the area to remove all the roots and rocks. I was about half-way through digging when I noticed the fat Monarch butterfly caterpillar hanging desperately to a dying Virginia-creeper leaf.
Work ceased immediately. Over the next few days, I monitored the progress of the caterpillar into a handsome chrysalis. Then – disaster - the leaf it was attached to fell off the vine. With spousal assistance, I attached the chrysalis and the dead leaf to a fence-post, and we checked on it regularly until one day we found the chrysalis an empty husk and the butterfly gone.
In the Secret Garden, I looked around for plants that the Monarch caterpillar would have been feeding on, and found a couple of common milkweeds growing in just one spot, to the right of the garden entrance. I decided to let the milkweed remain, but surrounded it with a 3ft-wide “moat” of weed cloth and shredded-bark mulch.
Next spring, I realized I had made an error by allowing the milkweed to release its seeds. The wind must have blown all of them onto my new flowerbeds, because I found milkweed seedlings coming up everywhere. They were difficult to remove, with brittle roots that broke off easily, and a propensity for germinating close to the stems of perennials and shrubs that I had planted.
That year, the couple of stems multiplied into at least a dozen and when in flower their scent filled the garden, although disappointingly I did not see any Monarch butterflies or caterpillars. This time, I made sure to remove all the milkweed seed-pods before they opened.
I thought I had it licked, but to my horror, this spring the roots of the milkweed tunneled under the weed barrier and began coming up in my flowerbeds. I frantically ran to get weed-killer and sprayed the heck out of it. After multiple applications of various toxic substances, it’s starting to look a little sick, but by no means vanquished. I think I’ve learned my lesson. A little milkweed goes a long way.
Before I moved to rural Ontario about ten years ago, I had very little to do with raccoons. At my first Canadian home, in suburban Toronto, I would catch the occasional glimpse of one, and when I lived for a while in semi-rural southeast Pennsylvania raccoons were almost completely absent there due to a rabies epidemic. When I began feeding the birds at my new Ontario home, it never crossed my mind that I would be feeding raccoons too.
The first raccoon to appear was an elderly, arthritic creature that scavenged in daylight and needed to be rescued on occasion from stray dogs. Predictably, Ricky Raccoon was not with us for long. His (or her) place was taken by Mother of Six, who turned up next spring with large family in tow to pillage the birds’ breakfast buffet.
One morning, as I left the house to take food to the bird table, Mother raced towards me, growling. I backed up, squeaking in alarm, until I was flat against the house wall and could retreat no further. Mother sat in front of me, stood up on her hind legs, and fixed me with beady black eyes, but made no move to attack. Having made her point about who was in charge, she let me proceed to put food on the table.
The following morning, Mother dogged my footsteps from house to table, growling at my ankles and racing from side to side as I attempted to go around her. Her six raccoon kits were already installed on the table top, waiting for breakfast to be delivered. Mother quickly joined them. On subsequent mornings, our “dance” from house to table became routine, and I realized that her growling signified only that she was nervous around me, and she wanted to appear dangerous to prevent me from attacking her.
Other racoons dropped by from time to time, but they would wait until Mother of Six and her kits moved off before climbing to the table themselves. Some mornings, while raccoons were feeding I would hear horrible snarling and shrieking noises, and I would rush outside to see who was killing whom. Nobody ever was. The aggression was all a bluff. One raccoon would usually give way to the other before any physical contact was made. Occasionally, nips were given, but I saw no blood drawn. The most common interaction, if two raccoons gained the tabletop simultaneously, was a back-to-back shoving contest as each strove to take possession of the pile of food.
A lot of territorial and dominance problems were solved when I distributed food over a wider area. I now have two bird tables, and a hanging bird feeder that seeds spill out of, and I tip sunflower seeds on the ground either in several small piles or a large circle, allowing all the raccoons access without them having to get in close proximity.
Although raccoons clearly have very sensitive “hands” that can find food by touch while their eyes are directed elsewhere, they don’t use them to feel each other. In fact, adult raccoons seem to have no desire to make physical contact with each other at all, other than for defense, offense, or mating. Kits will huddle for protection, and wrestle during play-fights amongst themselves, but contact is not prolonged. I once watched a TV program about a rehab establishment for orphaned wild animals. The program showed a rehabber ruffling the fur of a raccoon kit, and cuddling it like a human baby, and the kit looked most uncomfortable. Raccoons appear to touch only food with their paws, fight or climb with their claws, and would rather avoid human hands altogether.
I could not recognize Mother of Six after her kits grew up and dispersed, but she is probably still one of the females that pay regular visits to my bird feeders. I have observed that raccoons with similar coloring and facial markings (perhaps siblings or grown-up offspring), seem more tolerant of each other and eat close together without much snapping or snarling. Others with noticeably different coloring eat alone. One is very pale, almost blonde, while another has fur nearly as red as a fox. I have noticed too that the vertical dark facial stripe, which runs like a brushstroke of ink from between the eyes up the middle of the forehead, can be thin or thick, long or short, very dark or almost absent. If my memory was better, I’m sure I could learn to use the stripe to recognize individual raccoons.
This year, one of the females raised a family of two in the barn, close to the house. I could hear the kits trilling to themselves inside the den, although their mother was always careful never to leave or enter the barn if she knew I was watching. The kits benefitted from being so close to the bird buffet, and now feel very comfortable in the garden. I call them the Terrible Twins. They have developed a taste for hummingbird nectar and can be found perched on the deck railing every evening, reaching up to the hanging feeders to tip syrup into their mouths, unless I remember to remove the feeders in time.
Thankfully, rabies is rare in this area. When I see a raccoon in the daytime, it is most likely out and about because it is hungry or has been disturbed from its hiding place. Sometimes, though, it is sick. Canine distemper is currently the most common disease of wildlife, and is deadly to coyotes, foxes, skunks, mink, and porcupines as well as raccoons. Sadly, there is no cure. The affected animal becomes disorientated and sluggish, and eventually curls up and dies. I have not yet seen an afflicted animal on my property, however, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that all “my” raccoons stay healthy.
Twenty years ago: I’m in the kitchen, clearing up after mealtime, and wishing there was something useful I could do with all the meaty scraps. I didn’t want them in the compost, where they would attract animals, and the garbage sack would be ripped open by the crows when I set it out on garbage day. Then I had a thought: I could give the scraps directly to the crows.
Next morning, I marched forth bearing a bowl filled with bits of fat and gristle, yesterday’s stale cat food, and some bread past its expiry date. I emptied the bowl onto the ground at the edge of the garden and retreated indoors to watch what happened. I didn’t have to wait long. The crows carried off my offering within minutes, leaving no mess behind.
Hubby felt that putting food on the ground was not right, and so he built a bird table. The crows adapted immediately. In the morning they now waited in the trees around the house for me to deliver their breakfast, and so they naturally followed me to the new eating place. In fact, they seemed to recognize me even when it wasn’t feeding time. Before I started feeding them they used to fly away when I entered the garden, but now they were comfortable with my presence while I was doing yard-work.
I began watching the crows as much as they were watching me. When they cleaned off the bird table, they didn’t actually eat much. They stuffed their beaks with as much as they could carry, flew off and hid the food under a tussock of grass or some leaves, and flew back to repeat the operation. Throughout the day, individual crows would return to their secret caches and have a snack. They didn’t always clean out their larder. I started putting corn on the bird table, and the next year I found corn plants coming up in several flowerbeds.
Listening to the crows, I began realized that my crows had a slightly different tone to their calls than other groups of crows in the area. I also noticed that they had distinct calls for “breakfast is served”, “defend the territory against other crows”, and “predator alert”. The latter call over-rode any territorial limits, and so a hawk could be mobbed by crows from far and wide.
Now I was so interested in the crows, I read up on them. I found ‘The American Crow and the Common Raven’ by Lawrence Kilham to be an excellent resource. I learned that my group of crows consisted of a dominant breeding pair and a number of subordinate, un-mated female crows that were likely to be daughters of the breeding pair. Subordinates assist with raising the breeding pair’s offspring every year. If a dominant crow behaves aggressively towards a subordinate, the subordinate will roll over onto its side in total submission.
The years passed, hubby and I moved house, and I said goodbye to my crows. Where I live now, a recycling Green Bin now takes most of my table scraps, but I still put some on the bird table and get pleasure from seeing crows drop by for breakfast.