Mindful Creatures

This column was rejected by the new editor of Game News because of what he considered to be controversial content. No doubt he knows his audience. But I would like to put this column out for my web readers who may find it useful and may, like me, wonder why so many people are willing to believe that their domestic pets have minds but not wild animals who, we must admit, have much harder lives to live. Surely we have all evolved from the same beginnings, and surely that means that other mammals, like us, as well as birds and other creatures, must have minds that resemble ours, even if they are not nearly as well-developed. On the other hand, many of these species have lived longer on this earth than we have.

North American porcupine close up

Up close and personal with a porcupine

For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.

In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.

The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.

New Caledonian Crow painting by John Gerrard Keulemans

Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow (John Gerrard Keulemans, 1877)

If you call someone a “bird brain,” you are paying them a compliment. Birds, especially those in the Corvid family, have brains that weigh almost as much as ours do in relation to our total body weight. Our brain weighs three pounds or 1.9% on average of our body weight. Ravens and most crow species have brains that make up 1.4% of their body weight, although the super learners in the Corvid family—New Caledonian crows—possess brains that comprise a whopping 2.7% of their body weight. These percentages compare with those of similar-sized mammals such as small monkeys. Other bird species, even smaller songbirds like chickadees, also have amazing brains.

These discoveries and many more have been recently pulled together in Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by Dr. John Marzluff and Tony Angell and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Dr. Tim Birkhead. Both of these books are written for a general audience but they make use of dozens of scientific papers with such titles as “Stress, Corticosterone Responses and Avian Personalities” (my italics) by J.F. Cockrem in the Journal of Ornithology and “An Intelligent Crow Beats a Lab” by A. Straub in Science.

All of this is an introduction, of sorts, to bird, mammal, and reptile behavior my husband, Bruce, our son, Dave, and I observed last June. None of it was particularly cutting-edge, but more than once I wished I had a better understanding of animals’ minds. Or, in the words of Griffin, “We like and admire other animals… because we enjoy trying to imagine what their lives are like to them…”

Dave exchanges threat displays with a porcupine

Dave communes with a porcupine (photo: Bruce Bonta)

That’s what I did wonder one June morning when a large porcupine waddled toward me on the Far Field Road. I stepped off the road and watched as it advanced. Because of its whitish quills, it looked as if it had a halo over its shoulders. Once it paused to scratch itself. When it was almost abreast of me, it turned and crossed the road, headed in my direction.

“Hello,” I said. It stopped and spread its tail to impress me with its quills. I continued talking quietly to it. Finally, it turned around and leisurely retraced its steps. Then it left the road and went into the woods where it slowly hitched its way up the largest chestnut oak tree beside the road. It flattened itself out on one of the highest branches overlooking the road directly above me, alert and watchful, until I moved on.

I’ve encountered numerous porcupines on our trails, and usually they hiss, spread their tails, and scramble up the nearest tree. But this porcupine, which looked like a grizzled old timer, didn’t seem fazed by me. Was it the animal’s age, experience, calmer temperament, or something else, I wondered, as I continued on my way.

Several nights later, Bruce was awakened by a bang on the back porch below the bedroom. He got up, grabbed his flashlight, and went downstairs to investigate, thinking that maybe a burglar was trying to get inside.

He tiptoed out to the kitchen, turned on the porch light, and saw not one but three masked bandits—a mother raccoon and her two kits. Since we had taken in our bird feeders two months before, he couldn’t figure out what they were doing as the little ones climbed up on the railing and the post that supported the porch roof. He shone his flashlight on first one kit, then the other, and finally on the mother but none of them seemed bothered by the light.

Raccoon family unit

Raccoon family unit (photo: Bruce Irschick, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

He watched as they sniffed and explored. At last they climbed off the porch and trundled over to the outside cellar steps. Then one of the kits poked around in the grasses just below our sitting room bow window. That was when the mother raccoon noticed Bruce watching them. Or perhaps she smelled him through the screened window. She snarled loudly, but all three raccoons kept poking around in the underbrush as they made their way slowly toward the front of the house and out of sight.

This time it was Bruce who wondered about the mind of a raccoon, and the next morning Dave solved the mystery. He noticed that a bald-faced hornet nest (Dolichovespula maculate), which had been attached to the porch roof, lay in gray tatters on the porch floor. In that case, the mother raccoon had been teaching her kits about one of their favorite foods. I was reminded of a Nature show I had watched on PBS about how cleverly raccoons adjust to and find food and shelter even in busy cities. According to raccoon researcher, Stan Gehrt, raccoons are incredibly adaptive. Even their personalities change from shy and reclusive in the country to bold in the city as they use their hand-like paws and mammal-sized brains to defeat humans’ numerous attempts to design raccoon-proof garbage cans.

The male flicker at the nest hole

The male flicker at the nest hole (photo: Rachel Rawlins)

During last May and June Dave enjoyed sitting on his front porch and watching a yellow-shafted flicker family set up housekeeping in a dead elm tree at the edge of his yard. For more than a week in early May, the male and female took turns excavating the hole said to be 13 to 16 inches deep. Muffled knocks from inside the dead elm led to a flicker head popping out of the hole and flinging a bill full of wood chips into the air.

Eventually, by mid-May, their excavation work was over, and the female laid her 5 to 8 eggs. Then the parents attended the nest in shifts, each one doing its share of work. They were due to hatch in 11 to 13 days. In the meantime, they fought off a pileated woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and another flicker, all coveting the nest hole, and reminding me of the many times I have watched flickers over the years try to establish a nest in a black walnut tree hole beside our driveway. Never once have they been successful because of gray squirrels who consider it their home.

On June 12 Dave noticed that both parents were outside the hole at the same time for as long as 15 minutes, and he wondered if the eggs had hatched. The next afternoon he again saw both parents outside, and the male sounded agitated. The female sat on a dead elm branch a few feet above the nest hole.

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

That’s when Dave noticed something sticking out of the cavity. It was the head of a black rat snake. Somehow the reptile had realized a meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth trunk of the dead elm and managed to climb it.

It remained in the hole, digesting its meal until 10:30 a.m. the following day, and Dave watched as it spent 50 minutes slowly descending the tree trunk, seemingly studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch, or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. It used a tall lilac shrub limb to move from the elm trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree and then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac and on to the ground.

All of this reminded me of the most notorious article I ever wrote that was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest about watching a black rat snake get into and out of a house wren nest built inside one of our back porch posts. It took the snake one hour and forty minutes as it maneuvered up to our second floor, peered into windows, slowly lowered its body down the shingled porch roof and down the post into the nest. When it finally emerged, it worked even harder finding its way out by way of the drain pipe, down the post, and on to ground with many stops as it seemed to think its way past obstacles and over rough spots. As Griffin wrote, “mental events such as consciousness and awareness are indicated by surprising yet effective solutions to changing, unforeseen, and uncommon problems.” Both Dave’s snake and especially mine seemed to show such awareness.

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

It had been a scolding Carolina wren, not the silent flicker parents, who sounded the snake alarm. And it was a Carolina wren who sang along with a mezzo-soprano in Massenet’s opera Werther, which Bruce and I were watching during a hot June afternoon. The wren was busy putting twigs in the gap next to our living room window air conditioner. I checked the pitch of both the soprano and the wren and realized they were performing a kind of duet. Was the wren challenging what it thought was a wren intruder or did it enjoy the music? This time I was reminded of a white-tailed deer that stood still outside our kitchen window years ago when I was playing Mendelssohn’s Elijah. She looked as if she was listening to the music.

Carolina wren at the window

Carolina wren at the window


Our last bird observation went on for much of June when an eastern whip-poor-will chose our yard and Dave’s for his evening and dawn chorusing. A couple times he landed on the flat porch roof outside our bedroom window. Once when I was awakened by him at 5:00 a.m., I put my glasses on and snuck to the window where I had a view of him belting out his calls at deafening volume for about five minutes. He seemed so small to have such a loud mouth and reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s assertive Lorax in the way he stood.

The whip-poor-will was, of course, acting as male whip-poor-wills always do in spring and early summer. I only wondered about him because he started later and stopped earlier than whip-poor-wills are reported to do. But then the life style of these birds is still poorly understood because of their secretive, nocturnal lives. No doubt they too are able to solve unexpected problems with enterprising solutions, the strongest evidence, Griffin concludes, that suggest animal consciousness.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

The Unexpected and Expected

wood thrush stunned by a collision with a window

wood thrush stunned by a collision with a window

It’s the tenth of August, and I can barely believe my ears. A wood thrush is singing two weeks later than I’ve ever heard one before. Such a wonderful, unexpected gift so late in the season when most birdsong has been replaced by the buzzing and chirping of crickets and grasshoppers. But then it is for the unexpected as well as the expected that I venture outside every day.

Sometimes, during the heat and humidity of August days, the forest seems as empty as it is in winter. Then, through a curtain of leaves, I watch a smaller bird silently chase an immature red-tailed hawk that is still learning how to navigate in its new world.

Behind me, a red-eyed vireo drones its monotonous song while a blue-headed vireo renders a brighter, livelier version of its congener’s song. Eastern wood pewees drawl their “pee-a-wees,” and Acadian flycatchers sharply cry “wee-see.” A flock of cedar waxwings lands on a wild black cherry tree, laden with fruit, and emit their high “zees” as they pluck and eat cherries. Sharp-shinned hawks, recently fledged from the Norway spruce grove nest, sit atop the trees and continuously cry for their parents to feed them. Eastern towhees call their names and northern cardinals sing “cheer-cheer.”

turkey hen in the field

turkey hen in the field

All those songs and calls are expected for August. So too are encounters with wild turkeys such as one I have when early one sunny morning, near the beginning of the Far Field Road, a wild turkey flaps off from a tree branch. Then another follows. A third clucks unseen in the tree branches. When I move, she flies off, accompanied by a gawky teenager. As I continue my walk at least eleven more turkeys flush from the treetops.

During the same heat wave, my husband Bruce and I are driving back from town at noon. At the bottom of our road, Bruce slams on the brakes to avoid hitting a young American woodcock. It continues bobbing its awkward way up the left hand track of the road until it reaches a horizontal road drain covered by open grating that it can’t cross, so it flies off in a flurry. We are both amazed. We have never seen a woodcock closer than a mile from there in the woods near our deer exclosure, and we’ve never seen any young woodcocks on our property even though a couple males perform their sky dance on First Field every March. We conclude that somewhere on our mountain we do have breeding woodcocks.

During a pause in August’s heat and humidity, I watch what I call the march of the bucks from the top of the Laurel Ridge power line right-of-way. Through my binoculars, I see a deer crossing the top of the Sapsucker Ridge portion of the right-of-way. By the way it moves, its head held as erectly as an African woman balancing her worldly goods on her head, I know I’m looking at a buck. Then he slowly turns his head to catch the rising sun, which shines on a huge rack. As he disappears into the woods, a second buck emerges on the right-of-way. His rack is somewhat smaller than that of the first buck, but it is still impressive. After he melts into the woods, a suitable distance behind the super buck, a third buck, with an even smaller rack, ambles across the right-of-way.

antler of a large buck shot on the mountain

antler of a large buck shot on the mountain

Such a scene proves to my satisfaction that bucks stay together when they aren’t breeding and that the one with the largest rack leads. But perhaps I am projecting my own ideas on what may have been coincidence. Still, Leonard Lee Rue III, in his classic The Deer of North America, writes that “In the springtime, white tail bucks are often solitary, or sometimes a big buck is followed by several younger bucks,” exactly what I witnessed except that it wasn’t in springtime, so what I saw still leaves me with questions about relationships between bucks.

Mammal relationships continue to interest me when I surprise three young raccoons in our stream early one August morning. They run up the slope and climb a tree. Five days later, much farther down the stream, I hear what I think is squabbling raccoons. I sit down on Waterthrush Bench, above the stream, and wait. A few moments later, mama raccoon parades down a fallen tree trunk toward the stream, followed by her three youngsters. I remain motionless and hear another squabbling outburst, but tree leaves block my view. After waiting awhile and seeing nothing more of the little family, I continue on down the road and look back up at that tree trunk. Below it is a large tree with a hole at its base, which I assume, but don’t know for sure, is the raccoons’ den tree. I also assume that those three raccoons are the same ones I saw before and that they are ranging a fair distance in search of food.

Luna moth on black walnut tree

Luna moth on black walnut tree

Even insects sometimes surprise me. One August evening, a New Jersey visitor shows off his powerful flashlight, illuminating a spectacular, lime-green Luna moth on a black walnut tree trunk in our yard next to the walnut tree where we saw a Luna moth, freshly emerged, 364 days ago. According to David L. Wagner, in his Caterpillars of Eastern North America, the Luna moth’s caterpillar feeds on many forest tree leaves but has “decided local preferences” which include walnuts, as well as birch and black gum leaves in our area and pecan, persimmon, and sweet gum farther South.

But while seeing a Luna moth is an unexpected treat, walkingsticks always appear on the side of our house or on a screen door in August, and those same New Jersey visitors are impressed when I point one out. And any August visitors spend sleepless nights in our guesthouse, kept awake by the thrum of northern true katydids, even as we are lulled to sleep by them.

After years of pushing through the many orb webs of spined micrathena spiders and, indeed, expecting them in August, last August I saw only a few. Had their numbers crashed or was it an off-year for them? Sometimes, even the expected can throw me a curve ball.

But the wildflowers, in August, are predictable. Along our forest paths, the yellow trumpets of entireleaf yellow false foxglove (Aureolaria laevigata) blossom. On the hollow road bank, white wood asters and spikenard flower. Spikenards, which only began appearing several years ago near the bottom of our road bank, have been moving steadily uphill. Last August I found three below our big pull-off, two between the big pull-off and Dogwood Knoll, and two more between the forks and our old corral — a span of well over a mile. Their greenish-white flowers, growing in drooping, compound umbels, always seem too heavy for their stems.

orange jewelweed

orange jewelweed

Horse-balm and orange jewelweed or touch-me-not also grow along our road, but both are favorite deer foods. Many have been heavily grazed so I visit our three-acre exclosure for a view of shoulder-high jewelweed and waist-high horse-balm in the wetland corner of the exclosure. Late in August, I interrupt a small songbird migration over the exclosure and have a lovely view of a male black-throated green warbler and a magnolia warbler perched on a small ailanthus tree that overlooks the huge bed of jewelweed.

I pause, hoping to see a foraging ruby-throated hummingbird because I know that its needle-thin bill is perfect for penetrating jewelweed flowers. In fact, some ornithologists believe that jewelweed may have changed its floral biology to produce more nectar and encourage hummingbird pollinators. Sure enough, a female whirls in, lands close by on the fence to look me over, and then proceeds to nectar in the blossoms. Although entirely expected, it was lovely nonetheless.

Three days later, I am again hanging over the fence, this time admiring the jewelweed buzzing with native bumblebees. The horse-balm too is abuzz with bumblebees. The female hummingbird flies in to nectar at the jewelweed. She also tries the horse-balm several times, but she quickly rejects it and instead deftly ferrets out every jewelweed blossom amid a sea of horse-balm.

By late August, five species of goldenrod blanket our First and Far fields, and I spend hours “butterflying.” Altogether, I count nine species, including monarchs, common sulphurs, summer azures, an American copper, red-spotted purple, silver-spotted skipper, northern pearly-eye, red admiral, and dozens of cabbage whites.

cabbage white butterfly covered with dew

cabbage white butterfly covered with dew

I’ve never been fond of cabbage whites because they are a European species that first appeared on this continent in Quebec in 1861, according to butterfly guru Robert Michael Pyle in his book Mariposa Road. He says that the cabbage white — Pieris rapae — called the small white in England, may have arrived as pupae on a cabbage crate.

Today, it is our most abundant and widespread butterfly even though some folks erroneously call it the cabbage moth because of its fluttery flight. Pyle calls it “adaptive” and “resilient,” even resisting DDT spraying in England while its predatory beetle enemies succumbed. Its preference for members of the cabbage family has earned it the enmity of farmers.

The chrysalis of a cabbage white can be “buffy brown” or “green,” Pyle writes, but its color doesn’t necessarily match its background, the so-called “chameleon model.” Instead, Pyle thinks that the hypothesis “balanced polymorphism,” in which “populations adapt a ratio of green to brown expression that optimizes the chances of finding the ‘right’ substrate color in a given environment — more green in a wet setting, more brown in the desert, but some of each in either,” may be the answer. In other words, they hedge their bets. No wonder they are so successful.

Pyle also refuses to call the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) by its current name. he says that it’s a contraction of the Old English name — red admirable — and that it is not related to the true admiral butterflies in the genus Limenitis (the red-spotted purple, white admiral, and viceroy), but to the American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I think I agree with him. The red admiral certainly looks more like the ladies, although its reddish-orange bands on its front and hind wings on a black body make it the loveliest of its congeners.

old chestnut oaks

old chestnut oaks

As the month draws to a close, I mark the death of the huge chestnut oak tree along the Far Field Road that has harbored many wintering porcupines in its branches. Some branches now have brown, withered leaves and others are bare. Is it a victim of drought, old age, or both? Like me, it is broken down by our many years on earth and will leave its progeny to carry on the only form of immortality life on earth can hope for.

The chestnut oak has finished its life span. I have not, but its death is a reminder to me to cherish in my life both the expected and the unexpected every month of the year.

*

All photos by Dave Bonta, taken on Brush Mountain.

Courting Coons, Etc.

If I had another life to live, I would be a mammalogist. But instead of going to Africa to study the behavior of animals such as elephants or chimpanzees, I would specialize in some of eastern North America’s most common mammals. Countless books have been written about tigers and lions, elephants and chimpanzees, but few, if any, about the lives of gray foxes, porcupines, raccoons, or fox squirrels. Yet, over the years, I have observed behavior in those creatures and others that I cannot verify in either the popular or scientific literature.

For instance, back on March 9, 2000, as I walked along Greenbrier Trail, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by growling shrieks that I thought, at first, were made by an owl being harrassed by crows. Yet the intermittent shrieks did not seem to be coming from the same place as the cawing crows.

Puzzled by the sound, I sat down in a dense grove of striped maple trees just as it started to shower. Under my umbrella, I continued listening to the growling shrieks, but I still could not pinpoint the source. When it stopped raining, I resumed my walk, moving quietly as I scanned the trees above the trail.

Finally, I spotted a raccoon climbing out on a tree branch and then down the trunk of a red oak in pursuit of another raccoon perched on a branch on the opposite side of the tree from where I was standing. I quickly decided that the shrieking raccoon was the female and the pursuer the male.

More shrieking erupted and then the male climbed several feet above the motionless female and moved restlessly around on branches and tree trunk as if he was trying to figure out another approach. Slowly he slid down the trunk head first toward the female, all the time emitting calls that sounded like clicking castanets, and settled into a tree crotch next to the female. He continued to be restless, periodically moving around in slow motion, while the female, partially hidden from me by a mass of grapevines, remained still.

Frustrated by my partially-blocked view of the proceedings, I climbed up the ridge so that I could look down at the raccoons’ tree. I watched as the male descended below the female and then climbed back up above her. She shrieked several times, he growled, and finally he laid down on top of her. They looked like amorphous, fuzzy blobs in the tree, veiled, as they were, by the grapevines. Finally, he moved around, his tail up, then down, his forepaws stroking her face. Whenever he moved, she shrieked, but he was firmly planted on top of her. At the time, I thought I was witnessing mating. Later, I learned that raccoon matings are much rougher affairs and last almost an hour or, at least, the one mating ever observed in the wild and recorded, did so.

Howard J. Stains published “The Raccoon in Kansas” in 1956. Stains had studied raccoons in the field from July 1951 to November 1954. Despite devoting 2,550 man hours to his work, he observed mating raccoons only once–on February 26, 1954–and it is his work that has been cited in every account of raccoons I have read. After reading his blow by blow account, I could understand why no one goes into any detail about raccoon mating. If it was made into a movie, it would probably earn a R or maybe even an X rating. Either the raccoons I was watching had not read Stains’s paper or their courtship was much gentler than their mating.

After several minutes, the male raccoon arose and chased the female higher up the tree, she shrieking, he making purring clucks. They met nose to nose and patted each other’s faces with their forepaws. Then the female curled up in a furry ball while the male again restlessly moved around, sniffing her back side as if he were checking to see if she was ready to mate. At last he retreated a couple feet below her and settled down just as the sun appeared from behind the lowering clouds.

Because I am not a mammalogist and could not spend the entire day watching them, I reluctantly turned homeward when the raccoons quieted down, convinced that I had watched only a portion of what seemed to be an intricate courtship.

Over the next several weeks, I pored over books and scientific papers on raccoons. All of them had little or nothing to say about courtship or mating. The casual reader might even conclude that raccoons are the result of immaculate conception! Once I found the Stains paper, though, I understood why.

Finally, I found an article published in the journal ANIMAL BEHAVIOR in 1999, by Stanley D. Gehrt and Erik K. Fritzell who had radio-monitored raccoons in southern Texas during the 1990-92 mating season. They wanted to find out if different raccoons followed different mating strategies.

Sure enough, Gehrt and Fritzell discovered an incredible variation in the mating strategies of raccoons even within the limited population they studied. Consortship, which they defined as a “diurnal association between an adult male and female observed resting together or sharing a small den structure with a single opening,” lasted anywhere from one to three days. During 62% of consortships, one female consorted with only one male. The rest consorted with between two and four males. Those with shorter oestrous periods, between two and three days, consorted with only one male. Those with longer oestrous periods (four to six days) consorted with more than one male. But exactly what they did during this period remained murky.

The males, themselves, formed loose groups in a home range and the dominant male consorted with most of the females while subordinate males tried to find a female before the dominant male. In addition, solitary males roamed from home range to home range in search of females.

While Gehrt and Fritzell did not mention the specifics of raccoon courtship, it was obvious that the whole process is incredibly varied, and that I was lucky to be given such an intimate look at a portion of the process.

Whatever their courtship and mating strategies may be, though, the end result is the birth of between two and seven cubs 63 days later in the female’s tree den. Two years in a row, near the end of April, I heard the bird-like twittering of newborn raccoon cubs coming from a hole 20 feet up in a black locust snag. Once my husband Bruce put a ladder against the snag and climbed up to watch a mother raccoon nursing young. Later, a youngster, its eyes tightly shut, poked its masked face out of the hole.

The cubs finally open their eyes at four weeks of age and their twittering changes to churrs and growls. If the den is disturbed, they hiss, and their distress calls sound like a crying human infant.

At the same time the female begins to wean them, when they are six to nine weeks old, she also moves them from her den tree to a ground bed on the forest floor or in a wetland. By then they are playing exuberantly. A few weeks later they begin to accompany her on short, round-trip excursions. Within a week they are able to move and bed together, following their mother as she emits a constant low, grumbling purr. When they disobey, she slaps their rear ends. Once they are thoroughly weaned, at four months of age, they are more independent, trailing behind or ahead of her. Throughout the summer she teaches them to climb and hunt for food.

They spend the autumn fattening up on a wide variety of wild fruits and nuts, especially acorns, and usually den together in the winter. Raccoons are not true hibernators, but here in central Pennsylvania and farther north they tend to spend the bitter months of mid-January through February in restless sleep. Their body temperature drops from 100.6 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, they don’t urinate or defecate, and they live on their stored body fat, losing half their body weight by spring.

One researcher found 23 raccoons, half of which were juveniles, denning in an abandoned Minnesota house. Another group denned under the pulpit of an active, rural Methodist church. They may also den in skunk or woodchuck holes and when spring comes, they fight. Our son Dave can testify to that. A menagerie of critters den under our guesthouse where he lives–a porcupine, woodchuck, skunk, and raccoons–and Dave’s sleep is often interrupted by shrieks, yells, and growls from his quarreling tenants.

Once they leave their winter dens, families disperse. Males travel farther than females, as much as ten miles or more, and one radio-tagged male raccoon went 26.7 miles.

Raccoons are ecological opportunists that range from Panama to Canada. They eat both animal and vegetable matter such as grasshoppers, earthworms, snails, spiders, birds and their eggs, small mammals, frogs, fish, wild grapes, beechnuts, apples, and corn, although their favorite food is said to be crayfish.

A wide body of folklore has sprung up around them, beginning with the Indian tribes that endowed them with all sorts of magical powers. The Siouan tribes gave them names that meant “one who is sacred” or “one with magic” and the Aztecs referred to a female as “she who talks with gods.”

Both their masked faces and their dexterous forepaws fascinated native Americans and early settlers. Another Dakota Sioux tribe referred to a raccoon as the “sacred one with painted face.” Algonquians called them “arakun,” meaning “he who scratches with his hands,” from which we get the name “raccoon.” But it was the Hurons who named them “ee-ree-ah-gee” or “big-tailed” ones, for their long, furry, ringed tails. That name was later shortened to “Erie.” So both the great lake and the city were named for raccoons.

Lately, researchers have tested their intelligence and have found them to be at least as smart as cats. Certainly, their behavior is endlessly fascinating and endlessly varied which is why I continue to watch these common, but still mysterious mammals as they go about their unique lives.

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.