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Crestone Eagle, February 2006:
Small Wild Neighbors
(Part 1 of 3)
area has all kinds of wildlife to enjoy, but, for the most
part, when most of us think of the wildlife around here, we
think of the bigger animals, such as mountain lions, bears,
elk, and our deer. Of course, there are so many other kinds
of wildlife outside our backdoor, and many of them are on
the small size. Let’s take a good look at some of them.
For now we will cover just the ones that are grounded—and
do so in three separate articles over the next three issues
of The Eagle. Here is Part 1.
One thing we have lots of here in Crestone are wild rabbits,
so let’s start off by talking about them.
Rabbits are commonly misunderstood to be rodents, but they
actually belong to their own order and are properly called
lagomorphs. They are found not only here, but all over the
world, with the North American species distinguished between
“true” rabbits (Sylvilagus) and hares
and jackrabbits (Lepus). While many people mistakenly
believe that wild rabbits and domesticated pet rabbits are
the same species, the truth is that the domesticated rabbit
(Oryctolagus cuniculus) belongs to another genus
entirely and is only distantly related to its wild brethren.
Of the wild species in the United States, there are 14 species
of true rabbits.
Rabbits vary in size but, on the whole, are small animals,
averaging about a foot long and weighing just 2 to 3 pounds.
They are most active at dusk and dawn. Yet few animals are
as content to sit still for as long as cottontails like to
Famous for their breeding abilities, rabbits breed from February
through September (around here anyway). Gestation is about
28 days. Three to four litters of four or five young (called
bunnies) are born each year. Rabbits may live up to two years
in the wild, but with predators all around, they seldom survive
more than one year. Hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, raccoons
and even skunks are mammals that prey on rabbits in this area.
One question that seems to pop up a lot to wildlife officials
about rabbits is, “Is it okay for us to rescue a wild
orphaned bunny and raise it? No, it isn’t. Wild rabbits
are one of the most difficult species to rehabilitate. Not
knowing how to rehabilitate them will only increase their
suffering. It is cruel to keep a wild animal as a pet, as
they need much more room than a cage, and they need to be
surrounded by others of their own kind. So remember, there
is a big difference between a wild rabbit, and a domesticated
rabbit which does make a fine pet for children.
Skunks are members of the weasel family and are found in most
of the US and Canada. There are four species of skunk in Colorado
(and all of North America): The Striped Skunk (Mephitis
mephitis) is the most common skunk found throughout our
state, even found in elevations up to 10,000 feet. Similar
in size to a house cat, it weighs 4 to 10 pounds and is 2
to 2.5 feet long. Its body is black, except for a white stripe
on the forehead and a wide white area at the nape of the neck.
The striped skunk is a prolific breeder.
The Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus mesoleucus) is found
in small numbers in the pinion-juniper woodlands of southeastern
Colorado. The Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius)
is occasionally found in the plains along Colorado’s
eastern border. The Western Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracilis)
is also not very common here, and is mainly found in the foothills
and canyons of western Colorado, usually below 8,000 ft.
Skunks are considered to be the most primitive of the living
carnivores. They cannot see too well, but their sense of hearing
is good. Skunks are mainly nocturnal and begin foraging at
sunset. They are omnivorous and help keep the rodent population
in check. They will travel five to ten miles within their
territory at night looking for field mice and other small
rodents, as well as frogs, birds, eggs, garbage, acorns, and
fallen fruit. They also are natural born diggers, known to
dig up lawns while looking for insects. An estimated 70 percent
of a skunk’s diet consists of insects considered harmful
Skunks are not aggressive. They are aware of the respect
that they enjoy and rarely run from a threat, and they have
few enemies. Owls, hawks, coyotes and foxes occasionally take
one, but most animals are repulsed by the odor of the skunk.
In fact, its chief enemy is the automobile.
Skunks will warn any intruder by arching, elevating the tail
and stomping the ground with their front feet. If the victim
doesn’t retreat, they use their last resort—raising
the tail straight and spraying two streams of yellow liquid
10-15 feet. The mist reaches three times as far, and the smell
may carry a mile, causing nausea, gagging, and extreme discomfort.
If the spray gets in the eyes, it causes intense pain and
loss of vision. The odor is best removed by ammonia or tomato
Skunks are the most road-killed of animals and they seldom
live more then two years in the wild, although in captivity,
they live up to 15 years. Having adapted well to neighborhoods,
it’s not uncommon to find skunks and domestic cats dining
peacefully together. There have been cases of skunks entering
homes through pet doors, dining with the family cat and finding
a quiet closet or empty bed to spend the night. As long as
the skunk does not feel threatened, it won’t spray.
Rabies is widely spread among skunks; they are chief carriers
of rabies in the US. Of late, the population of skunks around
Crestone is down. “Ten years ago you smelled skunk often
around here” says Kizzen Laki, “but we seem to
have few living here today.” Gee, how come? The answer
isn’t an easy one, more of a guess. This is a perfect
place for skunks, according to Ron Rivele of the DOW; his
only guess is that the warmer winters and the long running
drought have something to do with it. Says Rivele: “They
are still around, just not getting into crawl spaces in houses
as much as in the past”. He adds that we should not
be too surprised if we start to see (and smell) them here
again, more often in the future.
The porcupine is a quill-bearing rodent of the family Erethizontidae.
The North American Porcupine, best known of the species, is
a heavyset, short-legged, slow-moving, usually solitary, nocturnal,
herbivorous critter that spends much of its time in trees.
Their range is throughout all the North American desert regions,
the entire west, and north to Canada.
The Porcupine is the second largest of all rodents. It has
a small head, large, chunky body with a high arching back
and short legs. Its head and body are 25 to 40 inches long,
with a long, thick, muscular tail growing as long as 8 inches.
It weighs from 10 to 40 pounds. Up to 30,000 quills are interspersed
among the dark, coarse guard hairs of the back and tail. These
quills are most distinguishing.
Actually modified hairs, the black-tipped, yellowish quills
are stiff, barbed spines about 3 inches long. The quills detach
easily and can become painfully embedded in the skin of an
attacker. Not only do they inflict painful wounds, but they
also work into the skin and may even cause death if they puncture
vital organs or if the wounds become infected. When threatened,
the porcupine places his snout between his forelegs and spins
around presenting its rear to the enemy. When attacked, the
Porcupine does not throw its quills; instead, it drives its
tail against the assailant and dozens of quills detach easily
from the skin to remain embedded in the attacker.
If hit in the face, a predator such as a coyote or mountain
lion may die of starvation when they find it impossible to
remove the quills and are thus unable to eat. Pets, which
often are unable to resist the porcupine, can fall easy victim
to the animal’s quilled defenses and may require a surgical
procedure by a veterinarian to remove them. As a pet owner,
I can attest to that, as perhaps some of you can, too!
Porcupines are strict vegetarians. They feed on leaves, twigs
and green plants. In winter, they chew through the outer bark
of aspen and pines trees to eat the tender layer of tissue
Porcupines breed in the fall or early winter. One or two young
are born at a time. As for their lifespan, in captivity they
have lived up to 10 years; in the wild they have a life expectancy
of 5 to 6 years.
Everybody knows a raccoon when they see one. With their ringed,
bushy tail, yellowish brown fur (with a blackish wash) and
black face mask, these mainly nocturnal creatures are unmistakable.
They live statewide at moderate elevations, including here
The raccoons are meat-eating carnivores, although many of
them also eat berries, fruit, vegetables, eggs, acorns, hickory
nuts, grains, grasses, and bark, if nothing else is available.
The ratio of plant to animal food varies by season and what
is available. Raccoons are in the Procyonidae (meaning
to wash) family and are very clean animals. There are seven
species of raccoons in North America and 25 subspecies. Adults
are 2 to 3 feet long (of which one-third is tail). Their weight
varies from 2 to 30 pounds.
They have a highly developed sense of touch considered to
be superior to other non-primate mammals. They can easily
unlatch doors and get into trash cans and other mischief.
They have a keen sense of hearing and visual acuity consistent
with their nocturnal habits. Raccoons are excellent climbers
and are one of the few mammals that can descend vertical tree
trunks head first. They are also strong swimmers and can easily
cross rivers and lakes.
Raccoons are not territorial. Preferred terrain is forested,
with ponds, lakes, marshes or streams. They usually den in
hollow trees, rock crevices, ground dens and abandoned buildings.
In late fall and early winter, their fur will thicken into
a heavy winter coat, and they will eat as much as they can
find. In winter, raccoons will spend weeks in their dens without
eating, but they do not hibernate.
Adult raccoons breed between January and June. The first breeding
cycle is at about ten months of age. While males are physically
able to breed in the first year, they usually do not because
of competition with older males. Litters are anywhere from
one to seven; four is the usual size.
Raccoons can live up to 16 years in the wild, but 2 or 3
years is average, as most die before reaching five years.
Studies show that the greatest mortality occurs during the
second year of life. Principal causes of mortality are activities
of man—mainly hunting, trapping, automobiles, and dogs.
Natural predators are mountains lions, coyotes, alligators
(well, not here in Crestone!), foxes, and great horned owls.
Yet the number of raccoon deaths caused by natural predators
is insignificant compared to the number of deaths caused by
Raccoons are one of the few native mammals that have not been
restricted to increasingly smaller areas of natural habitat
by urban development, as they have adapted to man’s
environment. Attics and chimneys become dens and rest sites,
storm sewers become subways, and pet food left outdoors replaces
their traditional dietary staples.
We do have several raccoons in our area, but nowhere as many
as in the Colorado Front Range. We are just a bit too high
up in elevation here, plus they are not too crazy about our
very cold winter nights, either.
Okay, that’s all for now on our smaller wildlife. In
Part 2, which will be in the next issue of The Eagle,
we will have a look at squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs,
marmots and gophers; and then in Part 3, snakes!
to the Eagle!