Category Archives: Mammals

Wildlife Returns While Humans Stay Indoors

Limpkin on patio railing in Boca Raton, FL (sent by Natalie Mitchell, 31 Mar 2020)

As we shelter indoors, wildlife is reclaiming our neighborhoods faster than we thought possible. Limpkins in Florida, deer in Pittsburgh, and wild boars in Italy!

Limpkins in Florida:

Now that human activity has slowed in Boca Raton, my sister-in-law says that limpkins have moved into the neighborhoods and are shouting all night to attract mates and establish territories. If you’ve never heard a limpkin you’d think it’s a human in distress and you might call 911. Ooops! It’s a bird. Limpkins are a thrill to birders but annoying if you’re trying to sleep. Here’s what one looks and sounds like from 2012. You can hear other limpkins in the distance.

Deer in Pittsburgh:

Deer are getting bolder and coming out during the day now that Pittsburghers are not outdoors. Yesterday, 31 March, Donna Foyle found a family group right next to a front porch in Brentwood.

On 25 March KDKA reported deer on Pitt’s campus in a photo and article.

Wild boars in Italy:

Wild boars can be dangerous but they usually avoid humans. This mama and youngsters were filmed strolling through Bergamo, Italy, posted to Twitter on 30 March 2020.

Have you seen any interesting wildlife in town lately? Leave a comment to let me know.

(limpkin photo sent to me by Natalie Mitchell on 31 Mar 2020, deer in Brentwood via cellphone from Donna Foyle)

Mouse In The Legos Challenge

The new American Lego Masters competition on television reminded me that …

When Matthias Wandel found a mouse in his toolshed he wondered how big a hole the mouse used to get in. Initially he experiments with a wooden maze. Then he used Legos.

Wandel’s five-minute video features a computerized Legos maze equipped with light sensors and a moving gate. Each time the mouse completes a visit, the gate closes a little more, just 1/3 mm. Eventually the mouse discovers he can’t get in. At 10.5 mm (0.413 inches) the gap is just too small.

The mouse takes on the Legos challenge but is limited by the size of his skull.

(video by Matthias Wandel on YouTube)

My Kind of Nature Watch

Central American woolly opossum, Canopy Tower, Panama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In March 2018, ten of us went on a week-long birding trip to the Canopy Tower in Panama. We focused on birds but at dinnertime this mammal stole the show.

Every evening just after sunset a Central American (or Derby’s) woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus) shuffled quickly past us as we sat chatting about the day’s events. If you didn’t watch carefully you missed it.

One evening I tried to follow the opossum to take his photo but failed. He seemed awkward but he was surprisingly fast.

This photo, taken at the Canopy Tower by Charles J. Sharp, reminded me of how easy it was to see this wide-eyed nocturnal animal. My husband was impressed that the opossum came so close, “That’s my kind of nature watch!”

See Derby’s woolly opossum in two videos below: At night in Panama’s San Francisco Reserve (look at those ears!) …

… and at Cornell Lab’s Panama fruitcam.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. videos from YouTube)

C’mon, Badger, I know a shortcut!

Apparently coyotes share their knowledge with badgers. Wow!

Thanks to @PacificNorthwestKate for the title of this article. Her retweet on February 4 alerted me to the video.

Celebrating Groundhogs

Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 February 2020

Today the world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, predicted the weather for the next six weeks. He says we’ll have an early spring.

Groundhog Day is the mid-point of the celestial winter, a cross quarter day that marks the halfway point between solstice and equinox. According to Wikipedia, Celtic and Germanic tradition says that if the hedgehog sees his shadow today winter will last 6 more weeks. (It will anyway; today is 6 weeks before the equinox.) If he doesn’t see his shadow we’ll have an early spring. At dawn in Punxsutawney it was overcast with light snow — no shadow, early spring.

There aren’t any hedgehogs on this continent so immigrants substituted the groundhog (Marmota monax) for their annual tradition.

In the early days groundhogs didn’t hang out near people but they soon learned we have something they want. Food!

Groundhog eating dandelions near the parking lot at Université Laval, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Groundhog eating handouts at York University, Toronto, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Groundhog offered peanut (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We also provide shelter, though unintentionally. Groundhogs use our buildings and concrete structures to make burrows for sleeping, rearing young, and hibernating.

Groundhog heads for burrow under a barn in Pennsylvania (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Groundhog emerges from its sidewalk burrow at Leslie Street Spit, Toronto (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Groundhog at York University, Toronto (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Groundhogs will emerge from their burrows this spring in Pittsburgh, probably later this month. I know they live in Greenfield (near my backyard!) and Andrew Mumma has seen them near Pitt. They’re something to look forward to.

Happy Groundhog Day!

p.s. You have to get up before dawn to watch Phil’s prediction live online at

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click the captions to see the originals)

Safely Underground

Southern hairy-nosed wombat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the raging bushfires in Australia there’s a bit of happy news. Wombats are unintentionally saving wildlife.

Wombats are nocturnal marsupials that live in burrows which they dig with their teeth and claws. Specially adapted for their underground life, the female’s pouch where she carries her young faces backward so the dirt doesn’t get into it.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) are the smallest of the three wombat species. At 30 inches long and weighing 42 to 71 pounds, their extensive tunnels have many entrances, long “hallways,” several large warrens, and smaller chambers. They are known to share their burrows with other wombats and are tolerant of visits by other species. Southern hairy-nosed wombats live in the fire zone.

Wombat burrow in New South Wales, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Rescuers figured out the importance of wombat burrows when they found healthy, unscathed animals wandering in newly burned areas including small wallabies, echidnas, lizards, skinks and rabbits. As the fires approached, the fleeing animals dove into wombat burrows to shelter safely while the firestorm passed overhead.

Two species that may benefit from the wombat burrows are shown below.

The swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is common in the bushfire area, measuring 27-30 inches excluding its tail. Rock wallabies are even smaller.

Swamp wallaby feeding on leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) are egg-laying mammals like the platypus that measure 12-18 inches long. They eat ants and termites.

Sheltering underground is not a new thing. It turns out that small mammals survived the meteor that killed the dinosaurs by hiding safely underground. Wombats are inadvertently doing their bit to save wildlife today.

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Cute and Disappearing

Young hedgehog (photo by Reinhold Möller on Wikimedia Commons)

The cutest animal in the UK is disappearing at an alarming rate. The European hedgehog, the adorable star of children’s books, is now vulnerable to extinction in Great Britain.

Since we don’t have hedgehogs in the U.S. you might not realize what a loss this is.

Only half the size of house cats, European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) have soft spines that are prickly but not dangerous. Unlike porcupine quills the spines have no hooks. Here’s a young one held in the hand.

Juvenile hedgehog (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though they are nearsighted, nocturnal and solitary, hedgehogs are blessed with a keen sense of smell that helps them find beetles, slugs, insects and grubs. In summer they are lightweights (1.8 pounds) but in autumn they double their weight to get ready to hibernate.

Hedgehogs are surprisingly athletic. According to Dr. Krista Keller at Univ of Illinois, “They often run several miles a night and are adept climbers and swimmers.” In this way they roam a home territory of 2 to 50 acres.

Hedgehog lapping water in Hyvinkää, Finland (photo by Tero Laakso via Flickr Creative Commons license)

In most of Europe the hedgehog population is stable but by 2007 people began to notice they were disappearing from Britain. A 2018 census found that the population had dropped 66% in just over 20 years. The Guardian reported:

There are perhaps just a million left, representing a 97% fall from the 30 million estimated to have roamed in the 1950s.

No one’s sure why hedgehogs have declined so precipitously but theories include a lack of habitat, a lower insect population, pesticides, road kills, and an increase in predators and competition, especially from badgers.

Climate change is also a factor. Warmer autumns allow baby hedgehogs to be born too late to fatten up for hibernation. This fall more than 500 underweight young hedgehogs were rescued and housed at Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England. The Suffolk Hedgehog Hospital was so full in October that they ran out of space for new rescues.

Fortunately UK residents are mobilizing to protect and restore hedgehogs to gardens and hedgerows. This video from Amazing Grace: Saving Britain’s Hedgehogs explains how gardeners can help hedgehogs.

With efforts like these, the hedgehog will make a comeback in Britain.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Tero Laakso on Flickr Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Hedgehogs are much easier to find in Scandinavia. This mother and baby were photographed crossing a rural road in Sweden. I saw my “Life Hedgehog” in a friends’ backyard in Finland. So cute!

Mother and baby hedgehog, Avesta Sweden (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A Massive Rack

Bull Elk near Benezette, PA (photo by Paul Staniszewski)

Though elk (wapiti) resemble white-tailed deer they are much larger and have huge antlers. A bull elk’s rack can reach 3.9 feet across and weigh 40 pounds! That’s twice as wide and five times the weight of the largest antlers on white-tailed deer.

Like all Cervids elk rub their antlers on trees to remove the velvet that coated the bone while it was growing. The velvet had nerves in it so the bull learned the dimensions of his antlers as they grew. When the rack is complete he remembers how big it is. This usually keeps him out of trouble when he rubs on trees or spars with another bull .

This month Paul Staniszewski captured photos of a bull elk rubbing his antlers and grooming in Benezette, PA. It’s amazing how the bull maneuvers in the tight space among the trees. What a massive rack!

  • Antler rub (photo by Paul Stansizewski)

(photos by Paul Staniszewski)

Who’s Outsmarting Who?

Juvenile raccoons contemplating their next move (photo courtesy PBS NATURE)

This morning I went out the back door at 6am — in the dark — with a bag of garbage. I do this every Friday to outsmart the raccoons.

Raccoons are thriving in my neighborhood though we rarely see them. Last night, for the first time in many months, I saw a hunched shadow cross the street on a nocturnal ramble. They’re still here.

Mostly we see their evidence so we try to outsmart them.

The garbage truck arrives in our back alley as early as 6am but we’ve learned from experience that if we put the garbage out the night before the raccoons rip it open and scatter the contents. Nowadays I take out the garbage as close as possible to the garbage truck’s arrival. One morning I missed the truck. Dang!

Seven years ago PBS NATURE premiered a program called Raccoon Nation that showed how creative urban raccoons can be. One of the scientists remarked:

The more obstacles you throw in their way become more challenges, so it’s quite possible that by providing more and more obstacles we are in fact selecting for smarter raccoons.

— from Raccoon Nation program on PBS NATURE

I’ve changed my Friday morning schedule to foil the raccoons. Have I outsmarted them or have they outsmarted me?

Click here for a short web exclusive video of raccoon babies + more exploring in a kitchen.

(photo and video clip from PBS NATURE)

Who Made These Holes?

Empty black walnut shell with holes (photos by Kate St. John)

This nutshell is empty and carved with large holes. Their shape and placement tell us who made them.

In the autumn black walnuts ripen and fall from the trees. They’re covered in yellow-green husks that exude a black stain when you open them.

Black walnut in husk, Schenley Park, 27 Sep 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Squirrels don’t care about the stain. They chew off the husk and gnaw the wooden shell.

Fox squirrel making the sawdust fly as he opens a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)
Fox squirrel chisels a black walnut (photo by Donna Foyle)

They make four holes, two on each side of the shell. The side that opens quickly is gnawed into one large hole. By their shape you can tell that a squirrel ate the nutmeat.

This fox squirrel gnawed a black walnut in Donna Foyle’s backyard in 2014. Find out how long it took him in How To Open A Black Walnut.

(photos by Kate St. John and Donna Foyle, per the captions)