Bobcats Eat Venomous Snakes

Venomous snakes aren’t bad or evil. Like all other animals, they have an important role to play in our ecosystem. Among other things, snakes help to control populations of rats and mice. This in turn helps reduce the incidence of diseases these rodents might carry.

Nevertheless, you probably don’t want venomous snakes living too close to your house. While fatal bites are extremely rare, they do happen occasionally. This is one of the many reasons that bobcats can be useful neighbors to have around!

Bobcats are some of nature’s most fearless predators, making them one of the few native creatures bold enough to kill and eat venomous snakes. And bobcats are even less likely than venomous snakes to harm humans. No human has ever died of a bobcat attack! Letting your bobcat neighbor stick around is one of many ways you can keep your family (and your neighborhood ecosystem) safe and healthy for all.


Nature’s Ant Control Crew

Skinks, armadillos, wrens, catbirds, and Northern flickers are among the local Tennessee animals that eat ants.

Ants can become a nuisance when they become overpopulated, and invasive fire ants— which aren’t a natural part of our ecosystem and can carry a particularly nasty sting— are especially frustrating to deal with. Thankfully, we have lots of wild animals who help keep the populations of ant colonies in check!

Native lizards, especially skinks, eat ants as a main staple of their diets. Gray catbirds, along both of our native wren species, also eat lots of ants, particularly in early summer, when they’re an important food source for growing baby birds.

Out of all of our local wildlife, the two champion ant exterminator species are the Northern flicker and nine-banded armadillo. Northern flickers are among the few birds that will actually dig into the ground to eat ants, using its long barbed tongue to collect larvae and eggs in addition to adults. Armadillos, which are close relatives of anteaters, are also ant vacuums, slurping up thousands of them in one feeding and able to completely ignore their bites and stings.

My son once asked me if animals that like to eat fireants think they taste spicy, sour, or sweet, and it was one of the few times I heard an animal question from one of my kids that I couldn’t answer. Let me know what you think! 😜 🐜

Fox Screams: Just Looking for Love!

It’s mid-January and you wake up at night to the sound of a woman screaming in terror. Or… wait, that’s not a woman, is it? That’s a… bird of some kind? a Bigfoot? a mountain lion? It’s easy for our imaginations to get carried away when we hear that eerie scream in the darkness.

Most of the time, that bizarre scream that sounds like a woman is coming from a red fox. Although foxes can scream at any time of year, you’re most likely to hear this call between late December and mid-February, when vixens are most likely to be in heat.

Foxes will scream to communicate across long distances or claim a territory, but they also frequently scream when they’re trying to attract a mate. Male and female foxes both make this odd vocalization when they’re looking for love.

There’s no need to do anything in particular if you hear foxes screaming. It will probably only last a few nights and it’s not a sign that they’re hurt or in pain (even if it sounds like it to us). It’s all just part of these beautiful creatures’ complex communication as they find mates, raise families, and go about their lives on this planet we all share. 🦊

How to Examine a Box Turtle

You don’t have to be a vet or wildlife rehabilitator to check an animal for signs of injury! We don’t normally ask the public to examine animals, but the increase in of eye and ear infections have us concerned, and they need your help!

If you find a wild box turtle, please do NOT bring it inside, allow a child to handle the turtle, or relocate it, but DO take a look to see if it needs help.

Look at the sides of the turtle’s face. If you notice large swollen spots or lumps, those are ear abscesses.

Check the turtle’s eyes. They should be clear and the turtle should have them open at almost all times. Swelling and cloudiness are red flags.

Take a look at the box turtle’s nose. You should NOT see water or mucus coming out of the nostrils. These are symptoms of pneumonia.

Do you see cracks, bleeding, or unstable, wobbly parts of the shell? Those are signs of a shell fracture and need treatment. (Note that the hinge on the bottom of a box turtle’s shell, which they use to close themselves inside their shell, is normal.)

Is any part of the turtle’s body bleeding, red, ulcerated, or leaking a clear or pus-like fluid? If so, it definitely needs help.

After handling a box turtle (or any reptile), make sure to wash or sanitize your hands as a precaution. Please contact a rehabilitator if you see any signs that concern you. You can help conserve these wonderful creatures for future generations.

Rabies: Rare in Coyotes

A lot of people in our area are upset and concerned after a local coyote was spotted, appearing disoriented. While it’s always very important to exercise caution around an animal that seems to be sick, confused, or fearless, please be aware that the risk of rabies from coyotes is extremely small in the United States!

While any strain of rabies can infect any mammal, certain strains of the virus are much more common in specific hosts. One strain, canine variant rabies, was once fairly common in the United States and tended to infect domestic dogs, as well as wolves and coyotes. People still tend to associate wild dogs with rabies because of the cultural legacy left behind by Cujo and Old Yeller, but— thanks to mandatory rabies vaccines for pets— canine variant rabies was fully eradicated from the United States by the early 2000s. Rabies is now extremely rare in both wild and domestic dogs in our country.

Statistically, there are more rabies cases reported in cats, cattle, deer, and groundhogs than in coyotes. When coyotes do catch rabies, they usually die fairly quickly and without any harm to humans.

So what’s wrong with our local coyote? Without examining him, it’s impossible to say for sure. He may have a concussion, and might feel better in a day or two. He may have canine distemper virus, which tends to infect the central nervous system and look similar to rabies. He may have a parasitic infection in his brain from eating raccoons or being exposed to their feces. He may have been poisoned, intentionally or accidentally. There are many possibilities that don’t involve rabies.

With that said, please be careful if you see any animal acting strange, and please call your local game wardens or 911 if the animal is posing an immediate risk to human safety.

It’s Not Dead Until It’s Warm and Dead: Saving Unresponsive Animals

With the kind of chill we’ve had this winter, we wanted to share an important tip about saving animals. This is one of the first things rehabilitators learn when it comes to wildlife first aid!

It’s very possible that you might find a “dead” animal one day in very cold weather. This may include a turtle that got stuck above-ground in freezing temperatures, a baby raccoon that fell from a tree and became chilly without its mother’s warmth, or even a stray puppy found unresponsive in the snow. Many animals will appear dead when they’re in the most serious stages of hypothermia, but it’s often possible to save them.

If you don’t see obvious signs of decomposition— and if you can do so SAFELY— please take a chance on saving a life by bringing the unresponsive animal inside. Provide the critter with an external heat source like a heating pad, hot water bottle, hand warmer, heat lamp, or even your car’s seat warmer. The heat source should be warm enough to be efficient, but not so hot that it’s physically uncomfortable to hold it against your own skin. (A thin blanket between the heat source and the animal should be sufficient.)

Depending on the species and the severity of its hypothermia, the animal may regain consciousness within a few minutes to a few hours. (Be sure the animal is safely contained, such as in a crate or cage, if it’s something that may be dangerous when it wakes up.)

If you do see signs of life, please contact a wildlife rehabilitator for further help with a wild animal, or a veterinarian or your local animal control for a stray domestic animal.

If there are no signs of life after more than an hour, it’s safe to assume that the critter has moved on to the Rainbow Bridge. It can be disposed of by placing it outdoors in a wooded area, away from roads, where it can help to nourish other life, or you may choose to bury it or bring it to a vet for cremation.

We know it sounds crazy to pick up “dead” animals and bring them inside in hopes that they may recover, but many lives can be saved with this simple act of kindness.

Don’t Fear Owls

It’s funny how, every few years, a different animal will become the target of panic and fear, and people will become convinced that the species is a hazard that needs to be killed or relocated. For the last few years, owls have been a surprising focus of hate and fear.

As with most other panics about wildlife, fear of owls is a result of a series of misunderstandings, urban myths, and exaggerations. Like all other birds and mammals, owls are dedicated parents who defend their young and their nests from predators. When a human— which, to an owl, is a large predator— comes too close, the owl will naturally protect its family. This isn’t malicious on the owl’s part. It’s simply parental instinct.

These “attacks” on humans are rare. Because they’re so rare, they tend to make headlines and to become the subject of viral videos and social media posts. The rapid spread of information in today’s world can make it seem like a rare incident is commonplace, and that can feed into irrational fears.

When an owl does make contact with a person, it’s unlikely to result in serious injuries. Most owls will only swoop toward a human— not making contact at all, or barely grazing them— as a bluff attack to chase them away. Only if the bluff is disregarded will the owl generally use its talons.

Scrapes from an owl’s talons might be uncomfortable and could even require medical attention as a precaution, but they’re not deadly. In all of recorder history, no human has ever been killed by an owl. (Yes, we’ve seen The Staircase, and no, there was no evidence whatsoever that an owl was involved.) The absolute worst thing that might happen would be a trip to urgent care to get the injuries cleaned up.

You may be thinking that this worst-case scenario still sounds terrifying, but please keep this risk in perspective. Every year, millions of people are injured— often far more seriously— by broken glass bottles, airbags, and hot ovens, but no one lives in fear of these things or tries to rid the world of them. Tame house pets are much more likely to scratch than an owl, possibly resulting in a need for medical care, yet many people choose to live with them anyway.

Owls of all species are important to our ecosystem, reliably exterminating rats and mice, keeping our neighborhoods free of parasites and disease. It would be a shame to harass, remove, or kill them because of irrational fear. Please learn to coexist!

Botflies: Why Lumpy Squirrels Don’t Need Help

Rehabbers get a lot of calls about lumpy squirrels, especially in summer! There are two common causes of lumps on squirrels: squirrelpox, a viral infection we’ll discuss in a separate post, and botflies, which are insects that develop in animals’ skin in the larval stage. When people find lumpy squirrels, they almost always feel that they need to capture the squirrel for treatment, or worse, they’ll rush to killing the critter out of the idea that they’re “ending its suffering.” Please don’t do either of those things!

Botflies (also called warbles, wolfworms, or heelflies) may give you the heebie-jeebies, but they’re native insects, just like bumblebees and monarchs. They play an important role in our ecosystem, and we never kill native animals— no matter how small or unimportant they may seem— just because their life cycle is uncomfortable to see.

The species of botfly that typically affects North American squirrels is a small, unassuming little bug that resembles a bee (but doesn’t sting). A mother botfly lays her eggs in areas frequented by rodents, like tree hollows and brush piles. When the a squirrel bumps into the eggs, they cling to the fur and hatch, and the baby botfly grows under the squirrel’s skin. It may be a yucky-looking process, but it’s not really as bad for the squirrel as it seems. The larvae will grow just under the squirrel’s skin until maturity, then will fly away, leaving a tiny hole in the skin that heals quickly.

An otherwise-healthy squirrel will do just fine even with many botfly larvae growing under the skin. Parasites like fleas, roundworms, and botflies are just part of life for wild animals, and squirrels and their native botflies have coexisted for millions of years without issue. The stress of capturing a squirrel for treatment would be much greater than the risk of the botflies simply running their course, which is usually completed by late fall.

There’s no need to panic about botflies passing to you or your pets. Botflies tend to be species-specific and it’s very rare for them to grow in the skin of any animal besides their preferred host. If you live in North America, you’ve probably already encountered squirrel botfly eggs many times while climbing trees as a kid or doing yard work as an adult, and of course there was no harm done. You don’t have to kill or relocate squirrels, or use pesticides in your yard, to keep yourself safe.

Please let nature be nature, even when it looks icky! Both squirrels and native insects deserve to live in peace.

Don’t Feed Corn to Wild Animals

Please be careful about where your good intentions lead! Especially around this time of year, a lot of people will feed wildlife to try to help them prepare for winter. Because corn is cheap and is readily eaten by most mammals, it’s a common choice for supplemental food.

Native wild animals don’t need our help preparing for winter: they evolved alongside their food sources to have exactly what they need during each time of year. Some animals, like chipmunks and jays, prepare form winter by storing natural autumn foods like acorns and nuts. Others, like many songbirds, migrate. Deer change their digestive systems to adapt to a low-calorie woody diet. Most animals drastically reduce their activity level to conserve energy. Seasonal changes are a normal, natural, and beautiful part of the balance of nature, and we don’t need to intervene in animals’ seasonal diets any more than we need to intervene in the fruiting of plants or the changing of leaves.

Even if you insist on feeding wildlife corn is not a healthy meal for most wild animals. Compared to natural foods, corn is high in sugar and calories and low in vitamins and minerals, sort of like the animal equivalent of a Snickers bar. While occasionally raising sweet corn from a garden won’t cause most animals much trouble, they can become very sick if they eat it routinely.

Waterfowl who eat too much corn are at risk for angelwing syndrome, which renders them unable to fly. Raccoons, opossums, and squirrels who eat too much of it can develop liver disease and bone deformities. Deer who eat corn after their winter metabolic changes often succumb to ketoacidosis because their bodies can’t process sugar. Bears who begin eating corn will get excited about the hand-outs and killed when they get cozy around people.

Another problem: rats and mice love corn more than nearly any other wild animals, and you’ll end up with a lot of them if you leave it out as a food source!

Please don’t feed corn to wild animals. You can keep them healthy in fall and winter by giving them space, protecting their habitats, keeping your pets indoors, and growing native plants.

Rethinking Tennessee’s Prairie Wolf

We think it’s way past time to rethink how people view coyotes in the Southeast. Often maligned and viewed as an invasive nuisance, they’re actually a critical part of our ecosystem just like their closely related predecessors, the red wolves.

It’s nothing new for a closely related animal to fill in the gaps left when one animal becomes extirpated (locally extinct). A local example: after elk were completely eliminated from the Southeast in the 1800s, conservationists introduced a Canadian subspecies in 2000. Our herds of elk aren’t exactly the same as those that once lived here, but they are behaviorally, physically, and ecologically similar and are respected for their role in the local web of life.

Coyotes, too, are in many ways nearly identical to red wolves, who used to naturally live all over the South. Red wolves and Southeastern coyotes are similar in size, diet, appearance, communication, and behavior, and are close relatives.

The two cousin species may have shared common ancestors as recently as the 10,000 years ago— the blink of an eye, on an ecological scale. It wasn’t until the end of the last ice age that these relatives separated, with coyotes settling on one side of the Mississippi, and red wolves forming their own population on the other.

It’s because of this close relationship that we’d like to bring back an older name for the coyote: “prairie wolf.” A coyote is much more closely related to a red wolf than an Ethiopian wolf is related to an arctic wolf, yet it’s been given a name that implies that it’s entirely different. While the name “coyote” conjures images of scrappy pests, the world is starting to appreciate wolves, and maybe can one day appreciate the prairie wolf as much as its cousins.

Nature has an amazing way of filling gaps, and after humanity destroyed the wolves that kept our ecosystem stable, the land thirsted for them. We experienced unsustainable explosions of rats, mice, rabbits, deer, and raccoons, and we saw traffic accidents, loss of forests, and outbreaks of diseases as a result.

Coyotes, being a bit more adaptable than their cousins, moved back to the East and bred with feral dogs and the last of our wild wolves, creating the familiar animals we know now. They’re not a nuisance, but part of the fabric that holds our natural world in balance.

Why Red Foxes are Red

To human eyes, a red fox’s flame-colored fur stands out starkly against vegetation, but— believe it or not!— red foxes actually evolved their characteristic coats as camouflage.

Animals aren’t capable of producing green pigment. Animals that appear green actually depend on structural coloration, or the use of microscopic physical traits to reflect green light. Scales, feathers, and skin can have green structural coloration, but so far, no animal has developed structurally green fur. They have to go for the surprising next-best thing: orange!

Most of a red fox’s predators and prey are red-green colorblind. A wolf or rabbit sees grassy green and reddish orange as essentially the same color. Colorblind humans usually have the same limitation and can relate! Red foxes can blend into grass or leaves with their rich ruddy fur.

The fox’s white chest and belly aren’t a coincidence, either. This trait is called counter shading, and it helps hide the shadow created by the fox’s body.

Despite their name, red foxes can occur in nearly any imaginable color. While most are red to orange, “silver” or black foxes are common in some areas and have a natural advantage in shadowy forests. Rare genes can also make a fox appear white or cream, or even more exotic colors like lilac or sapphire, but these are very rare in the wild since they put a fox at a disadvantage.

Aren’t these animals amazing?