Most American Squirrels Used to be Black

Black squirrels aren’t common anymore in the U.S., but you may still see them if you’re lucky! Believe it or not, there was a time that most squirrels in the U.S. had this interesting (and beautiful!) trait.

Black coloration, or melanism, can occur in both fox squirrels and Eastern grey squirrels. Prior to European invasion of North America, old-growth forests were very abundant, dense, and large, and these shadowy forests were a perfect environment for black squirrels to thrive. Their dark coloration helped them hide in the shadows when seen from above by predators like hawks and owls. Squirrels that were grey in color were at a disadvantage, and easier for raptors to hunt.

Mass deforestation, fur trapping, and hunting ultimately led to a shift in the gene pools of both fox squirrels and eastern grey squirrels. Although the gene for black fur still exists in both species throughout their range, it’s no longer very common except in very dense forests in the Northeast.

Have you seen a black squirrel in the wild?

Copperheads Aren’t Very Dangerous

Although copperheads are venomous, they aren’t nearly as dangerous as many people believe. They are incredibly shy, elusive snakes who greatly prefer to hide rather than to bite. A copperhead will only bite a human if it’s directly provoked, such as when it has been stepped upon or handled.

In the unlikely event that a person might accidentally provoke a copperhead into biting, the copperhead still isn’t likely to cause any harm. A copperhead’s first bite is generally a venomless warning. Only with the second bite is the snake likely to actually inject a significant amount of venom.

For the extremely small number of people who actually do end up receiving that second bite, a life-threatening reaction is very unlikely. Even the few people who are allergic to copperhead venom will usually recover uneventfully with treatment.

It’s always important to avoid provoking snakes and to seek medical attention if you’re bitten by a venomous snake, but copperheads aren’t the terrifying monsters people fear.

Woodchucks Don’t Chuck, Chew, or Eat Wood

Centuries before any English speakers ever laid eyes on this animal, the Narragansett people of Rhode Island— an Algonquian tribe— called it a “wuchak.” This indigenous name likely shared roots with a similar Cree word meaning weasel or fisher.

English speakers turned “wuchak” into “woodchuck,” leading not just to a popular tongue-twister, but a lot of misconceptions. Many people are under the impression that woodchucks chew or eat wood in a manner similar to beavers, but this isn’t accurate. A woodchuck’s diet contains mostly herbs, grasses, dandelions, clovers, and berries— no wood at all!

Why People Call Vultures Buzzards

A lot of people in the South use the word “buzzard” to describe our native vultures, especially the turkey vulture, but this is actually the result of a long-lasting mistake!

“Buzzard” doesn’t mean vulture. Instead, it’s a British name used for any of dozens of species of hawk. As the name might suggest, the most well-known buzzard is the common buzzard, which ranges throughout Europe and some parts of Africa and Asia.

Vultures don’t live in Northern Europe, so, when English speakers first arrived in what is now the U.S., they had never seen one. They applied the name “buzzard” to any large, circling bird they saw, and the misnomer still persists today!

Not Snow White: Wildlife Rehab Ethics Explained

“Don’t you play with them?”
“Don’t you get attached?”
“Do they know any tricks or commands?”
“Do they sleep in your bed with you?”
“Why are they so scared of you? Are they being abused?”

We hear these questions all the time in wildlife rehabilitation. While they’re coming from a good place, they’re also coming from misunderstanding. Wildlife rehabilitation is all about keeping wildlife wild. The ultimate goal of everything we do isn’t simply to rescue animals, but to return them to the natural world where they belong. That means we have minimal contact with our patients, and we don’t form bonds with them in the way that someone might bond with a pet. Their survival in the wild depends on their ability to fend for themselves and to avoid human contact.

There’s nothing ultimately wrong with wanting to bond with animals. If you want to be able to snuggle, train, and play with critters, you may have a calling in pet rescue, whether that involves domesticated animals or exotic pets. But within the field of wildlife rehabilitation, our goal is never to tame or befriend animals. We respect their wildness and aim to keep them wild.

Raccoons Eating Birdseed: What to Do

We’ve heard people give a lot of crazy and cruel excuses for killing wild animals, but perhaps the most upsetting reason we’ve heard is, “It was eating my birdseed.” Several of our patients last year were orphans who came to us because the mothers had inconvenienced someone by nibbling some sunflower seeds.

Folks, this simply isn’t fair. A wild animal doesn’t have any way of knowing that your bird feeders are only meant for birds. When you put out an abundant source of food, animals of all sorts will take advantage of the snack. It’s simply the reality of feeding birds!

Nevertheless, you can dramatically reduce the likelihood of having your feeders raided by raccoons by bringing your feeders inside from dusk until dawn. Raccoons are primarily nocturnal or crepuscular and often avoid foraging in the middle of the day, and songbirds won’t eat from your feeders at night anyway.

If you do have a raccoon who’s learned to eat from bird feeders and comes out in the daytime, consider mixing hot pepper into your seed mixes. Most birds are not bothered by spice, but mammals are, and they’re likely to leave the seed mix for the birds after tasting the heat!

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.

Why Are Skunks Called Polecats?

Have you heard this Southern colloquialism? Although it’s not very common anymore, some people in the Southeast (especially older folks) will refer to this animal as a “polecat.” My grandmother always used the term not just for skunks, but anyone and anything that she found malodorous!

So where does this term come from? In reality, a polecat isn’t a skunk, but a wild ferret native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. Polecats emit a musky odor when threatened, though it’s not quite as strong as they of a skunk.

Because skunks don’t live in Europe, the first English speakers in the Southeast didn’t know what they were and mistook them for polecats. The term persists, particularly in rural areas.

Don’t Kidnap Animals to Teach Your Children

Far, far too often, wildlife rehabilitators get calls about baby animals that the finders have had for weeks. Often, it’s urgent— “Something’s wrong,” or, “It cant walk right,” or, “I think it may be dying.” These animals ultimately die due to improper care by people who thought that a Google search could enable them to successfully rehabilitate wildlife.

One of the most common reasons people give for raising wild animals without training is, “I thought it would be a good educational opportunity for my kids.” Seeing an animal die a very slow, painful death from improper care is certainly not what these parents had in mind.

I’m a parent myself. I do understand how attached children can get to wildlife and how hard it is to say no to, “Can I keep him?”

But as parents, we all have a duty to teach our kids proper lessons about wildlife. Use an orphaned or injured wild animal as a way to teach your children respect for nature, and to emphasize the importance of giving them a good chance at life in the wild where they belong. Teach your children that a living creature is not a plaything or an experiment or an after-school hobby. Teach your children that loving something sometimes means saying goodbye.

Please call a rehabilitator if you find a baby animal in need of help.

Babies, Not Rabies: Why Raccoons are Awake in Daytime

It’s that time of year! We’ve started getting our annual influx of calls about raccoons seen during daylight hours. Many callers are concerned that these animals have rabies. Don’t worry: unless you see other worrisome symptoms, being awake in the daytime isn’t cause for alarm.

From April through August, most of the female raccoons in our area are either pregnant or nursing. Raccoons don’t start eating solids on their own until they’re nearly three months old, and the mom has to eat a lot of extra food to sustain a whole litter of growing babies. That means she has to work around the clock to find food. These very tired and hungry mamas won’t get much rest until fall!

Please don’t harm raccoons seen during the daytime. If you see signs that the animal might actually be sick— such as staggering, drooling, loud noises, or unusual aggression — please call a wildlife rehabilitator or your local animal control for assistance.