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The Feeders at Night

Every fall, in early November, I hang two bird feeders from our back porch latticework. One is an open, wooden platform feeder that has been batted apart at least three times by black bears and patiently repaired by my husband Bruce. That feeder is now almost 34 years old and has great sentimental value to us. The birds also prefer it to our other feeder that is a sturdy tube reinforced by steel mesh and is, so far, bear proof. Both feeders are filled with oil sunflower seeds.

On the back steps and ground below, I scatter mixed seeds of millet, cracked corn, and sunflower. That setup attracts a diversity of bird species and some mammals too. During the daytime, I’ve watched cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, chipmunks, eastern meadow voles, deer, opossums, and short-tailed shrews eat seeds. Some, like the voles and shrews, locate their burrow entrances in the midst of the spilled seed and pop in and out of the ground like jack-in-the-boxes.

A ten-foot-tall juniper bush in front of our bay window near the back porch provides cover and nighttime roosting for dozens of birds, particularly dark-eyed juncos. Sometimes, though, a junco is confused by the light shining through the window and flies repeatedly into the glass. That’s what we thought was happening one evening in late November three years ago.

First one junco, then another, repeatedly hit the window. They seemed to be having trouble settling down for the night. Even when we turned off the inside light, the thumps continued.

Finally, our son Dave turned on the porch light. To our surprise, a red phase eastern screech owl, which had been perched on the open, bulkhead door next to the back porch, took off. No wonder the juncos had been jumpy. Screech owls are known predators on songbirds. But since that screech owl had been situated above the seed-strewn ground, we suspected that its intended prey were the rodents that surface to feed throughout the night.

After that experience, we became occasional nighttime watchers of our bird feeding area, especially during a six week winter visit by our then year-and-a-half old granddaughter, Eva, and her parents. She, like her father and two uncles had when they were children, spent much of the daylight hours watching the birds and animals from the back door window.

Our nighttime watching consisted of turning the back porch light on after supper to check for visitors. Usually we saw nothing. But on December 8 there was a southern flying squirrel eating seeds on the back porch. Eva had already been thrilled by gray squirrels during the day, but there is no small mammal more beguiling than a big-eyed, flying squirrel. This one seemed unafraid of the excited little girl and continued eating as we watched.

Three nights later it brought a friend. One sat in the wooden feeder eating seed while the other ate on the back porch itself. Eventually, they climbed to the top of the porch, spread their patagia or gliding membranes, and volplaned into the night. No doubt they had a nest in a nearby tree cavity, and our bird feeding station was one of several stops during their nocturnal search for food.

That was the last we saw of the flying squirrels, although they may have shifted their schedule and fed later in the evening. Since we only checked occasionally between 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. on some evenings we probably missed many late-night visitors.

However, we didn’t miss a return visit from a screech owl on the tenth of January, only this was a gray phase bird. It sat on the roof of the wooden bird feeder while one scared junco flew back and forth under the porch roof. The screech owl seemed supremely uninterested in the songbird. But it gave all of us, including Eva, a good, long look before flying off.

Unfortunately, she was not here last winter when we had almost continual, early evening visitors from November until March, and, because of their distinctive appearances, we knew they were the same animals. It all began as Bruce, Dave, and I sat eating dinner in the kitchen on November 11. Suddenly, there was a loud thump on the back storm door. We rushed to turn on the porch light and were in time to watch an adult raccoon beheading and eating a junco that had been roosting in the latticework above the wooden feeder. The raccoon totally ignored us and tore into the junco as if it were starved, leaving only a few feathers as evidence of its deed.

A week later, at dusk, three young raccoons appeared on the back steps to eat bird seed. Turning on the porch light didn’t deter them. Neither did opening the squeaky, inside door, sitting on a chair, and watching them through the screened storm door. When the telephone rang, they looked up briefly. When I talked to them, they also glanced up and sometimes retreated back down a step or two, but they were soon back and looking in at me as I clicked my tongue at them. Finally, after an hour and twenty minutes and some staring intently into the night, they left.

Young raccoons usually spend the winter in a communal nest with their mother and sometimes other raccoons, as many as 23, in a state of semi-hibernation, having built up a layer of fat to sustain themselves during winter food shortages. Those dens are most often in hollow trees but will also be under tree roots, in rocky crevices, or in remodeled woodchuck, opossum, fox, or skunk dens.

In reality, those raccoons probably lived under the guesthouse along with a skunk, an opossum, and a porcupine, according to Dave. He lives above this mammal condominium and spent the winter listening to the assorted bumps, snarls, screams, and hisses below his bedroom and examining the snow for tracks so he could positively identify his fellow boarders.

Throughout November the triplets, as we called the young raccoons, visited most evenings, but we never saw an adult. Often, though, they would seem to be disturbed by something in the forest and would leave. Sometimes I thought I heard a faint sound. Was their mother warning them off? Had she been the visitor that had beheaded the junco?

Then, on December 2, a young opossum came to the back porch to eat seed. Unlike the triplets, it barely tolerated the porch light. Any sight or sound of us sent it back down the steps with many a backward, hesitant look. Since young opossums only stay with their mothers three months, this one was on its own. Although opossums don’t hibernate, they are relatively inactive in late autumn and winter, staying in nests of grass and leaves, or so the experts say. Because they are southern animals and have a difficult time if the temperature dips below 19 degrees Fahrenheit, opossums that live through a northern winter usually have deformed ears, and even tails, because of frostbite.

This opossum seemed to time its arrival before or after the triplets’ visit. On December 4 the triplets came shortly after dusk and the opossum at 8:30 p.m. The next evening the triplets came in at 8:15, staying until our bedtime. Then, for most of December, the opossun arrived around 6:30 p.m., ate its fill, and left. As soon as it was gone, at 8:00 p.m., the triplets appeared. By morning all the seeds on the steps and ground were gone.

Raccoons are known to be peaceable creatures with no sense of territoriality. Virginia Holmgren, who actively fed raccoons all year long from 1960 until 1981, observed 145 young and their mothers, and claimed, in her charming book, Raccoons, that her raccoons fed peacefully with opossums whenever they appeared.

We had to wait until the following March 3 to see how raccoons and opossums interacted. That evening Bruce and I were busy in the front yard watching the moons of Jupiter, the Orion nebulae, and the Pleiades star cluster through our new birding scope. All the while we were admiring the incomprehensible universe in the front yard, a raccoon and opossum, at opposite ends of the feeder area, were filling their bellies. No aggression there, but I did see aggression between the triplets on December 14. Two of them pushed the third one off the steps, but it didn’t protest. It merely fed quietly on the ground below its siblings.

On the evening that autumn became winter, the triplets appeared for what we thought was the last time. But the opossum continued visiting throughout the winter months even though its coat looked too thin to get it through the cold. In places its skin showed through like a balding old man with a few strands of gray hair plastered carefully over his head. We didn’t always see the opossum, but, unlike raccoons, which never defecate in their feeding area, it left a pile of its scat on the porch and steps every night.

During the cold weeks of early January, when the temperature dipped into the single digits, the opossum continued to visit. By January 18, it ate as if half-starved and no longer reacted either to the porch light or my comments to it. The thermometer registered a mere seven degrees Fahrenheit, proving that opossums can not only survive temperatures below 19 degrees but move around and feed in the bitter cold.

Then, on the morning of February sixth, I went outside while it was still dark to retrieve the bird feeder containers from the back porch. An animal rushed away, using mincing steps that reminded me of a Chinese woman with bound feet, a white fur clinging fashionably to her back. But it was a striped skunk, its tail streaming out straight behind it as if it wouldn’t think of threatening anyone on its home ground, which seemed to be under our front porch.

I caught no whiff of skunk, and when I returned from our basement, where I store our birdseed safe, I turned on the porch light and cautiously looked outside. The skunk was back, eating seeds on the cement pad in front of the bulkhead door, its white, muff-like back and tail gusting in the breeze. It ate as if starved and only retreated when the first birds appeared in the dim, predawn light. Like the skunk Bruce had photographed at our feeders the previous March, it had a white back, sides, and tail, a black belly, and a black face divided by a single, longitudinal white nose stripe.

Although skunks will eat seeds, their principal winter foods are mice, voles, and shrews. I wondered if the skunk was more interested in eating the creatures that ate our seeds. Skunks, like raccoons, also build up fat before winter so they can snooze through fierce winter weather. But they do get out and forage on milder days and, as I discovered, on cold (23 degrees) nights as well.

Skunks, too, usually nest communally in a single den (as many as 15), so I wondered if there was more than one in the den under our front porch and what relation it had to any living under the guesthouse.

“A raccoon,” Holmgren writes, “might snarl at another raccoon poaching on its corner of the bowl, but not at a skunk. The smaller animal had a right that…raccoons were too smart to defy.” On March 2 we had a chance to test her statement. I switched on the porch light at 8:30 p.m. and found that not only were the triplets back, but so was the skunk. The raccoons moved menacingly toward it as it tried to feed on the steps. Instantly its tail shot up, it stamped its front foot, and then turned away.

I held my breath. But instead of spraying, the white skunk made a dignified retreat, its tail still high in the air. I couldn’t decide whether the raccoons were intimidated by the skunk’s threat of its ultimate weapon, but when it quietly returned a few minutes, later, its tail was down and it fed peacefully off to the side of the raccoons just above the bulkhead door. They were still eating harmoniously when I went upstairs to take my shower. Later, when I opened my bedroom windows, there was not even a faint whiff of skunk.

That was the last we saw of the skunk and the triplets, but the opossum appeared once more shortly after dark on March 19. It scarfed up birdseed like a vacuum cleaner. Clearly it was very hungry, as most mammals are by March.

I could only hope that those creatures that had made our night time feeder watching entertaining throughout the winter survived the harshest winter month of all.

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