Living With Wildlife
Close encounters of the animal kind are happening all over the Valley.
Do you know what to do if a confrontation happens to you?
By Christopher Rowley
Illustration by Elwood H. Smith
“Quick, there’s a bear on the deck!”
Eek! So there is. All 300 or so pounds of him. Maybe he smells the pizza or chocolate cake that you’ve got in the oven and he really, really wants some. It’s October, the nights are getting colder and he knows he needs to pack on the pounds to make it through the long winter.
So what should you do?
Bears are just one example of wildlife you may encounter in the Hudson Valley. And while you won’t meet up with any lions and tigers, local residents are increasingly coming face-to-face with a wide variety of wild animals, from stinky skunks to rabid raccoons.
Why? A hundred years ago the Valley was mostly farmland, with the forest cut back to the mountains. But that has changed. “The disappearance of small farms and the growth of trees means that there is a greater habitat for wildlife,” says Wendy Rosenbach, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). On the flip side, this same habitat is now home to many more people. The end result: humans and wildlife are meeting each other much more frequently than in the past. And ignorance, in this case, is definitely not bliss. Not knowing what to do can be dangerous for humans and their property, and potentially fatal for the wildlife.
But there are ways to keep these encounters to a minimum and plenty of tricks of the trade for when you do happen upon some of the region’s most common creatures. >>
There are perhaps as many as 6,000 black bears living in New York, many of them in the Adirondacks. Males average 300 pounds, females 170. Primarily vegetarian, they do prey on fawns and other small mammals and enjoy sampling the rotten leftovers in your garbage. “There has been a steady increase in complaints,” says Rosenbach. “We’ve had sightings in Poughkeepsie and Kingston and across the region.”
These complaints mostly involve minor property damage. To avoid tempting bears, put trash out only on pick-up day, making sure to use containers with tight lids. Another tip: after barbecuing, turn the grill on high for several minutes to kill the food odors, and then scrub the barbecue.
But the number one thing that attracts bears to your property? Your bird feeder — even if it’s out of reach. “Bears see bird feeders as a highly nutritious kind of snack,” says Ward Stone, the New York State wildlife pathologist and the host of the popular WAMC radio show In Our Backyard. In fact, the DEC recommends that bird feeders should only be filled between December 1st and April 1st, when bears are usually hibernating. Stone certainly knows a thing or two about bears: he once rescued one. “It became very close to me. I would climb trees with her and eat what she ate, like acorns, which tasted really bitter,” he says. “I also tried an ant — but I wouldn’t recommend that.”
Should you encounter a bear in the wild, rule number one is don’t panic — black bears rarely attack humans. Rule number two: don’t run, because the bear might chase you. Slowly back away, avoiding direct eye contact. Talk in a soothing voice and lift your arms overhead to look bigger. You can also yell and clap your hands.
Very common in the Hudson Valley, raccoons average around 15 pounds and forage at night for insects, mice, frogs, and berries. Pregnant females prepare dens in the winter and give birth in the spring to as many as seven youngsters. While the miracle of life is beautiful, it loses some of its charm if mama raccoon has chosen your house, chimney, porch, or garage as her maternity ward. These nocturnal creatures can be quite destructive to your home. With strong claws and sharp teeth, they can pull off siding and are able to squeeze through openings of three or four inches.
Raccoon rabies has become widespread in New York. Rabid raccoons may salivate heavily, stagger about like they are drunk, or have paralyzed hind legs. If you see an animal that you think could be rabid, stay away and contact your local health officials.
The best way to avoid raccoon infestation is to remove potential food sources from your backyard. Raccoons are good climbers, but an electric fence may deter nighttime visits. If they are already in the house, block openings at night once they have left to hunt for food (make sure there are no babies left behind). Raccoons also dislike the sound of the human voice. If you place a radio near their nest and leave it on talk shows around the clock, they may well check out of your home. And yes, these masked marauders can be adorable, but it’s illegal to keep raccoons as pets in New York.
How many white-tail deer are there in the region? Exact numbers are hard to come by, but most locals think there are far too many, as these hungry animals destroy gardens, carry ticks that cause Lyme disease, and can do a number on your car should you encounter one on the road. “Once you’ve paid $2,000 to the body shop to fix the car after you hit a deer, you can appreciate what conflicts with wildlife can really mean,” Stone observes.
What can you do? Fence in your gardens, regularly check for ticks if you’ve been outdoors, and keep an eye out for deer while driving, particularly at dusk.
Famous for their ability to spray (the name derives from the Algonquian word segonku, which means “the one who squirts”), skunks can be seen (and smelled) from one corner of the Valley to the other. But these nonaggressive creatures will rarely spray humans — they’re much more likely to give your family dog a good dose of their medicine. “Skunks are slow-moving animals and they don’t run when challenged, so dogs can’t seem to resist,” says Kate Lucas, D.V.M., of Walker Valley Veterinarian Hospital in Ulster
County. Traveling back to the city on a hot summer’s night with a skunked pooch in the back of the car has been described as an unforgettable experience by at least one family of weekenders. To clean skunk odor from clothing or pets, wash with liberal amounts of tomato juice or vinegar.
A powerful rodent, the porcupine is best known for its black-tipped quills, which often number more than 30,000. Contrary to myth, porcupines don’t throw their quills and rarely approach humans or other animals. But if threatened, they will raise their quills and swat their tails, which can transfer quills to another animal. If your dog is the unfortunate victim of such an encounter, he’s probably in extreme pain and should be muzzled in case he bites out of fear. Then firmly grasp the quill as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out. If it breaks, a vet may have to remove it. All quills must be removed; if left in the body they can cause organ damage.
Recently, the coyote population in New York State has been growing rapidly. But not to worry: there are only a handful of documented cases of coyotes biting humans in the U.S. each year. These canines — which resemble small German shepherds and eat whatever they can find, including deer, turkey, rabbits, mice, and moles as well as fruit and vegetables — have been known to steal away with cats and even small dogs at night. As with other potential pests, the best approach is prevention. Keep garbage indoors, and avoiding leaving anything outdoors that could be considered food.
Only two venomous species are found in the Hudson Valley. Both are rarely seen and will only strike when attacked. The timber rattlesnake is a threatened species; the copperhead, found in the lower Valley south of Kingston, defends itself by making mock strikes. Generally, you can avoid problems with snakes by just leaving them alone. But if you are bitten, keep the affected extremity as low to the ground as possible (to keep venom from traveling through the body) and seek immediate medical attention. Do not eat or drink anything, apply ice or heat packs, or cut or incise the bite site.
These nocturnal flyers can often be seen at dusk, swooping around after insects. (No, they’re not swooping at you, just the insects that are attracted to your body warmth. And for the record, there are no documented incidences of bats getting tangled in hair.) Just one little brown bat can eat more than a thousand mosquitoes an hour, so they’re good to have around.
Bats, however, are always seeking suitable living quarters for a bat colony. For this reason, it’s important to keep window screens in good repair. Be sure there aren’t gaps and open spaces that bats can use to enter attics. About one percent of bats are infected with rabies, but sick bats are rarely aggressive (statistically, one person per year dies of rabies caused by a bat bite in the U.S.). However, if you discover a bat in a room in which you’ve been sleeping, contact your doctor.
If you already have bats in the attic or interior walls, you may notice them leaving at dusk. Dark brown droppings containing insect fragments are a sure sign of bats. The best time to block the hole is when the bats have gone out for the night. Do this between June and mid-August, when there won’t be babies left behind that will die and produce a foul odor. Bird netting hung over the entrance holes is the best way to exclude bats temporarily.
Generally speaking, the best way to live with the wildlife around us is to use common sense. Never feed wild animals. If you are bitten, seek immediate medical attention. Also keep in mind how your actions may negatively affect animals around you. Many people put out poison to get rid of small rodents like mice, rats, and chipmunks, and may not realize that this leads to an unfortunate chain reaction. Local wildlife rehabilitators often see hawks and owls that are dying from eating poisoned mice. Use spring or accumulation traps instead: you won’t even have to kill the critters, just empty the trap in the woods.
Wildlife is one of our region’s glories. With a little extra thought we can live among the animals in a way that is safe for all of us.