When you move into a new home, you might spend some time worrying about your new neighbors. What if they play their music too loud? What if they don’t keep up with their property maintenance? What if they get mad at you for not keeping up with your property maintenance? More often than not, though, having neighbors is a good thing. I’ve had some wonderful neighbors who helped me pull weeds, allowed me to use their fence line, and call the utility company when a waterline broke while I was away. I’ve also had the bass-booming-at-midnight neighbors. More often than not, though, I share an occasional smile and nod with them, and we all live our separate lives.
Most of us might not think as much about our furry, feathered, or scaly neighbors as we do our human ones, but becoming more aware of the wildlife around us can help us to appreciate and enjoy our natural world and become better neighbors.
While you might think that spring or summer would be the ideal time to spot wildlife, I find winter to be a great time to get out and explore, and in some ways, an easier time to get started. Since many species might migrate or hole up for the winter, identification can become easier. Bare trees can allow for easier visualization of birds, and snow covered ground provides a blank canvas for our wild neighbors to leave their clues behind.
Not a fan of the cold weather? Understandable. The thought of bundling up and clomping around in the snow to try to catch a glimpse of some animals might not sound super appealing. I am a warm weather girl, myself, but I started my winter wildlife watches by convincing myself to step outside for 5 minutes to see what I could see. I got in the habit of walking around my yard for a few minutes after coming home from work. Here are some of my finds:
Do you recognize this little guy? This is an Eastern Bluebird, a beautiful red, white, and blue bird found year-round throughout much of the eastern United States. I’m sure they were around all year, but this was my first time spotting one!
Tracks can be tough to identify in deep snow, but prints in a thin snow cover (coupled with a good field guide) are a great way to determine who has been hanging out in your yard. Do you recognize any of the tracks from some common backyard visitors? The top photo shows squirrel tracks. While the toes weren’t clearly visible, the pattern of the prints, coupled with the fact that they led right up to a tree, helped me land on squirrel, rather than rabbit.
The bottom two photos technically don’t belong to wild animals, but they do illustrate a helpful tracking tip. The photo on the right is from my own dog. This is a fresh footprint in light snow, so you can clearly see the four toes and the claw marks above each toe. Now compare that print to the photo on the right. Those are footprints from my neighbor’s cat (who apparently comes to visit my house during the day). Do you see the difference? Size, of course, but also note the lack of claw marks on the cat prints. Since cats have retractable claws, you won’t see the marks on their prints. While these examples are from domestic animals, it holds true for their wild counterparts: you will see claw marks on prints from coyotes or foxes, but not bobcats, for example.
What is the benefit from knowing your local wildlife? It can help us go from being the equivalent of those bass-booming neighbors to the ones who help you shovel your driveway. Once we know who is out there, we can start learning about their needs and their lifestyle. Small changes like planting native plants for birds and butterflies, avoiding pesticides, and providing sources of shelter can make a huge difference for your community of native wildlife. Remember that we moved into their neighborhood, not the other way around.
Are you interested in learning more about the wildlife in your backyard? Do you want to learn how to become a better neighbor to your wild counterparts? Consider visiting the National Wildlife Federation to find out how to provide food, water, and shelter for a variety of species, and even officially certify your backyard habitat: https://www.nwf.org/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Wildlife.