Many of us have encountered creatures with notoriously bad reputations; they are often referred to as vermin or pests. In reality, these “pests” regularly feast on true pests, some of which even threaten human health. Here are four commonly misrepresented critters readily found in many parts of North America and why their associated unflattering images are undeserved!
When people think skunk they immediately think of stink! Skunks are so much more than their (fascinating) defense mechanism, they are also great exterminators! Insects are a mainstay of their summer diets, including wasps and grasshoppers. On top of that, they eat mice, rats, and snakes. Now, back to their scent glands that produce the infamous spray. Using this is an absolute last resort for the animal and one will usually only do so if it feels threatened or trapped. Once used, it will take over a week to replenish so the skunk uses this defense sparingly. They will also provide warning signs when they’re about to spray, such as stamping their feet, charging slightly towards you, and standing on their front legs to lift their rear end in the air. If you encounter a skunk, avoid backing them into any structure or narrow space, and back away as slow as possible with obvious and purposeful movements.
Although they can be an asset to a property, they do burrow to create dens which may cause property damage. Removal of skunks is possible, only after contacting a professional and ensuring that if babies are present they remain with the mother. Summer is the best time to relocate because there is an abundant food supply with which to rebuild a stockpile for winter. Removal during the winter threatens the survival of the animal. It is unlikely they will cause additional damage during this time as their den is already constructed.
Did you know, the opossum is the ONLY marsupial (pouched animal) in North America?! These unique animals are thought to be dirty and disease-ridden, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They groom frequently and effectively; as a result, they regularly ingest ticks. One opossum can eat approximately 5,000 ticks each season. This is especially helpful for humans (and our furry friends) as ticks are known disease vectors. Opossums further contribute to human health by aiding in medical research since they possess a natural resistance to many viral diseases, including rabies, and snake bites. And just in case you need one more reason to like these misunderstood marsupials, they also eat cockroaches, rats, and mice. Oh, and their babies are super cute!
Bats are synonymous with blood-sucking and vampiric lore. Although some species do feed on blood (which is actually a very cool adaptation and rarely performed on humans), no North American species feeds this way. In fact, most of them eat insects, including mosquitoes. A single bat can eat up to 1,000 insects per hour! Some species are considered endangered, you can help them by buying or constructing a bat house for them to roost in. They in turn will reduce insect activity on your property, and thus a beautiful symbiotic relationship will be formed! And don’t worry, they won’t fly into your hair. Not only are bats incredibly adept navigators thanks to echolocation, they are not actually blind as commonly thought.
Coyotes have one of the worst reps of all and have successfully avoided being eradicated despite several attempts. They will try to avoid humans but can be lured into neighborhoods as a result of manmade attractants. To reduce human-coyote interactions keep small pets on a short leash when walking them, and accompany them if you let them out in the yard. Also, avoid leaving pet food outside. Coyotes are an integral cog in the ecosystem and, in the right setting, can benefit humans as rodents are a staple in their diet. They are incredibly resilient and territorial; removing one will result in others moving in to replace it. Females can also physically alter their breeding patterns by increasing litter size in response to declining populations. These incredible adaptations mean they are not going away so we must learn to co-exist with them and work on reducing attractants in densely populated areas.
Infographic courtesy of humanesociety.org
Although some of these animals can be beneficial to have on your property, they are still wild animals and may cause damage or pose a health and safety risk. Is it possible to stop these animals from coming on our property or to deter them once there? Carly Lynch, the Education Manager at WILDNorth Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Center, offers some advice:
“Wildlife are very goal-oriented, so if you want to reduce wildlife encounters on your property, you first need to consider why that animal has chosen to spend time there; what attracted the animal to that area? This isn't as simple as it sounds though - so many things can be considered an attractant. Do you feed your pets outside? Do you have a bird feeder that has spilled seed on the ground? Do you have a tree in your yard with low branches? Can animals get underneath your deck? Do you have a compost? These are all attractants. You need to assess your property and remove or deal with as many of these attractants as possible. After you've done this, you can start thinking about deterrents -- how can you make your property unattractive to wildlife. There are many different deterrents that you can choose from; scare-eye balloons to reflective tape, human hair to synthetic coyote urine, motion-sensitive sprinklers to playing a talk-radio station. Oftentimes people need to do a combination of a few different deterrents for it to be effective. I know it may sound like a lot to consider, but these creatures are making these decisions for a reason, and it is much more humane to have them choose to move on rather than trapping and relocating them.”
Lastly, virtually all human-animal interactions can be reduced by ensuring waste is stored correctly and wildlife does not have easy access to it. Many animals rely on scent, and much of what we throw away is food. Not only does this attract animals to densely human-populated areas, but it also poses threats to animals’ lives. Our food waste can contain dangerous chemicals or contaminants, and can even cause malnutrition. Excess packaging and plastic are also a choking, entrapment, and poisoning hazard. By buying only what we need, and limiting packaging or convenience items we in turn help with the larger global conservation issue of excessive waste. Together, we can create more positive wildlife interactions where they are viewed safely from afar.
We have a responsibility to live peacefully alongside wildlife and share the earth. These creatures have just as much right to be here as you and I. However, if a wild animal does begin to pose a threat to human life, please contact your local fish and wildlife department. If you encounter an orphaned, injured, or sick animal, reach out to the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center for assistance. Never attempt to remove or help a wild animal before contacting a professional. Hopefully, this has shed some new light on a misunderstood critter in your neighborhood. Comment below and let us know your favorite backyard buddy!
Kilgo, J. C., Shaw, C. E., Vukovich, M., Conroy, M. J., & Ruth, C. (2017). Reproductive characteristics of a coyote population before and during exploitation. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 81(8), 1386–1393. doi:10.1002/jwmg.21329
Krause, W. J., & Krause, W. A. (2006). The opossum: its amazing story. Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, School of Medicine, University of Missouri.
Comments will be approved before showing up.