The Ames Free Library’s top nocturnal visitors – deer, rabbit, and fox – are common suburban animals, which might lead one to assume that this particular combination of mammals prevails throughout Southeastern Massachusetts. Not necessarily. Let’s look at my backyard for comparison.
Like most properties in Pembroke, my yard consists of pine/oak forest with some incursions of Norway maples. There’s a vegetable garden, shrub thickets, a small lawn and orchard, and numerous native perennials. Soon after moving into the house, I set up a bird feeding station that can be seen from the house and now by the trail camera. During the day, a steady stream of birds and mammals visit: many chipmunks, gray squirrels, a red squirrel, and some meadow voles. Hawks come looking for the rodents. Cottontails graze on the lawn and shelter in the orchard. Tom turkeys display their plumage, and hens bring their poults to forage for seeds and bugs. At dusk, deer sometimes snack in the vegetable garden or prune my arborvitaes.
As much as I enjoyed this activity, I knew there was more to the story – my indoor cat, Sunshine, told me so. Night after night, she’d watch the yard intently, and I would see blackness. Then, one evening, Lou and I spotted a beautiful feral cat that seemed desperately hungry. With mixed feelings, we started feeding “Wildcat” as well. Soon my desire to spy on this elusive creature overwhelmed me. I bought a motion-sensitive camera to track her and to study nocturnal wildlife.
As hoped, the camera did spot Wildcat…
and “Black Cat.”
That was more than we bargained for. Indeed, feral cats visited 34 times over the course of 29 nights. Before Wildcat’s fateful visit, cats seemed absent from our neighborhood during daylight hours. These frequent nocturnal sightings should not be surprising given that our retail neighbors include a caterer, pizza parlor, and “food pantry.” Their dumpsters must attract some hungry creatures. These nocturnal felines are so circumspect compared to my pampered pet! They walk with a low profile and make only brief, cautious visits. You can see Mittens nervously looking over his shoulder when he hears an unexpected sound. Our yard seems to be part of their territory, a route that cats frequently take. We suspended the extra meals by mid-July, but the cats kept coming.
Extra cats weren’t the only surprise. Raccoons visited regularly and sometimes stayed for hours. Forty-one video clips included raccoons during 14 visits. Sometimes they came for the sunflower seeds or bread crumbs.
On other nights, they walked the “Wildlife Express” through our yard.
Several years ago, a mother raccoon and her kits shared our space, but we hadn’t seen any this year, not with unaided eyes.
My neighborhood’s nocturnal animals aren’t necessarily compatible. Listen to the distressed yowls of an off-screen cat as a raccoon crowds its space.
The next image displays an even more disconcerting scene. The animal visiting the water basin has no tail.
Tailless Raccoon, September 5, 2023
Apparently, some raccoons are born without tails, but I think this one suffered an injury. From a car? Severe weather? A fight? Perhaps the next animal was involved.
Before I moved to Pembroke, I would often see coyotes crossing the wooded roads of Scituate, Cohasset, and Norwell. Lou and I wondered about their absence in our new neighborhood. They ought to be here with all the open space nearby. They were . . . right under our noses.
The GardePro recorded 17 visits throughout nine nights. The coyotes typically traveled alone or in pairs, but one night the camera caught a group of three, including a noticeably smaller individual, presumably the pair’s pup.
When I first viewed all these video clips, I assumed the coyotes stopped at the feeding station for food, which they might have done during our cat-support period. After all, animals need food, and these canids were always sniffing the ground under the feeders. However, only one video records a coyote eating, and that animal looks edgy. Now that I have viewed the clips repeatedly and paid attention to their timestamps, they yield a different impression. Like domesticated dogs, the coyotes are always marking and sniffing to communicate with each other. The feeder in our yard has become a landmark where they say “I’m over here,” “I’ve been here recently,” “This is my route,” etc. For example, at 1:44 a.m. on July 28, this coyote emphatically leaves his mark near the water basin.
Five minutes later at 1:49, another coyote sniffs the spot, goes through the motions of marking, and then trots off. The same thing happened on August 1.
Coyotes scent-mark with urine, feces, and ground scratches created by backward kicking. Rather than conceal the animal’s scat, these scratches draw attention through their appearance and scent released from the coyote’s paws. A study published in Animal Behavior found that resident coyotes and alpha animals scent-marked more frequently than transients or those at a beta level in the pack. It also concluded that “coyotes scent-marked more than expected along the periphery of the territory compared to the interior.” Although there seems to be some disagreement among animal behaviorists regarding the scent marker’s intended audience – members of the pack or outsiders – I think this conclusion seems reasonable: “Scent-marks appear to provide internal information to the members of the resident pack (internal map of territory, breeding condition, reproductive synchrony) and enhance demarcation of territorial boundaries.” Note: In our case, “the pack” might include only the mated pair and its offspring.
As you can see, this top-three list of nocturnal mammals is quite different from that of the Ames Free Library. The trail cam recorded only one nighttime video of a deer in my yard. Rabbits visited several times in the pre-dawn hours but mostly during daylight. Once, a distant opossum appeared in a clip. Omnivores and predators dominated my yard at night. What accounts for the difference?
My acre-plus yard is bordered by a busy state highway, a popular shortcut, a neighbor’s house, and a quaint shopping plaza. It is densely vegetated, overgrown in fact, but hardly wilderness. Two modest conservation properties, each around 100 acres, are nearby. From my front yard, I can see the edge of a much larger chunk of protected land, a 2000+ acre area that includes some truly wild, inaccessible pockets. The library and my property share similar surroundings. The library campus is larger, but it also has woodlands, meadows, and significant conservation property in nearby Borderland State Park. Nevertheless, three differences stand out.
First, the library campus is much busier than my yard. Even after closing, visitors and their pets walk through the grounds. In contrast, my yard is a deserted sanctuary after dark.
Secondly, the area surrounding the library seems more congested, and less wild than my neighborhood. The village of North Easton is densely settled, and the populous city of Brockton lies to the east.
Perhaps most importantly, my yard offers a combination of food and shelter. Yes, there were months when I set cat food outdoors – an unwise decision for many reasons. Yet a combination of wild and cultivated foods abounds in my backyard: apples, vegetables, blackberries, acorns, and plenty of herbaceous plants are here for the picking. And, let’s not forget that feeding station. For over a decade, we’ve served sunflower seeds, suet, mixed bird seed, and more. It has attracted birds, omnivores like raccoons, small rodents, and the carnivores who hunt them. We get to view wildlife up close; they get meals – a fair but problematic trade. Do these animals become dependent on us? Do they lose their fear and risk harm? Does this bounty create unnatural encounters? We haven’t created pets, and all the animals remain wary of people, but for now, we’ve suspended feeding. In part, the trail cam videos prompted this change of heart and habit. Then, the appearance of a black bear in mid-August forced us to reconsider our routine.
Black Bear in Pembroke, August 2023
An image forwarded to me through acquaintances
This bear visited the street that borders my yard. Of course, I would love to see it, but I refuse to put the bear in danger by luring it across a busy road and into close human contact. My feeders currently hang empty, which might be for the best. I am grateful to have “met” some of my non-human neighbors.