A raccoon in a tree. Raccoons are active whenever temperatures warm up . ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

‘Masked bandits’ on the prowl

March certainly has been living up to her fickle nature this week with temperatures warm one day and freezing the next!

Raccoons may be out prowling about in the evening when you’re driving about the island. During the winter, raccoons have intermittent periods of activity. The fat reserves built up in the fall enable them to hole up during severe weather. If their wanderings take them far afield, they will not go back to their number one den but will spend the night in number two den. One night, a raccoon may be sleeping in the den; the next night, a skunk drops in. Since they wander over a mile a night, it is convenient for them to have several dens, sort of a wildlife chain of “bed and breakfasts.”

On warmer days, raccoons can be seen resting in a tree, and at night, several may get together to feed. A good number of island residents entertain these groups of “masked bandits” by putting food out for them. They are fun to watch, but such an “open house” may lead to trouble later on if the mammals become too tame and expect such handouts regularly.

Raccoons are definitely opportunists and will eat both plant and animal food. If temperatures hover about 30 degrees, adults are active. With the coming of March local raccoons renew their nightly prowling. The breeding season lasts from January to the middle of March, and the gestation period is about 60 days.

Skunks are out and about more frequently on warm nights in March. Most animals leave skunks alone, but dogs will bark at them, and cats, too, may get pushy around a den with odiferous consequences. Their only defense are their two scent glands located under the tail. With great accuracy, they can aim at and hit the offender wherever they want to with the nasty smelling, well-known skunk “perfume.” Horned owls and bobcats will attack them and not mind getting sprayed with the foul odor. For most of the winter, skunks will hole up in underground dens, with as many as 12 skunks in one spot. Usually, there are more females than males in these dens. Skunks are actually very clean and neat in their personal habits, and they themselves never smell, but those who annoy them do.

Although skunks are a member of the weasel family, which includes mink, otter, fisher and others, skunks move much more slowly than their speedy relatives. Skunks usually wander about at a deliberately leisurely pace unless danger threatens, and then they break into a gallop. When their lives are threatened they use their “secret weapon.” It may or may not work for whatever predator is attacking them, but that is all they have to work with. They can’t run very fast and are not good fighters.

Skunks are valuable neighbors to have, and they are greatly misunderstood. They do an invaluable service to you in digging grubs in your lawn and eating noxious beetles. Having to fill in the holes dug in a lawn by these mammals after they have been grubbing is small payment for their services rendered.

I have known several skunks very well in my lifetime and have found them very affectionate and sweet tempered. If you meet a skunk on a nightly walk and it raises its tail and stamps at you, immediately freeze in your tracks until it calms down and moves away. If one is just moving about minding its own business, you do the same, and all will be well.

Hairy woodpeckers are practicing their love songs this month. Actually, it is a love song, challenge and call for a mate all rolled into a wonderful drum roll. They look for any hard surface where the drumming sound suits them. If they are near your bedroom window, you will be awakened early for a while. Just remember, it is a love song.

I haven’t heard the call of a whip-poor-will in my woods in Bass Harbor for many years, but friends in Otter Creek report listening to them each year. These ground-loving birds are very vulnerable to cats and dogs running loose. Their numbers have decreased with the ever-increasing human population and building going on all over this island. Whip-poor-wills call their name loudly for hours if they are in your neighborhood. It really is an interesting sound and unmistakable. They mostly call in the evening. This remarkable bird actually can lower its body temperature and enter a state of torpor to conserve energy. On this island, we may see and hear them in May.

Visitors in our southern states may get to hear the Chuck-will’s-widow, a similar type of bird that also “says” its name. It is a startling sound made close to you as I discovered one tropical evening in Sarasota, Fla., while visiting a favorite aunt several years ago. I was in a small swimming pool surrounded by tropical vegetation when from just a few feet away, this bird called its name very loudly. It was a startling event! This sort of bird is secretive, and you don’t often see it, but you definitely know that a whip-poor-will or Chuck-will’s-widow is nearby when it calls its name!

Temperatures on the weekend did not encourage being outdoors particularly, but when you are out, stop and listen to the sounds of the various birds giving their spring call. Love is in the air! Nuthatches are singing, as are woodpeckers, juncos, purple finches and mourning doves. You can refresh your memories about these calls easily with the help of your computer. The Cornell University site, among others, has calls you can listen to and learn one bird from the other. It’s a good time to refresh your memory.

Spring is only a couple of weeks away officially, and all creatures great and small and plants, too, are getting ready to move on with it.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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