Wildlife & Natural History Q-line

Do you have a question about Michigan Wildlife?

Are you having problems with bats in the attic, raccoons under the deck, or snakes in the basement?

Perhaps you saw an unusual bird at your feeder, and wondered what it was.

Or your child found a bone or fossil in the yard— could it be part of a dinosaur?

And why did that big turtle dig up your flower bed last summer?

Image of scientistYour Guide,

Jim Harding

A Wildlife and Herpetology Specialist at Michigan State University, working jointly through the MSU Museum and the MSU Department of Integrative Biology. Jim also co-teaches (since 1997) the undergraduate course "Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles" for the Department of Integrative Biology.

Welcome,
To the Michigan Wildlife and Natural History Q-line

Virtually everyone who lives in, or even just passes through, the Great State of Michigan, will come in contact with wild animals and other natural wonders. This website will, we hope, be a helpful resource for investigating our native (and sometimes non-native) wildlife and other natural objects and for helping to solve problems when people and wild animals come into conflict.

Of course, we can't possibly have the answers to all the possible questions on Michigan natural history and wildlife that might arise , but when we're stumped we can usually point you towards other resources that may help solve the problem.

Your Guide, for the Michigan Wildlife and Natural History Q-line, Jim Harding

Jim is an instructor and Wildlife and Herpetology Specialist at Michigan State University, working jointly through the MSU Museum and the MSU Department of Integrative Biology (formerly Zoology). Jim also co-teaches (since 1997) the undergraduate course called "Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles" for the Department of Integrative Biology. While Jim has a general background in wildlife biology and conservation, he specializes in the study of amphibians and reptiles—especially turtles—and has a particular interest in the conservation of these often misunderstood animals.

Jim received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Wildlife Biology from Michigan State. He has taught for Lansing Community College (Lansing, Michigan), served as an interpretive naturalist for Cranbrook Institute of Science (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan), and since 1989 has worked for the Education Division of the MSU Museum (East Lansing, Michigan). Jim has also served as advisor and consultant to a number of private and public conservation and education agencies, including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy.

Jim's publications include:

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region (Revised Edition, 2017, with David Mifsud, University of Michigan Press)

Michigan Snakes (with J. A. Holman, M. Hensley, and G. Dudderar, 1989, rev. 1993, MSU Extension)

Michigan Turtles and Lizards (with J. A. Holman, 1990, MSU Extension)

Michigan Frogs, Toads, and Salamanders (with J.A. Holman, 1992, MSU Extension)

Jim provided text and photos for a series of educational posters produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on Turtles, Snakes, Frogs and Toads, and Salamanders (of Michigan).

Identification Process

First...Identify Group

Choose the group below that best describes the snake you are trying to identify. Some snakes might fit into more than one group, so if you don't find a match in the first group you choose, try the "next best" group.

Group 1: Striped snakes
A snake with a lengthwise pattern of yellowish stripes on a dark background; there may be spots between the stripes.

Group 2: Very small striped snakes
A very small snake (brown, gray, or black) with lengthwise stripes.

Group 3: Small shiny-scaled snakes
A small snake with smooth, shiny scales (black, gray, or green).

Group 4: Water snakes
A medium to large, brownish or grayish snake found in or near water (lake, pond, or stream edge).

Group 5: Blotchy snakes without stripes
A snake with saddle-like blotches or many large spots running down the back.

Group 6: Very large, solid-colored snakes
A very large, dark, solid-colored (blue, gray, or black) snake with white chin and throat; baby snakes in this group have a blotchy pattern.

Group 7: Thick-bodied, bluffing snakes
A thick-bodied snake with a pointed tail and up-turned nose; often hisses, spreads neck, or "plays dead."

Group 8: Rattlesnakes
A snake with small rounded rattles on the tail tip and "cat-like" eyes.

Second...Identify the Snake

Go to that group and read the decriptions and look at the photos. (click on snake's name to see photo and full description).

Group 1: Striped snakes

Butler's Garter Snake (Thamnophis butleri)
Description: A small black, brown, or olive snake with three distinct yellow stripes down the back and a yellowish belly. Some specimens have dark spots between the stripes. The dark head is very small.
Adult Length: 15 to 27 inches.

Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
Description: A medium-sized striped snake with variable coloration. Most are gray, brown, or greenish with three yellowish stripes down the back, and there may be black spots between the stripes, making the snake look "checkered". The belly is pale white, green, or yellow. The tongue is red with a black tip.
Adult Length: 2 to 4 feet.

Northern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis)
Description: A very slender black or brown snake with three bright yellow or white stripes down the back. The head is black, though the scales above and below the mouth are white. The belly is white or light yellow.
Adult Length: 18 to 38 inches.

Group 2: Very small striped snakes

Brown (Dekay's) Snake (Storeria dekayi)
Description: A small brown or gray snake with a light stripe down the back bordered by black dots. These dots may join to form crossbars. The belly is white, cream, or pinkish in color.
Adult Length: 9 to 15 inches.

Northern Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata)
Description: A very small brown or gray snake with faint stripes down its back. The belly is red, pink, or orange (without the double row of dots seen in the rare Kirtland's snake).
Adult Length: 8 to 16 inches.

Group 3: Small shiny-scaled snakes

Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)
Description: A small black or gray, shiny-scaled snake with a yellow ring around its neck. Michigan ring-necks have a plain yellow belly, sometimes with a few black dots down the midline.
Adult Length: 10 to 24 inches.

Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis)
Description: A small, smooth-scaled bright green snake with a whitish or yellowish belly. Baby Green Snakes are olive, brown, or gray.
Adult Length: 12 to 20 inches.

Group 4: Water snakes

Copper-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)
Description: A large brown or black snake with an unmarked reddish or orange belly. The young have a blotched pattern which fades with maturity.
Adult Length: 3 to 5 feet.
Endangered species in Michigan; Protected.

Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)
Description: A water snake with dark bands or blotches on a light brown or gray background color. Old adults may appear solid black or brown. The belly is white with reddish crescent shaped markings; some specimens have an orangish belly speckled with brown or black.

Adult Length: 2 to 4 feet.

Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)
Description: A slender gray or brown snake with a whitish or yellow stripe on each side of the body. Three narrow black stripes may be visible on the back. The light-colored belly has four dark lengthwise stripes.
Adult Length: 15 to 36 inches.

Group 5: Blotchy snakes without stripes

Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)
Description: A slender, smooth-scaled snake with reddish or brown blotches on a gray or tan background. There is usually a light "Y" or "V" shaped mark just behind the head. The belly is white with a black checkerboard pattern.
Adult Length: 2 to 4 feet.

Kirtland's Snake (Clonophis kirtlandii)
Description: A small reddish-brown snake with four rows of black (often indistinct) blotches down its back, and a black head. The belly is pink or red with a row of black dots along each side.
Adult Length: 12 to 18 inches.
Endangered species in Michigan; protected.

Western Fox Snake (Panthophis vulpinus)
Description: A large yellowish or light brown snake with dark brown or black blotches down the back and sides. The head may be reddish or orange, and the belly is yellowish, checkered with black. Two different species of fox snake occur in Michigan (in UP and in SE Lower Peninsula; see full account); though they are similar in color, their ranges do not overlap.
Adult Length: 3 to 5 feet.

Group 6: Very large, solid-colored snakes

Blue Racer (Coluber constrictor foxii)

Description: A large grayish or blue snake with smooth scales. The head is usually darker than the body, and the chin and throat are white. The belly is light blue or white. Young racers have a blotched pattern.
Adult Length: 4 to 6 feet.

Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis spiloides)
Description: A large shiny black snake with a white chin and throat. Juveniles have dark blotches on a gray background; traces of this pattern are often visible in adult specimens. This is Michigan's largest snake. Also called Gray or Midland Ratsnake.
Adult Length: 3.5 to 8 feet.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Protected in Michigan as a "Special Concern" species.

Group 7: Thick-bodied, bluffing snakes

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
Description: A thick-bodied snake with an upturned "nose." Color is variable—some have dark spots and blotches on a yellow, orange, or brown background, but others are solid black, brown, or olive with little or no visible pattern. Easily identified by defensive behavior (see full account).
Adult Length: 20 to 40 inches.

 

Group 8: Rattlesnakes

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)
Description: A heavy-bodied, gray or brown snake with dark blotches and spots on the back and sides. The only Michigan snake with segmented rattles on the end of its tail and elliptical ("cat-like") pupils in the eyes. The neck is narrow, contrasting with the wide head and body. The belly is mostly black.
Adult Length: 2 to 3 feet.
VENOMOUS; Special Concern species.

Snakes, People, and Conservation

Snakes are probably the most misunderstood and feared of all animals in the state. This fear often begins in early childhood, as we watch television programs and read stories that portray the snake as an evil and dangerous animal. These fears are reinforced by watching a parent or friend react to a snake by either running from it or killing it. Fortunately these negative attitudes are beginning to change. More people now accept snakes for what they are—fascinating members of Michigan's wildlife community that, if given the chance, will avoid contact with humans. The vast majority are harmless, and the one venomous species can be easily identified and avoided when visiting natural areas. Some species consume rodent or insect pests and are beneficial to agriculture. All snakes play a role in the natural environment by contributing to ecological systems as predators and prey. They can best be conserved for the future by providing for their habitat needs and then simply leaving them alone.

The State of Michigan has enacted legislation to provide for protection and regulation of native reptiles and amphibians. Rare and declining species are now protected from persecution and exploitation, and all species are affected by limits on numbers that can be taken or removed from the wild. Shooting of snakes and other reptiles is prohibited. Anyone wishing to take or study reptiles or amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders) in Michigan should contact the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division for details and licensing requirements.

Recommended Books

Michigan Turtles and Lizards by J. H. Harding and J. A. Holman. 2014. Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service, East Lansing, Bulletin E-2234.

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region (Second Edition) by J.H. Harding and D. Mifsud. 2017. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by R. Powell, R. Conant and J.T. Collins. 4th Ed. (2016) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978
hardingj@msu.edu

Identification Key

To identify a turtle in hand, close by, or in a photograph, use this quick key.
Each numbered stop below has two statements; pick the one (A or B) that best applies to the turtle in hand. This will lead you either to an identification, or directions to go to another numbered stop. Keep going until you have a proper name for the turtle you are identifying. Click on the name of the turtle to see a photo and detailed description, this should help confirm the identification.

Here are some words which will help you use the key:

Click on the words for an audible pronunciation. (Links open a new window.)

carapace
a turtle's top shell

plastron
a turtle's bottom shell

keel
a raised ridge along the middle (front to back) of the carapace of some turtles

scute
the large, separate scales on the carapace and plastron of most turtles

hinge
a flexible, straight dividing line between two parts (scute pairs) of the plastron of some turtles that allows one of both sections of the plastron to lift up, protecting the head and feet.

The following steps will help you to identify your turtle:

  1. SHELL SHAPE
    1. carapace and plastron very smooth, without separate scutes; shell soft and rubbery at the edges, nose of turtle extended into pig-like snout...
      You have a spiny softshell turtle (watch out—they can bite!!).
    2. carapace and plastron hard or stiff, and divided into separate scutes...
      Continue to Step 2 and look at the TAIL.
  2. TAIL
    1. tail very long, with large scales sticking up along the midline; also note: scales on back edge of carapace form sharp, tooth-like points; plastron very small; mouth has a pointed beak...
      You have a snapping turtle (watch out—they can bite!!).
    2. tail does not have large, thick scales sticking up along the top...
      Continue to Step 3 and look at the BOTTOM SHELL.
  3. BOTTOM SHELL
    1. turtle has skin showing between some plastron scutes; plastron rather small; also note: tail short; snout rather pointed; turtle less than 5 inches long; carapace high and narrow; turtle may open mouth and give off a bad smell when handled...
      You have a common musk turtle.
    2. turtle does not have skin showing between the plastron scutes...
      Continue to Step 4 and look at the COLOR PATTERN.
  4. COLOR PATTERN
    1. turtle has thin yellow or red stripes on its head, neck, and legs...
      Continue to Step 5 and look for RED MARKINGS.
    2. turtle does not have pattern of thin stripes on head, neck, and legs...
      Continue to Step 7 and look for a HINGE.
  5. RED MARKINGS
    1. red markings along the edge of the carapace (on top or underneath, or both); often red striping on neck and front legs; also note: plastron yellow or reddish with dark central blotch or pattern; carapace smooth and without a keel...
      You have a painted turtle.
    2. no red markings on top or bottom edge of carapace and no red striping on legs or neck; carapace faintly to strongly keeled...
      Continue to Step 6 and look at the HEAD & LEG STRIPES.
  6. HEAD & LEG STRIPES
    1. legs, head, and neck with thin yellowish stripes; no red markings on head or legs; also note: carapace has a low to moderate keel and a faint circular pattern of light lines; plastron plain yellow, without dark blotches in centers of scutes...
      You have a common map turtle.
    2. red or orange stripe behind each eye, otherwise only yellow stripes on head and legs; note: old males may become very dark, with shell and skin colors obscured; also note: plastron yellow with a dark blotch in each scute; carapace usually with a very low keel and light streaks on greenish or brown background color...
      You have a red-eared slider.
  7. HINGE
    1. plastron with flexible hinge line between third and fourth pair of plastral scutes (counting from head end); carapace rather high and domed, or "helmet-like"...
      Continue to Step 8 and look for UPPER JAW.
    2. no flexible hinge or plastron...
      Continue to Step 9 and look for a TOP SHELL.
  8. UPPER JAW
    1. upper jaw hooked (like a hawk); also note: head and neck variably spotted or streaked, but throat NOT plain yellow; tail very short; carapace helmet-like...
      You have an eastern box turtle.
      Note: A protected "species of special concern" in Michigan.
    2. upper jaw notched (giving the turtle a built-in "smile!"); chin and throat plain yellow; also note: carapace elongated and dome-like; plastron usually yellow with a dark blotch at the outer edge of each scute...
      You have a Blanding's turtle.
      Note: A protected "species of special concern" in Michigan.
  9. TOP SHELL
    1. carapace smooth and black with few or many round yellow spots; head black with bright yellow or orange spots and blotches...
      You have a spotted turtle.
      Note: A protected "threatened specie" in Michigan.
    2. carapace brownish or grayish-brown (sometimes, with yellow ray-like markings), with deep circular growth rings crossed by ray-like ridges on each scute; also note: head black, with yellow or orange skin on lower neck and under legs and tail...
      You have a wood turtle.
      Note: A protected "species of special concern" in Michigan.
  10. START OVER

List of Turtles in Michigan

Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)
Description: Blanding's turtle is a medium-sized turtle with an elongated, dome-like carapace and a long neck. The smooth carapace is usually black with a variable number of yellowish spots and streaks. The head is also dark, with brown or yellow spots, but the chin and the underside of the neck are bright yellow. The yellowish plastron has a dark blotch at the outer edge of each scute, and there is usually a flexible hinge between the pectoral and abdominal scutes. A frightened turtle may use this hinge to lift the front and back of the plastron and close up its shell. Hinge flexibility varies greatly among individuals, with some specimens having little or no shell closing ability.
Adult Carapace Length: 6 to 10.5 inches (15.2 to 26.8 cm).

common map turtle (Graptemys geographica)
Description: The map turtle has a greenish, olive, or brown carapace with a low keel and an irregular pattern of yellowish lines that suggest roadways on a map. This pattern may be obscured in older specimens. The skin on the head, neck, and legs is olive or brown with thin yellow stripes, and there is usually a small yellow spot behind each eye. The plastron is light yellow, though young specimens often have dark lines running along the scute edges. Females are bigger and have much wider heads than males.
Adult Male Carapace Length: 4 to 6.3 inches (10 to 16 cm).
Adult Female Carapace Length: 6.7 to 10.7 inches (17 to 27.2 cm).

common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
Description: This is a very small turtle with a narrow, high-arched brown or black carapace and a pointed, protruding snout. They usually have two yellowish stripes on each side of the head. (In older specimens these stripes may fade.) Two or more soft, pointed barbels are usually visible on the chin or throat. The yellow or brownish plastron is very small, with many of the scutes separated by skin. The male musk turtle differs from the female in having broader areas of skin between the plastral scutes and a longer, thicker tail tipped with a stiff spine.
Adult Carapace Length: 3.25 to 5.37 inches (8 to 13.7 cm).

eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
Description: This is a small land turtle with a domed, helmet-shaped carapace and a hinged plastron. Coloration of the shell and skin is extremely variable. The carapace is usually brown with a radiating pattern of yellow or orange markings in each scute. The plastron can be yellowish, tan, brown, or black, and either plain or marked with lines or blotches. Skin of the head and legs is usually brown or black with streaks and spots of yellow, but some (especially males) may have the yellow or orange color covering most of the head and forelimbs. The plastral hinge allows the box turtle to close the shell tightly, completely hiding the head, legs, and tail. Most male box turtles have red eyes, while most females have brown eyes.
Adult Carapace Length: 4.5 to 7.8 inches (11.5 to 19.8 cm).

painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)
Description: This is a common, small, dark-shelled turtle with a yellow-striped head and red and yellow stripes on the neck, legs, and tail. The smooth black or olive carapace has red markings along the edge, especially underneath the marginal scutes. The plastron is usually yellow, sometimes tinged with red, with a long, dark central blotch. In some specimens this blotch is nearly absent, while in the western subspecies (see "Distribution and Status") the blotch is wider and more complicated and extends along the seams between the scutes. Males are smaller and have longer front claws than females.
Adult Carapace Length: 4 to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm).

red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
Description: The red-eared slider is named for the broad red or orange stripe behind the eye, which may extend onto the neck. Otherwise, the head, neck, and legs are greenish with yellow stripes. The olive or brown carapace usually has yellow and black longitudinal bands and stripes. The plastron is yellow with a dark, rounded blotch in each scute. Males are slightly smaller than females and have longer claws on the forefeet. Old specimens, especially males, may become very dark, with black coloration obscuring the striped pattern on the skin and shell.
Adult Carapace Length: 5 to 11 inches (12.5 to 27.9 cm).

snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Description: This large aquatic turtle has a big head with a pointed nose and hooked upper jaw, and a long, thick tail with a row of thick scales along the top. The carapace is black, brown, or olive, with pointed marginal scutes along the rear edge. (The shell is often covered with algae or mud.) Young snappers have three lengthwise keels on the carapace, but large adults may have shells that are nearly smooth. The yellowish plastron is small and cross-shaped and leaves much of the turtle's underside uncovered. This lack of protection may partly explain the snapping turtle's well-known biting defense. This is Michigan's largest turtle, often reaching 10 to 35 pounds (4.5 to 16 kg); the record weight was 86 pounds (39 kg) for a captive specimen.
Adult Carapace Length: 8 to 18.5 inches (20 to 47 cm).

spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera)
Description: This medium to large turtle is unmistakable, with its flat, smooth shell and long pig-like nose. The rounded tan, brown, or olive carapace is marked with black dots or circles in juveniles and males, and dark blotches in adult females. The plastron is white, with gray patches over the plastral bones. Both carapace and plastron lack scutes and are quite soft and flexible. The name "spiny" comes from the small spines at the front of the carapace. The neck is very long, and a yellowish, black-bordered stripe is usually visible on the sides of the head. Females are larger and darker and have shorter tails than males.
Adult Male Carapace Length: 5 to 9 inches ( 12.7 to 23 cm).
Adult Female Carapace Length: 7 to 19 inches (18 to 48 cm).

spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) Threatened
Description: The little spotted turtle has a smooth, black carapace with a variable number of rounded yellow spots. The plastron is yellow or orange with a black blotch in each scute; the blotches may cover most of the plastron in some specimens. The head, neck, and legs are black above, usually with a few scattered yellow spots, and there are usually one or more irregular orange or yellow bands on the side of the head. The skin under the legs and neck is orange or pinkish. Occasional specimens have no spots on the carapace; others may have only one spot per scute. Males usually have brown eyes and brown or black lower jaws, while most females have orange eyes and yellow or orange lower jaws.
Adult Carapace Length: 3.5 to 5 inches (9 to 12.7 cm).

wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)
Description: The scientific name of this species means "sculptured turtle", and its rough, brownish carapace does look as if it was carved from wood. Each scute has deep, circular growth rings crossed by ray-like ridges. The plastron is yellow with a black blotch at the outer edge of each scute and has a V-shaped notch at the base of the tail. The head and upper legs are mostly black or dark brown (rarely speckled with yellow or white), while the neck, lower legs, and other soft parts are yellow or orange. Mature males have higher shells and longer, thicker tails than females.
Adult Carapace Length: 6.3 to 9.4 inches (16 to 24 cm).


Recommended Books

Michigan Turtles and Lizards by J. H. Harding and J. A. Holman. 1990. Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service, East Lansing, Bulletin E-2234.

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region by J.H. Harding. 1997. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by R. Conant and J.T. Collins. 3rd Ed. (1998, 1991) Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.

Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978
hardingj@msu.edu

Do you have a question about wildlife?

Here is your chance to ask a wildlife expert Jim Harding all those nagging questions about animals in your neck of the woods.

Jim's email address is hardingj@msu.edu

Only your question and your email address are required. You do not have to provide any other information, but you can if you like.

Please note:
I try to respond to all legitimate questions within a week or less. In most cases, if you do not get a timely response to your question, it is because your email address was not correct. I often have "Critterguy" responses bounce back. PLEASE double-check that you have entered your correct address before sending your question.

Thanks
The "Critterguy"

You can bookmark this page to check it later to see the answer revealed!

Previously Submitted Questions and Answers

The following questions have been sent in by internet users (just like you), and the answers have been posted here. They are arranged by date. Please feel free to browse through the questions.

Renae in Georgia asks:
"I have a lot of small lizard in my backyard. They're always getting in the door and getting in the house. I want to know how can you kill them.

Is there any kind of poison to use?"

Although it may be annoying when lizards get into the house, they are completely harmless and very clean animals, and are good destroyers of pest insects. Thus, to keep them out of the house, just make sure that there are no cracks around doors, windows or screens where they can accidentally get in the house, and shoo them away before opening doors. Spaces around window air conditioners are frequent routes of entry. If they do get in, sometimes they can be chased into a large bottle or deep box with a broom and then dumped outside away from the house. If stronger measures are needed, they can be stunned (or, unfortunately, killed) with a flyswatter or rolled up newspaper. Lizards should be welcomed in the garden, where they are great at catching insects that eat flowers and edible crops.

It is wise to remember that lizards are vertebrate (back-boned) animals, like birds, cats, dogs, and us. Thus anything that would poison them would also very likely be dangerous for your family and your pets. Lizards are unfortunately killed by contact with many pesticides, but I would not want to use any of these around my home or children.

 — Jim

Jan in Louisiana asks:
"I see alot of raccoons around our house. What do they eat?"

Raccoons are omnivores— and will eat almost anything remotely edible. In the wild they eat small animals (baby birds, bird eggs, turtle eggs and baby turtles, rodents, crayfish, frogs, fish, etc.) and fruit, berries, etc. Around humans they eat garbage, steal dog and cat food, kill small livestock (like chickens) raid dumpsters and trash cans, eat crops like corn, fruit, and vegetables, and basically consume anything with food value. In most areas, raccoons get along well around people, and their numbers are very high and growing. They can have a detrimental effect on other wildlife species, and carry several diseases passable to humans and pets. It is never a good idea to purposely feed raccoons or attract them to our houses. They will never starve!

— Jim

Charlene in New Jersey asks:
"How come animals like birds and mammals do not seem to be affected very much by outside temperatures?"

Hi—That's a good question for this time of year. Mammals and birds are endothermic—what we sometimes call "warm blooded." They maintain a fairly constant body temperature by eating lots of food and using the extra calories to make their own internal heat. Fur and feathers help hold the heat in. So as long as they can find sufficient food, they can tolerate cold temperatures. (Within reason—really bitter cold low temperatures can still kill them.) The key is to find enough food, which is undoubtedly why some mammals, like woodchucks, hibernate for the winter (when their food supply is scarce) and many bird species migrate to warmer climates (especially the insect-eating species).

On the other hand, ectothermic animals (sometimes called "cold-blooded") like frogs and reptiles, depend on sources of heat around them (like the direct sun, or warmed surfaces or water) to remain active, and are forced to hibernate in winter—since they don't make their own body heat. But this gives reptiles an advantage in warm deserts and tropical climates, where they can maintain their activities without having to eat nearly as much food as similar-sized birds or mammals.

— Jim

Dave in Michigan asks:
"My question has to do with moles in my suburban lawn. I have had them occasionally in the past, but this summer they seemed unusually aggressive and wide-ranging and obnoxious (creating bigger mounds of dirt and higher tunnels than before).

Questions:
1.) Might these be "pocket gophers" and not moles at all?
2.) Will they die or hibernate or go away over the winter?
3.) If I don't have grubs in my lawn, will the moles come back?
4.) What's the best way to get rid of them ??"

We don't have pocket gophers in Michigan, so they must be moles. The star-nosed mole (one of our two species) has a known tendency to make large mounds ("mole-hills"), though the eastern moles sometimes will too. The star-nosed normally does not make the long sub-surface tunnels, though.

Moles eat alot more than just grubs. They love eating worms and nightcrawlers. Being insectivores (like shrews), they will eat just about anything edible they encounter while burrowing. In winter they go deep below the frostline and may reduce activity, though they don't really hibernate.

Have you tried one of the mole repellents (like Scoot-Mole, or Mole-Med)? These can be effective and are a good non-toxic "first step" to try. Results may vary depending on soil type and moisture levels, and you may need to re-apply after heavy rains. A more deadly solution (for the moles) are the poison baits that can be placed in the tunnels. A product called "Mole Patrol" has been tested at Michigan State Univesity and found to be an effective control. "Mole Patrol" uses an anti-coagulant poison, like some of the indoor rodent baits. The old-style mole traps can also be effective. They are a bit tricky to set properly, and may not work in very dense clay soils.

Good luck!

— Jim

Brian in Ohio asks:
"Can you clear up the myth about snapping turtles whose heads have been severed after biting, not releasing their bite until sundown? Have you ever heard of this before? Can you explain why, if it is true?"

Yes, I've heard that myth, and there might be just a little truth in it. Many studies suggest that reptile are more tolerant of oxygen deprivation than mammals, so I would assume that "brain death" might take longer in a reptile than in a mammal. If the defensive jaw-snapping of the turtle depends on a "short loop" of nerve impulses between brain and jaw muscles, then we can understand why a severed snapping turtle head might continue to clamp down on its attacker.

If a snapping turtle's jaws were in a tightly closed position when its head was severed, it is quite possible that the jaws would remain in a closed position for some time after death, at least until the muscles and tendons (or associated nerves that control jaw movement) had begun to break down. The amount of time that passed before that happened would depend on a number of variables (like temperature), but but the setting of the sun would have nothing directly to do with it.

— Jim

John in Indiana asks:
"How do homing pigeons find their way back home?"

The answer to pigeon navigation is not fully understood, but some research has been done on it. We know that on sunny days, pigeons are able to use the sun as a compass to find the right directon. But on cloudy days, they seem to initially get confused, but most eventually find the right way. Then they may rely on several different methods. One is the sensing of polarized light (so perhaps they can still sense the sun's direction). They also seem to use airborne odors to find familiar places. Still another is sensing the magnetic field of the Earth. If pigeons have small magnets taped to their heads, they get confused on cloudy days, but have no trouble on sunny days. So it seems that they prefer to use the sun as a compass, but have other "fallback" methods if the sun is not available.

— Jim

A guest from South Carolina asks:
"Is it illegal to buy a box turtle?"

In Michigan and many other states it is illegal to buy or sell a box turtle, but I'm not sure about South Carolina. You should check with your state wildlife office for any regulations.

In any case, you can tell from my website that I think that buying or selling wild-caught box turtles is a bad idea. For one thing, any commercial trade in wild box turtles can harm the local turtle population. (Box turtles live very long lives, but reproduce very slowly, so any collecting pressure will reduce their numbers.) For another thing, a wild box turtle that is captured, held by a collector, and then sold to and held by a pet store, is already going to be stressed and can be exposed to various diseases and parasites. This means that the turtle may be difficult to keep healthy and it can have a hard time adapting to captive life. And of course, buying a turtle just encourages the pet store to acquire more turtles, thus leading to further reductions in wild turtle numbers.

There are other, better sources of pet turtles—sometimes captive-bred turtles are available. And sometimes zoos and nature centers are offered unwanted or injured (and treated) turtles and need volunteers to take and care for them.

— Jim

Jeff in Michigan asks:
"A few years ago I was fly fishing in Traverse City (Michigan) area. I saw a unique snake that appeared to have dark colored diamonds and was about 2 feet long. What type of snake was this?"

Did you see the snake along the stream where you were fishing? If so, the most likely species would be the Northern Water Snake. These are variable in pattern, but usually have darker blotches on a slightly lighter background. Really big, old ones can look very dark and the pattern can be obscured. Water snakes swim well, and are often seen basking on shoreline debris. They eat frogs and small fish.

I have a photo of one on my website, but remember that the exact coloration and shape of the blotches can vary between individuals.

Water snakes are non-venomous and harmless to humans, but are feisty and may bite if handled.

The little Massaauga Rattlesnake is also found in that area, and has a blotchy pattern as well. But they are almost never found along streams—instead they prefer shrub swamps and shallow marshes in spring and fall, and upland meadows and shrubby ""old fields"" in summer. They tend to be very shy, are very good at hiding, and avoid contact with humans. They are of course venomous, but are of no danger to anyone willing to leave them alone.

— Jim

Gregory from New Jersey asks:
"Can you provide me with a list of shrubbery that deer do not eat or are least likely to eat?"

Hi Gergory:

A partial list of shrubs and trees that deer tend not to favor includes: persimmon, ash, barberry, black locust, box elder, butterfly bush, cotoneaster, dogwood, hawthorn, forsythia, holly, flowering cherry, juniper, magnolia, lombardy poplar, various pine species, red elderberry, sassafras, smoke tree, spiraea, viburnum, and wisteria.

On the other hand, deer DO like to eat azaleas, arborvitae, apple and crab apple, white cedar, balsam fir, roses, yews, redbud, peach, plum, euonymus, lilac, and vine maple.

While most garden flowers and edible plants are palatable to deer, a few are distasteful and may even repel deer—these include marigold, catnip, chives, garlic, onions, lavender, sage, spearmint, and yarrow.

Hope this helps...

— Jim

Melinda in New York asks:
"How many Wood Turtles are left in the world?"

Hi Melinda:

No one knows how many wood turtles are left. I think the best answer we can give is that there are far fewer than there were even a few years ago, and the long-term prospects for the species are not good, at least over most of its range.

In northern Michigan, where I do my research on wood turtles, I now see very few or no turtles in places where I once saw many of them only 20 or so years ago. I can guess that in Michigan there may be only a few hundred wood turtles left, when there used to be perhaps several thousand.

Wood turtles do not reproduce very fast, because most of their eggs and hatchlings are eaten by predators. However, the very few that do survive to adulthood can live very long lives (40 to 50 years, and sometimes even longer). So "nature" assumes that once a turtle reaches maturity, which might take 15 to 20 years, it will last a long time and have many years to reproduce. That once was true, but now many adult turtles are disappearing, due to illegal collecting by people, being killed on roads, and an increase in turtle-killing predators, like raccoons. So the future does not look good for them, unless people learn to leave them alone, their habitats are protected, and the numbers of raccoons begins to fall.

— Jim

Bruce in Michigan asks:
"I have found a snakeskin in the basement of my home.Does this mean I have a snake problem near my home?

If I do how do I rid myself of them or were they coming in out of the cold weather nights?"

Hi Bruce:

A shed snakeskin in your basement likely means that a snake is, or was, in your basement. Whether this is a "problem" or not depends on your point of view!! It may be a problem for the snake if it fell into your basement and can't get out on its own.

In fall, snakes look for a safe place to hibernate for the winter, usually a mammal burrow or other opening that leads below the frost line. If a snake was moving along the edge of your house foundation and found a small crack or hole, it might investigate—and end up falling into your basement. If the basement is cool, the snake will be able to successfully pass the winter, probably curled up and hiding out of sight. In spring, it might be able to find its way out, or it might be trapped and eventually starve to death. If the basement is heated, then the snake will be unable to properly hibernate and will likely move around more, trying to get out.

Some snakes are better climbers than others—a Milk Snake or Rat Snake climbs well, but garter snakes and the little Brown Snakes are poor climbers. Of course, most snakes in Michigan are harmless to people, and our one venomous species (the Massasauga rattler) rarely gets into basements, preferring to hibernate in crayfish burrows in wetlands. If the shed skin is intact, I might be able to identify it if you sent it to me. If you see a snake in the basement, try to I.D. it (see the snake "field guide" on the "critterguy" website!). Garter snakes are the most common species throughout the State. Any native Michigan snake with a pointed tail tip (rather than rattles) and round eye pupils in daylight is non-venomous (but of course any small animal may try to bite if it feels trapped or threatened). Once you are certain that it is a harmless species, you can pick it up in gloved hands or "broom" the critter into a deep box or garbage can (tipped on its side) and take it outside to natural habitat. (But if outside temperatures are below freezing, it will surely die, and temps below 60 degrees will make it difficult for the animal to find proper shelter.) In the extremely rare and unlikely event that a rattler gets in the house, you can use the broom technique with a coverable, deep flat-sided garbage can, but use extreme caution and keep a respectable distance away—never actually handle the animal, even with gloves! I suppose killing the animal is an option, but it's nice to avoid it when possible.

How to prevent snakes from getting in? Find the holes and cracks, and fix them! (If you'd like more info on discouraging snakes from staying near houses, let me know.)

— Jim

Libby in England asks:
"Can I put liquid coffee down on my lawn to stop the mole hills. If not, what can I put down to stop them?"

Hi Libby:

I've never heard of using liquid coffee to repel moles, but I have heard of using coffee grounds. But since coffee grounds are very appealing to earthworms, which moles love to eat, I would think that it wouldn't be very effective as a repellent, at least over the long-term.

The products that are sold in the U.S. to repel moles ("Scoot-Mole" and "Mole-Med", which have been tested here at Michigan State University) are manufactured using derivitives of castor beans. Perhaps there are castor bean products available in the UK; these should all work the same way, I would suspect. If you can find this product, let me know if it works on English moles.

— Jim

Scott in Ohio asks:
"Earlier this week I was walking down my driveway and stumbled across a snake lying in the driveway. I thought it was a black snake at first but after further consideration, I realized I was stumped. The snake tried to rattle its tail as if it were trying to be a Rattlesnake, also it started to go in a striking stance, but it never did strike. The description of the snake is black with light neon colored green spots all over it. I was wondering what type of snake this would be and if it was deadly or not."

Wow—sure wish I had a photo of that one!! There is no snake in that area that would characteristically could be described as "black with neon green spots". So lets try a couple of educated guesses. First, the buzzing of the tail is a common defensive "nervous reaction" of several species of non-venomous snakes, so that's no help.

Here's one suggestion—young racers (both the black form in southern Ohio and the blue form in northern Ohio and Michigan) are hatched out with a blotched, speckly pattern that gradually turns a solid black to turquoise blue as it grows, over a 2 to 4 year period. I'm wondering if you could have seen a young racer in a "transitional" color. Racers are smooth-scaled, sleek, fast-moving snakes that tend to be nervous and feisty around people. They are not venomous, of course.

Another guess might be a Water Snake- they can look very dark as they mature, but there is usually a visible pattern of bands and blotches if you look closely. But admittedly the spots are not usually green. There is a real Green Water Snake, but these live down South, not in Ohio.

That's the best we can do now—but if you see it again, run for a camera!! And don't try to touch it until you are sure that it is a non-venomous species!

— Jim

Debra in Michigan asks:
"My kids and I were on a walking trail in the state park in Battle Creek, Michigan in the middle of the woods, and before I knew it there was a snake within inches of my feet; needless to say I jumped and ran, when I got far enough away the snake was standing up like a cobra ready to attack, and from his neck up had flattened out. He was dark gray/black, and his neck was white. Could you tell us what kind of snake it was?"

Hi—it sounds like an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake. They are a thick-bodied, rather slow-moving snake that tries to bluff its way out of danger. They can flatten their necks like a cobra, hiss, writhe their tails, and look dangerous. They also will turn over and "play dead" if really hassled. Hog-nosed Snakes are named for the turned-up nose scale; sometimes they are erroneously called "puff adders" or other scary-sounding names. But Hog-nosed Snakes are actually non-venomous and harmless to humans, and rarely bite. Of course, never try to pick up a snake unless you have confirmed that it's a harmless species.

For more info, see the "Critterguy" website—search under hog-nosed snake.

— Jim

Dave in Michigan asks:
"The other day my son found a baby snake and he wants to keep it. But I have no clue what kind it is. It is about 8 inches long, and its body is a dark gray with a light gray stripe going down its back, with little blackish gray spots. Its head has black on it. Please tell me what kind it is and whether (and how) he should keep it."

Hi Dave:

The baby snake sounds like an eastern garter snake, though I can't be certain without seeing it. Take another look—if the snake has a stubby "button" on the tail tip and "cat-like" eyes, don't touch it—it's a rattlesnake! Take a look at the photos on this website (under Critter Field Guide) to be sure. Assuming the garter snake ID is correct, then it might be possible to keep it alive, but very young snakes are a bit tricky to get started. They are more prone to desiccation than older snakes, and sometimes are hard to feed.

You would need an escape-proof terrarium with a tight-fitting screen top. Paper towels could be used as a substrate. A very shallow water dish should be available?a large jar lid would work for a tiny snake. A piece of bark or other similar object that the snake could hide under is essential (baby snakes have lots of enemies and prefer to stay out of sight). Warmth is needed; one side of the cage can be kept at around 80°F with a low-wattage light bulb; the other side can be slightly cooler. Light can go off at night. Room temperature (65-70°) is not warm enough for proper digestion.

Small earthworms, found in a spot where pesticides are not used, would be the first food for a young garter snake. One good feeding a day would be needed. Later, a larger garter snake would eat large worms, small frogs, and small fish. Feeding during the winter is a problem.

You might see if the snake adapts and begins feeding. If not, you can let it go anytime up until daytime temperatures drop below 60?

Hope this helps!

— Jim

Shelley from Michigan asks:
"How can I keep a common toad as a pet?"

Toads usually live quite well in a moist "woodland" terrarium, with a shallow water dish and places to hide and soil to dig into. They do need live, moving insects (crickets, beetles, etc.) to eat, and they'll also eat earthworms. (For more info, see the Critter Care section on this website).

But if you have toads living in your neighborhood, here's a better idea: create a nice welcoming toad habitat in your garden and toads will move in and entertain you for free—with no hassle of finding food for them. Moist, mulched soil with low-growing plants and shrubs, and places to hide (like half-buried, tipped flower pots or pieces of bark) will please the local toads. If you put on a spotlight in your garden after dark, toads will gather underneath to eat the bugs attracted to the light.

— Jim

Cortney in Texas asks:
"How long do lizards live?"

There is no easy answer to that question; it depends on which species is in question, and whether we are talking about average lifespan versus potential lifespan.

As you might guess, the average lifespan of most small and medium sized lizards will be very short, because many of the baby ones die before reaching maturity (usually eaten by predators). Thus, an average lifespan of two or three years might be optimistic for many species. Most small lizards don't last that long (like anoles and small geckos).

But—even a small anole lizard might last 3 or 4 years in captivity or (if lucky) in the wild, and a number of medium sized lizards (like Collared Lizards and Bearded Dragons) can live 8 to 10 years. Some other records include a western whiptailed lizard at 8 years, a Tokay gecko at 23 years, a water monitor at 20 years, and a Gila monster at 33 years.

— Jim

Lauren in Virginia asks:
"How do snakes ingest and swallow objects larger in diameter than themselves?"

Snakes have a very "kinetic" skull—that is, many of the bones that are solidly fused together in other reptiles and in mammals are (in snakes) very loosely attached to each other, often by a flexible ligament, while other bones are simply reduced in size. For example, the front of the snake's lower jaws (the "chin") are connected by a ligament that is basically like a "rubber band", and the bones at the back of the skull are also highly moveable. The skull and jaws are so flexible that one side of the mouth can alternate with the other so that the prey is pushed through the mouth the same way we might pull on a tight glove by alternating pulls on each side. Then, of course, the esophagus, throat area, skin, and stomach are also very flexible, allowing passage and digestion of prey larger around than the snake's head.

If you think about it, this type of swallowing is practically necessary for a long, thin, legless animal; if not adapted this way, snakes would be restricted to swallowing very small prey animals, and they would need large quantities of small prey. A snake's teeth are not adapted for slicing and chewing, so they must swallow their prey whole. As it is, many species of snakes only need to catch and swallow a few large prey animals each year to provide their energy needs. It helps that snakes are ectothermic reptiles that don't need to make heat in their bodies; thus their energy needs are small compared to "warm-blooded" mammals (like us) and birds!

— Jim

John in Michigan asks:
"I have seen three snake species around our house (SE Livingston County, MI) and I'm guessing that there may be a hibernaculum on our property possibly adjoining the house. I'm going to be doing a lot of digging soon and I don't want to destroy their winter home. I'm considering building a hibernaculum as part of the re-landscaping project. Any advice on size and depth? There is a lot of rounded glacial stone to use!

Also, what do you do when you find a milk snake in your garage in the winter? It sounds like it won't survive outside, yet the warmth of the garage keeps it active."

It sure is nice to get a message from someone who wants to encourage the snakes instead of getting rid of them!

Since you have a nice variety of snakes on your property, there must be places that they hibernate nearby. I suspect that the majority of snakes in our area hibernate in rodent (or other animal) burrows. I often see garter, ribbon, and brown snakes emerging from old chipmunk holes in early spring. Other places I've seen include tree falls (around the root systems) and ant hills (probably because the soil is loose there).

Thus, if you wanted to construct a hibernaculum, you might want to create an area that's attractive to rodents, especially chipmunks. I've seen plans for snake hibernacula. One was an excavation (ideally on a south-facing slope) at least 6 feet deep or more, back-filled with cobble rock and criss-crossed logs and covered thinly with soil. This fills in eventually and becomes attractive to rodents, which in turn attract the snakes. Some plans call for slanting sections of rippled drain pipe into the excavation, leading to the surface—this may be unnecessary if burrowing activity is sufficient.

Yes, a milk snake (or any species) that is disturbed or gets active while overwintering in a basement or garage during mid-winter would die if put outside. They need sites that are cool, but not freezing. I have overwintered snakes (along with the turtles that I study) in an old refrigerator in my basement. I put the snakes in a plastic storage box filled with a little soil and fallen leaves from the yard, which were very slightly damp, but not wet. They made it to spring OK. Temp set was about 40°F.

Good luck, and thanks for your concern about the snakes!

— Jim

anonymous asks:
"I've been bitten by many types of snakes before and I just wanted to know if there were any venomous snakes in Canada?"

Hi—

Most of Canada lacks any venomous snakes, but two species are present:

•   The Prairie Rattlesnake ranges into extreme southern Alberta and British Columbia.

•   The little Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is found in a few scattered localities in southern Ontario, from Georgian Bay south to Lake Erie.

You are not likely to be bitten by either of these species (or any snake) if you simply leave them alone, and use care in their habitats to avoid accidentally stepping on or near them. The Massasauga is especially shy and unlikely to bite unless directly provoked. Check back at the "Critterguy" website for more information on them.

— Jim

Kim from Michigan asks:
"I have some rodents in my yard that I refer to as mutant chipmunks. I would like to know what they really are. They look like large chipmunks; except they don't have the light stripes down their back instead it is more like a line of dots. My neighbor said they were gophers but I have not found a photo of a gopher that looks like that. Anyway, what are they and what is the best way to get rid of them? There are holes all over the place, no mounds just holes. The other day we watched as they would come out and pull grass up and take it back down the hole with them."

We don't have gophers in Michigan, so I suspect that you are seeing thirteen-lined ground squirrels. These little guys are found in places that have broad expanses of short grass, like airports, golf courses, sod farms, and suburban lawns. They do have stripes on the back with little dots in them, and are chipmunk-sized, but a bit more slender and low-slung in shape. They do make holes without leaving mounds. They eat vegetation and seeds. The only other big ground squirrels in lower Michigan are woodchucks, but these are much bigger and brown, without spots or stripes.

13-lined ground squirrels can be trapped, or there are "smoke bombs" that can be put in their burrows (follow label directions carefully), but usually these little critters don't do much harm, as they tend to stay out on the grass and avoid dense garden plantings.

— Jim

Ashley asks:
"How do you know if a snake is a male or female?"

With our native snakes it is often difficult to tell the "boys from the girls", but there are sometimes a few things we can look at. Within the same species, males tend to be thinner-bodied, and have longer tails that gradually taper from the cloacal (or anal) opening. Female snakes—especially before they lay eggs or give birth in spring—tend to be thicker-bodied and have shorter tails that taper abruptly from the cloacal opening. In some common species (like garter and water snakes) females tend to be bigger, on average, than males. In some of the more detailed books and field guides on snakes, the text will give you some differences between the sexes in the number of scale rows on the belly or under the tail of snakes, that will help in telling male from female. I do give these figures in my book "Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region" (1997, Univ of Michigan Press).

Experienced snake handlers (like some veterinarians, zoo curators, and professional snake breeders) can often determine the sex of a snake by gently probing with a special tool into the cloacal area to see how far the probe will pass into the base of the tail. This is where the sex organ (hemipenes) of a male snake is housed, so the probe goes further in a male snake than in a female. Also, some experts can "pop" the hemipenes in small male snakes by applying pressure at the base of the tail. But NEVER, EVER TRY THESE procedures unless you have been trained by an expert with lots of experience. These procedures can severely injure the snake if not done exactly right! So unless you have the special training needed, I suggest that you not try these, but depend on "educated guessing" using external features described above.

And...if a snake lays eggs or gives birth—it's a female!!!! 🙂

— Jim


Liz in Michigan asks:
"The other day my mom was outside and she saw a snake with a bright orange belly in our garden. I just wanted to know what kind of snake it was."

Liz:

Check out the picture of the red-bellied snake on the website or in a field guide. The belly can range in color from pink to red to orange. This is a very small, harmless snake and would likely be the best candidate for what your Mom saw, as they are fairly common around the state. Red-bellied snakes are found in fields and open woodlands, but turn up quite frequently in gardens.

The Copper-bellied Watersnake also has an orange belly, but is much larger, very rare, and restricted to the southern tier of Michigan counties in mostly low wetland and riparian habitats.

— Jim

D.C. in New Jersey asks:
"Where can I find more information on the web about all the different types of frogs? ( I just found a frog and need to know what type it is ) Thanks."

Hi—There are a number of good frog and toad ID websites. I couldn't find any specifically for New Jersey, but here's some sites for the eastern US and Canada that should cover the frogs in your area. Also, a good published field guide is the one by Conant and Collins, "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America", third edition-expanded, published by Houghton-Mifflin. Here's the websites:

http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/narcam/idguide/#anura
http://elib.cs.berkeley.edu/aw/about/index.html
http://www.mnh.uconn.edu/frog.htm
http://eqb-dqe.cciw.ca/partners/carcnet/carcnethome.html
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/chordata/lissamphibia/frog_calls.html

Good luck!

— Jim

Elaine in Indiana asks:
"How can I keep opposums out of my yard? I read somewhere of a home recipe you could make with human urine and murphy's oil soap and other things too but can't remember the exact recipe."

If you are trying to keep possums out of the entire yard, this will be difficult unless you can fence the perimeter with a tall, small-mesh fence. (They can climb, but usually don't climb fences if there is an easier way to get a meal!) Possums are general scavengers that wander about eating nearly anything remotely edible. They are tough animals, but rather slow-witted. In my yard, they are not nearly as destructive as the raccoons—which are bigger, climb well, and are much smarter!

If there are just a few small places that you want to repel them away from, then you could try one of the standard animal repellents, such as Ropel®. This is usually applied to vegetation, and is for outdoor use only. I've heard of using human urine as a repellent; I doubt if this would deflect possums from a large area—they're quite fearless, or maybe too slow-witted to know that they're supposed to be repelled!!

Actually, possums are very easy to trap, using those "cage-type" traps (Like Tomahawk® or Havahart®). You can release them a few miles away (but not on private land!) and they will likely not come back. You can use almost any smelly food for bait—skin and bones left over after a chicken dinner will do nicely. Michigan does not have a closed season on possums, but you should check your local regulations before trapping.

Good luck!

— Jim

Melissa in Wisconsin asks:
"Which wild and domestic animals can be infected with distemper or rabies?"

Hi-
I can't give you a precise answer, but a quick search of available texts shows that rabies is a viral disease theoretically capable of infecting any mammal. It is most often seen in carnivores like raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, and unvaccinated domestic dogs and cats. Nearly all human cases come from contact with one of these types of animals. Apparently the disease is very rare in rodents and ungulates (deer and similar herbivores).

Distemper comes in different forms, caused by different viruses. Canine distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus and usually infects members of the dog and weasel families. It is often seen in domestic dogs and ferrets. Feline distemper is a nearly-always fatal disease that commonly infects cats (including wild relatives), raccoons, and weasels.

Hope this will get you started. If you need more information, I suggest an internet search under the individual diseases, or search under "wildlife diseases." Most libraries would have books covering these diseases. Your veterinarian or local animal control office may also have information.

 — Jim

Don in California asks:
"Woodpeckers are literally eating my whole house away! I need HELP! Would killing them help?"

Hi Don:

I get alot of questions about woodpecker damage to wood siding. It is a frustrating problem. I moved my family into a wood sided house in 1989. After three years of fighting woodpeckers, squirrels, various, insects, etc., we finally installed vinyl siding. It worked great—but this is obviously not everybody's favorite solution.

Did you check out the article on woodpeckers on my "Critterguy" website under Frequently Asked Questions? It has alot of information which might help you. Basically, it is illegal in all states to kill woodpeckers. You may be able to get a permit (call your state wildlife office) to shoot them for damage control, but this is often an unsatisfactory solution. If you eliminate one pair of woodpeckers, you create a natural void and more woodpeckers will soon move in; it is like the proverbial treadmill. A better solution is to frighten or distract the resident woodpeckers so they avoid your siding. The website offers some suggestions. These include placing models or window cutouts resembling woodpecker enemies, like owls, hawks, or snakes. Or hanging up shiny, noise-making objects that disturb the birds (dangling pie-plates, wind-chimes, strips of shiny tinsel or aluminum, etc.) Or simply harassing the birds with the garden hose (they hate being wet, and won't use a wet hole). Or temporarily covering the affected area with burlap or screen until they get the message and move on. You should also make sure that the birds are not simply seeking insects already infesting your siding (if so, it may require professional treatment.)

Let me know if you have further questions, and what solutions you try (and what works!!)

Good luck!

— Jim

Alexandra from New York asks:
"Can rabbits eat pumpkins?"

Yes. From personal experience, I know that rabbits will eat young pumpkin plants and small developing pumpkins, but are less of a problem after the plants get larger and prickly and the fruits get tough skins. In my yard, the worst pumpkin eaters are the deer, which nibble the plants and pumpkins at any time! Deer have even come up to our porch to nibble on carved pumpkins around Halloween!

There are some repellent sprays that can be put on growing plants to protect them. The capsaicin (hot pepper) concentrates that are wax-based seem very effective against rabbits. I suppose these would also work to protect jack-o-lanterns on the porch from rabbits and deer—but maybe not from human vandals!

— Jim

Patricia in MI asks:
"Hi Jim, Birds (species unknown) have built several nests under the eaves of my house. At least one nest has been built inside my ventilation shaft leading from my bathroom to outside. How do I get rid of these birds without harming them?"

Hi Patricia:

There are four bird species that frequently build nests in these situations in Michigan—pigeons,starlings, house sparrows, and house finches. (Check a good bird field guide to decide which you have). At this time of year (late October), they are usually finished with actual breeding activities, so it is unlikely that eggs or nestlings remain in the nests. You can remove them without harming the birds. Removing nests in spring before the birds have progressed too far will usually discourage them from returning. They will simply start another nest elsewhere. But you may want to place barriers (such as wire mesh screens) over vent openings or other problem areas to prevent further nesting (make sure that "bird barriers" do not obstruct the vent itself and conform to all building codes). Less permanent ways of discouraging bird nesting on buildings include use of fake owls, large rubber snakes, or noise-making things like wind-chimes in the problem spots.

Hope these suggestions help—let me know if you have other questions.

— Jim

Harry in Michigan asks:
"Foxes have trotted past our place in Cheboygan county almost daily for much of the spring and summer. I also heard of frequent fox sightings in the UP this summer. Is the fox population larger than usual this year? What are their preferred foods?"

I haven't heard any reports of increases in fox numbers in Michigan, though I have had a few people say that foxes seem less common in certain areas. But of course, the numbers of any wild species can rise and fall locally, depending on weather trends, food supply, and habitat availability.

The spread of coyotes throughout Michigan may have reduced fox numbers in some places. Coyotes are known to harass and eat foxes, and both species mostly eat small animals like mice and rabbits and ground-nesting birds, so they do compete for some of the same resources. It has been suggested that competition from coyotes may force foxes to live closer to humans than they might otherwise choose to do. If so, this could account for a local increase in fox sightings around homes and farms.

Thanks for sharing your wildlife observations!

— Jim

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