Wildlife: Opinion - a Closer Look

Posted by @Sharon on
It's that time again. Critters who live near you are making plans for midnight raids on your roses, early morning feasts involving your lettuce, and late afternoon snacks with your daffodils. It's that time again; trust me, they're making plans. It's a surprise party they'll have. You won't be getting an invitation.

Wildlife and you. It doesn't need to be a battle. We just need to understand why they're here.

It's like this: if the wildlife in your yard is of a native species, nature has a reason for that wildlife to be there. If they are not native to your area, then all bets are off. They don't belong; you do.  But sometimes it's the natives that create the most stress. Let's talk about them.

I think there’s a reason for every living thing.  Nature has a plan and every living thing has a role in it.  That's my belief and I'll stick with it, most of the time.

But I’m a woman who’ll frantically climb to the highest rung of the ladder yelling for all to hear:  “There’s a mouse there’s a mouse there’s a mouse get it out get it out!”  I might even add:  "Don't hurt it!" right along with all the screeching.

I do the same thing when I see a mole. Or a garter snake. Or a blackbird.

In spite of my less than ladylike reaction to a tiny creature who probably weighs about a hundred ten pounds less than I do, I think he has his place in the world. I don’t always know his place, and he probably has never considered it either, but most likely together we can figure it out.

I grew up walking between two older women, one holding my left hand and the other holding my right.  Between the two of them, I listened a little and I learned a lot.

Most of the time I wasn’t given direct answers; I was encouraged to find them for myself. I wondered why my grandmother planted two beds of lettuce early every spring when we only ate the lettuce from one of them.  One bed was planted in the far corner of her garden, the corner nearest the woods and the creek that ran beside it. The other was planted near the gate where we entered the garden from our house.


I watched early in the morning when we went to pick lettuce, I noticed in the distance the wild rabbits eating from the patch in the far corner. I saw them there again in the late evening munching away, sometimes as many as 4 or 5. I might have been 3 or 4 at the time. She and I never went near that distant lettuce bed, even though I loved playing in the creek behind it.  The rabbits never came near our bed either.

She had planted an extra bed in the far corner, near where she knew the rabbits entered from their nesting place on the hillside beside the creek.  They ate from that bed all they needed and never came near the bed she’d planted for our use.   I still think that’s a neat trick for keeping rabbits out of a garden.

The rabbits were my introduction to the wildlife that lived among us; the extra lettuce bed showed me that my grandmother valued the rabbits enough to feed them, but on her terms.  It was up to me to figure out why.

Nature has a plan, it’s up to us to see it. 

Take the very smallest organisms you can see in a creek that was made by nature with no influence from humans. Several different types of larvae from different organisms indicate a healthy site.  It’s much like the bird that miners carry caged into the mine. Seeing it flying out again means there’s no poisonous gas inside the mine. Those tiny and varied larvae and the little bird tell us those are safe sites. So there is a purpose.

Now let's go back to rabbitsOverall benefits from a backyard rabbit enterprise include nutritious and wholesome meat and rich manure for gardening or flower beds. According to the USDA, meat from domesticated rabbits is an all white meat product that is high in protein and low in fat, sodium and cholesterol as compared to other common meats, such as beef, lamb, pork and poultry. Rabbit meat has been recommended for years by some physicians to their patients with coronary heart conditions.

The manure from rabbits makes excellent compost, rich in organic matter and nutrients, that can produce remarkable garden and flowering results. Commercial redworms or nitecrawlers grown in rabbit manure produce a superb and fairly odorless organic material that resembles peat moss.

So there's that. What about squirrels?  I’ll start with the squirrels that live in the trees in my back yard, the ones who sometimes drive me crazy playing acorn soccer on my roof.


Squirrels are the first wild animal many children see, particularly if they live in a city.  No doubt the antics of the squirrels delight the children, just as they sometimes entertain their parents. Incredible adaptors, squirrels are. We turn their natural home into parking lots and apartment buildings and they simply adapt to the new conditions. They rarely ever pack up and move on.   But what do squirrels provide besides entertainment?

Squirrels are nature’s tree pruners. They nibble and gnaw and chew off branches when they build their nests, 'aerating' the tree. They eat insects, devouring beetles and grubs that infest trees, shrubs and lawns.

They dig and bury and dig up again; aggravating us, but in truth it aerates the soil and incorporates organic matter into it. They also help keep forests healthy by spreading various fungi that are beneficial to trees.

Being natural little furry gardeners, they dot our world with green and help keep it that way. Those seeds and nuts they plant are often forgotten and are left to sprout, leaving you with an oak tree in the middle of your succulent garden, but also leaving an apple tree or two growing out in the middle of a barren field.  Some credit the Eastern Grey Squirrel with spreading dense forest cover across much of the United States.  Some say they are also responsible for the northward progression of the oak trees from the east coast.

Whether you live in the city, the country, or suburbs,  I’ll bet there’s not a one of you who has never seen a squirrel.  Familiar little faces, aren’t they?

To most of us, squirrels aren’t going to save the world so why am I adorning their little heads with halos?  We probably wouldn’t even miss them if they were gone; they don’t seem to have much of an impact except for providing a laugh or two occasionally.  But are we willing to take a chance on the long term impact of their absence?  Think about it.

Remember the honeybees?  They are our pollinators and without them we would have a real food problem.  I recently read something that opened my eyes, made me think. We didn’t notice much a few years ago when the honeybee population started dwindling, but eventually and if they continue to disappear,  the effects will be felt around the world.  There are those who are already noticing.  Some of our favorite foods will disappear right along with them, not to mention the medicinal properties of the honey they provide.

We know so little about nature and the relationship of species, including their relationship to us; we seem to roam this planet devouring everything that gets in our way, without thought as to why it was here in the first place.  And we don’t give a thought to replacements either, even if we could create them.

Just like the honeybees, squirrels were here before we were. They have a reason for being here. I hope we are smart enough to never force ourselves to see what doing without them would accomplish.


Chipmunks. Cute little things, though I haven’t seen very many of them and none anywhere near where I live.   They're members of the ground squirrel family, and according to experts probably evolved from an ancestor of the common ground squirrel,  which lived in North America several million years ago. All species of chipmunks found in North America are native to North America.

Chipmunks are generally non harmful to humans and the environment.  They provide an important food source for other wildlife and even for our domesticated cats.  Some tell us that they are also a food source for the red squirrel.  But if we dwell on that we’ll begin to wonder about the purpose of the kitty who sits in our laps as we read.  On the other hand, chipmunks may also play an important role in dispersing seeds from plants they are eating and storing during their travels. They also areate the soil as they dig.

Their digging, however, can cause problems for gardeners. In particular their love for digging along sidewalks and stone or concrete foundations can affect the stability of these structures and can often create instability when a human trips over the damage a chipmunk has left behind.


Several years ago some state out west decided the local prairie dog population was just a useless nuisance so they poisoned them all. The problem was that cattle were falling into their holes and breaking legs.

After the prairie dogs were killed off, the land started to die.  Being in an arid region, the rain often falls fast and heavy, and the soil is so dry that the water rolls off.  With all the prairie dog burrows, the water would sheet over the dry land and run down into the burrows, where it would be slowly absorbed.  Without the burrows, the rain kept running over the surface and just kept going downhill.  Without the water being absorbed, the grasses died and couldn't support the cattle that the ranchers had already given preference to when they got rid of the prairie dogs.

Within a year, the whole area the prairie dogs had inhabited withered and died and the herds of native Bison vanished. The cattle probably didn't make it either. The soil self destructed with nothing to tend to it.

Although prairie dogs seemed to humans to be "useless", obviously something they were doing was desperately vital to their environment.

So do we know whether or not the lowly chipmunk is useless as well? I wonder.

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I love most birds, though I'm not really happy when an invasion of blackbirds appears all over my yard.

I read some information recently on exactly what the earth would be like without "trash birds".

For example, the writer said that within a few years of complete sparrow extinction, the earth would be choked by the noxious weeds whose seeds they normally eat.

We live in a world where all things are joined in some way, even if we don't see it until it's too late.


I've read of several people in the permaculture world who have learned to appreciate the mole.  I don't think they appreciate the vole yet.  The mole loosens soil.  The vole kills your young fruit trees.

Moles are small cylindrical mammals adapted to a subterranean lifestyle. Think of tiny underground apartments. The moles have velvety fur, tiny or invisible ears and eyes, and short, powerful limbs with large paws for digging. Sometimes they dig what seems to be mile after mile of little underground tunnels all over our yards.

Irritating though they are, rodent runs are also valuable collectors of water.

Short-range thinking, long-term disaster if we rid ourselves of tunnel digging rodents then have several years of drought.

The damage caused by moles is almost entirely cosmetic. Although moles are often falsely accused of eating the roots of grass and other plants, they actually feed on the insects causing the damage. The tunneling of moles may cause some physical damage to the root systems of ornamental or garden plants and may kill grass by drying out the roots, but this damage is usually minor.


Gophers in our yard are quite common throughout the United States and parts of Canada and Central America.  They find tender perennials irresistible and with a habit of pulling them from their underground tunnels below the soil surface, the case of the missing plant can sometimes remain unresolved until it's forgotten. Planting the prized begonia in an underground cage or bucket might be the only answer.

The official name of this mammal is "Pocket Gopher", named after their very visible cheek pockets used to carry food. Gophers live most of their lives underground.  With a 12 year life span gophers out live quite a few of their neighboring wild critters.  This is most likely due to their underground lifestyle. They rarely leave their burrows.

As with many rodents, pocket gophers do not hibernate.  They forage year round and do store food in their burrows for winter use in colder climates.

Gophers benefit humans and ecosystems in several ways. As with all burrowing animals, gophers are doing wonderful things for the top soil in the areas where they live.  The burrowing process aerates the soil, reduces compaction, and increases water filtration.  Living underground has its benefits, too, by adding nutrients to soil through natural composting of nesting materials and regular excrement. 

Unfortunately, those large incisors can have a negative effect to humans when they chop through water lines and underground sprinkler systems.  And too, their mounds may not be fully appreciated by homeowners who've also had unresolved issues over their disappearing prized rose bushes.

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Raccoons.   These critters create within us first one emotion then another. We think they are so cute, then they tear the fur right off our cat and smile in our faces. They control animal and plant populations and can eat an entire wasp nest including larvae, or an entire patch of poison ivy.  Of course then they can also leave a trail of poison ivy seeds behind on their way to other places.  They can be pests, spreading diseases, mauling garbage cans, and particularly spreading rabies.

But raccoons benefit people by controlling animal and plant populations, regardless of the upturned trash cans and hairless pets they leave behind them.  Unlike rabbits, they tend to go where the food is, ignoring any garden you might plant just for them. Bury compost scraps deeply and secure the lids of your trash cans. Don't share your watermelons with them, even though they're cute.


Snakes.  Oh, I shiver and shudder everytime I see one, though I know some are beneficial. Here's something I picked up from a blog spot. I like it enough to share with you.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. A worker at a Florida dog kennel noticed dozens of snakes living in the rafters and crevices, and decided the reptiles had to go. Working systematically, he killed until none were left.

Then came the plague of rats.

“The rat population exploded,” a state biologist reported later. “It took two years, hundreds of people-hours, and thousands of dollars to get control of the rats and repair the structural damage.” This does not include the hundreds of pounds of dog food that the rats ate and contaminated. The economic cost of removing the rats’ natural predators was obvious.

They can keep pests, such as rats and mice, in check. And some species that are harmless to people prey on poisonous snakes, reducing the chance of a deadly encounter.

And in the United States, biologists are spreading the word about the good points of these slinky predators. A single black snake, for instance, can eat dozens of rats a year.

But if you encounter a snake, biologists say, the best thing to do is leave it alone. I'd hate to risk facing a plague of rats.


Alligators. They scare me to death. So do crocodiles.  Living inland as I do, I know not a thing about them.  But I can read and here's what I found:

Alligators are important in nature. They help maintain the population balance of certain prey species and they help shape and modify habitats. During times of severe drought, alligators are known to dig holes (gator holes) to concentrate water. This helps the alligator survive, and also helps many other species of plants and animals in the area.


Here are some mostly tried and true natural methods of critter control that have worked for me; they come from this site.

*Snails and slugs:  sink a bowl into the ground, add beer to it. Slugs will naturally go to the scent of beer or milk, but milk is disgusting to clean when it contains dead snails. They'll go have a drink, then drown while enjoying their swim.

*Moles and voles and other burrowing critters:  Dig holes in the ground about six inches deep and four inches wide.

Place empty, plastic soda bottles (or glass bottles, but plastic is less dangerous) in the holes and bury them so that about one to two inches are exposed.

Rodents will hear the wind blowing over the tops of the bottles and it will scare them out of making their home in your garden. This is much more humane than killing the poor things. They will naturally relocate to a quieter place. (This only works of course if you live in a slightly windy area.)

*Plant garlic. To keep squirrels and chipmunks from munching on your bulbs, plant cloves of garlic among the bulbs. The smell will repel them, and you will have a popular herb with which to cook.

*Plant catmint. Keep all types of rodents - squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice - out of your garden and plants by growing this very attractive and great smelling herb.
*Use lemon. If cats are using your freshly-mulched flower beds as a litter box, just thinly slice lemons and scatter in your garden. Lemon is toxic to cats, and it usually only takes a couple of applications for them to take the hint. In addition, the lemon will biodegrade and feed your garden.
*Use dog and human hair. Simply place dog or human hair randomly in your garden, concentrating on places where you have noticed critters digging. Usually you will need to replace the hair about every two weeks or after heavy rains. The smell will repel the wild critters. (Note: Cat hair will not work, but most of the time other hair will repel deer.)
*Feed the animals. The surest way to keep critters, especially squirrels and chipmunks, out of your garden and plants is to keep them well-fed. They would much rather hang out at well-stocked feeders than expend a lot of energy digging in your garden and plants.
*Create a bunny garden. Give the bunnies their own garden away from your vegetable garden. Plant clover and lettuces with any other greens and root vegetables that are attractive to bunnies. Also, be sure to include a saucer or top of a birdbath so they will have drinking water. (And this is exactly what my grandmother did in her garden.)
I've only briefly mentioned deer. We have a lot in this area; they provide food every fall when deer season starts. It might surprise you to know that many folks reserve space in their freezers just for deer meat.  Luckily in this area they are controlled by authority of the United States Forest Service who has jurisdiction over the Land Between the Lakes where they live.  For the most part, they are happy in their own natural habitat. It's when they become overcrowded that we have a problem and they visit us in town. Fortunately that doesn't happen very often. 
As for those critters that I don't know a thing about, you are on your own. But I would encourage you to consider whether or not they are native to your area. If they are, please remember that they have a role to play in your environment and if you need to move them from your garden, try to relocate them to their natural habitat. Sometimes if we are overrun with a species, we need to eradicate, and when that happens environmental specialists should be involved. Another more specific example of the best time to call in specialists would be if you find alligators in your pool. I hope that never happens.
I know it's difficult to accept that those critters that drive us craziest most likely have a reason for being where they are. It's up to us to maintain nature's balance while also taking care of the plants and animals and people we love so much. Hard to do, I know.
We could list critter after critter here and read on forever, but most of us are only concerned with those we've met nose to nose. How you live with them is up to you, but I truly think we all need to realize the impact if we ever have to learn to live without them.

The photos of the red squirrel and the chipmunk are by threegardeners and used with permission.

Image of the climbing raccoon comes from Firefly on Cubits, also with permission.

Other photos are from Wikimedia and released under the Free GNU Documentation License.

The sources for this article are numerous and I left links to most of them scattered throughout the text of the article.

Comments and discussion:
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
Great article! by plantladylin Nov 4, 2015 5:15 PM 82
Very Wonderful Article! by Gymgirl Apr 4, 2014 10:08 AM 1
GREAT Raccoon pic!!!! by crittergarden Mar 1, 2012 12:06 PM 2
Crows by A_Rare_Rose Feb 25, 2012 1:11 AM 3
As always, a wonderful article by ctcarol Feb 24, 2012 7:26 PM 1
Great Article - A must read! by A_Rare_Rose Feb 23, 2012 11:25 PM 1
A global problem! by NEILMUIR1 Feb 23, 2012 5:56 PM 1
Very informative! by mollymistsmith Feb 23, 2012 9:25 AM 3

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