And other misadventures with suburban wildlife
story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
As you’ll see in a bit, the bat was a close call. It came out of nowhere to threaten my future generations.
It was just one of the many surprise wildlife encounters I (and likely many of you) have experienced in years of living in the ‘burbs and towns of the Finger Lakes. Others include antics from a family of raccoons growing up in the chimney, red squirrels playing midnight tag in the attic and walls, and a lovelorn skunk who last year nightly strolled beneath our bedroom window and serenaded us (while seducing a nearby mate) with a nostril-dissolving perfume.
But there’s more, including a mink (which is in the weasel family and will be referred to as a weasel in this story) who was either nearsighted or had a foot fetish, a vulture that crash landed in the neighbor’s pool, a pair of redtails hunting from atop another neighbor’s tall pine and, of course, deer–but don’t get me started on the deer and their joy in beheading tulips. So far, bears and (for the most part) coyotes have kept their distance from our part of the ‘hood.
It’s natural to think of wildlife inhabiting the wild. After all, they are wild. But in reality, it seems that instead of the wide-open spaces of farm, field and forest, many wild animals prefer creature comforts. And it’s in the populated areas that they can find an abundance of those comforts, with food being a priority.
In the ‘burbs, food seems to be everywhere: garbage cans filled with last weekend’s scraps of pizza and barbecue drippings, bird feeders spilling seed, animal lovers setting out snacks for their favorite critter, vegetable gardens providing a smorgasbord, and–perhaps most importantly–the ornamental garden buffet filled with the desirable fruits of crabapple and dogwood trees, the numerous seeds from daisies, sunflowers, cone flowers and the hostas and other foliage savored by our “wild” deer.
Is there really a lot of wildlife in the suburbs? Well, a personal census taken last summer revealed that “herds” of chipmunks may have replaced the long-vanished buffalo. A neighbor caught 47 last summer (we got 24). Other regular residents spotted during the census included a groundhog in a neighbor’s backyard, a possum under the next-door neighbor’s deck (she frequently poses for the doorbell cam), a skunk under another neighbor’s deck, several rabbits, a fox family in the small street-end woodlot, the annual birthing of fawns in gardens, and, in the retention pond, the comings and goings of snapping turtles, herons, geese, ducks, chorusing spring peepers and foghorn bullfrogs.
The crowded space of the ‘burbs means there are plenty of human-wildlife encounters to provide nearly everyone with an entertaining story (or a tale about a deer-damaged car).
My bat story began at the end of a long and trying day. After a 30-mile tow truck ride in the fading dusk (don’t ask), we walked up to the door only to find out I had lost the house key.
In the dark, I used a ladder to climb in through the second story bathroom window, not realizing I was being shadowed. I went downstairs and let my wife inside. We prepared some snacks in the kitchen, then went to the dining room and flicked on the light switch. The bright chandelier lights ignited the room like a prison yard spotlight and sent a small, panicked creature frantically flapping in search of escape. A bat. That sent a chill down my spine.
You see, I have a thing about bats. Years ago, my wife rigged up some string and black socks dangling from the ceiling fan and fluttered them about in the dark to surprise me when I came to bed. Just ask the dry cleaners if it worked.
But now, more experienced and bat seasoned, I immediately went into action. I threw open the back door and, flapping my arms, dashed about trying to herd the bat outside. My wife, now in how-to advisor mode, shouted and demonstrated instructions on flapping and herding techniques before retreating to another room, where she coolly reported that she was googling “how to get rid of bats in the house.”
The bat had disappeared. But if we were to sleep, we had to find it. Together we scanned the room: left, right, up, down, under, behind. Nothing. Then she peered underneath the dining room table and surfaced, looking at me with a peculiar expression on her face. She said, “I found the bat.” “Where?” I asked. She pointed. I looked and saw nothing. I asked again. She pointed again. Again, I saw nothing. She shook her head in disbelief and, now with an unnerving assurance and a spreading grin, she pointed a third time. I looked down and saw it.
The bat was on my crotch.
My bat-removal helper struggled to suppress the tsunami of hilarity beginning to ripple across her face.
The bat and I locked gazes. A minute, maybe two, passed. It decided the bright lights were too much and crawled upward, pausing at my belt before scuttling under my T-shirt. Now I had a bat on my belly, and I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t moving. I wasn’t moving. It had found sanctuary in a warm, dark place, while I, still in the spotlight, had found a different dark place.
At half an ounce, this little brown nose bat weighed less than a slice of bread. I weighed in at about two hundred loaves. I knew from a Diane Ackerman essay that bats are gentle, shy creatures. But with very sharp teeth.
From across the room, I heard an eerily calm voice that somehow was both amused and solemn. “Derek, listen closely. This is word for word from the New York DEC website on bats: ‘Please contact a DEC Wildlife Office or a NWCO when dealing with bats.’”
I was on my own.
With great aplomb and sangfroid (that’s French for despite appearances I’m a cool and brave dude), I slowly walked to the still-open back door, slipped into the dark and stood on the deck. Then I gingerly edged up my shirt, slid a finger under the bat and nudged it off. With a big sigh, I watched my half ounce of terror disappear into the dark.
To be fair to all bats, this one was likely never a threat, just a falsely maligned creature who, in reality, was a valuable, mosquito-devouring member of society. And it did leave me with a good story.
As did the weasel.
But the weasel was another matter. He wasn’t threatening. Indeed, he was quite brash. I had spotted him a few weeks earlier, weasling along the shores of the retention pond across the street. Then one May morning as I sat on the bottom step of the porch deck eating a doughnut, he brazenly emerged from the flower garden and onto the stone walk, about two steps from my feet.
It’s almost as if I wasn’t there. Was he near-sighted? Olfactorily challenged? Or a little wacky? Finally, he looked up, saw me and sauntered back into the garden. A few days later, he climbed up the post holding up a barnwood Victorian bird house; he was looking for its inhabitants (sparrows). I took a few pictures (was he posing?), then he nonchalantly moved on.
A week later I was standing in the driveway photographing monarchs on Mexican sunflowers. I was using a long telephoto lens and very intent on what I was doing, only barely aware of a growing clamor of crows shouting and hollering. Probably chasing a hawk. At first, I didn’t hear a different noise, something nearby scuffling through the garden. Then the sound changed into a soft scraping like feet dragging across the pavement. It gradually became louder and closer, as did the crows, who were cawing up a ruckus.
I looked down and there at my feet was the weasel, clutching a dead crow in its mouth. The weasel seemed cornered between me and the crows. Faced with the photo op of a lifetime, I desperately tried to take its picture, but that magnifying telephoto meant I could only see my shoelaces. I had to wait. With the crows in pursuit, the weasel made a break for it and skedaddled under a car, determined to hang onto his catch that was almost as big as him.
He finally emerged in front of the garage, where he was far enough away for me to grab a few pictures as proof of my story. The crows were almost upon him, so he dashed into the neighbor’s wood pile and hung out there until they gave up. But crows don’t forget. I haven’t seen him since and wonder if the crows got their revenge.
Perhaps the most enjoyable event was the time I pulled into the driveway to discover a melting pot group of five young teen boys gathered across the street, lifting the grate off the pond culvert. What mischief were they up to? None, it turned out. They were trying to rescue a snapping turtle the size of a medium pizza. Working together, they got him out and into a laundry basket. I drove them the two hundred yards to the canal, where they released him.
Although our suburban and town wildlife provides some entertaining experiences, we don’t yet get those safari-quality experiences that pumas provide in Los Angeles, polar bears in Alaska and boars in the South.
Learn all about wildlife in the ‘burbs and cities
Why does wildlife thrive in populated areas? In his book The Accidental Ecosystem, Peter Alagona details the history and ecology of how and why so much of American wildlife has adapted and moved into populated areas across the country. In our email correspondence, Alagona explained that for quite a few animals–such as crows, foxes, deer, groundhogs, pumas and more–populated areas offer a very desirable habitat (food and shelter) and that the population density of many of these animals is far greater in populated areas than in the countryside.
He said, “It should not be surprising that creatures that do well in urban areas tend to be social (or at least tolerant of others like themselves), flexible, curious, intelligent in relevant ways and omnivorous. Kind of like us.”