The Crestone Eagle, February 2006:

Small Wild Neighbors (Part 1 of 3)

by Keno

This 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 do.

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 to humans.

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 juice.

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 below.

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 in Crestone.

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 man.

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!