Creature Feature: Squirrels

Widespread and widely liked, squirrels are not only adorable and intelligent, but also one of the most visible wildlife in our community. Home more than ever these days, many of us have had delighted in their backyard entertainment and mischievous antics.  Though familiar, there’s still plenty to uncover about these wildly acrobatic and entertaining creatures.

Fast Facts 

  1. Squirrels will occasionally engage in “deceptive caching” – digging and re-filling a hole without actually depositing a nut. This throws off would-be thieves. 
  2. Eyes positioned on the side of the skull allow squirrels to see behind them. 
  3. With a large area/mass ratio and a tail for a parachute, squirrels can survive a fall from ANY HEIGHT.  
Squirrels are one of the few animals that can run head first down a tree. Their back ankles can rotate 180 degrees, allowing them to grip the tree trunk on the way down.

Why do we need them?  

It’s no secret that squirrels bury seeds and nuts. But they only recover a portion of what they bury. Sometimes their cache is raided before they return, but in many cases they’ve simply forgotten where they buried their food. When this happens, the squirrel has unwittingly helped to re-forest our community.   

Even though they dine mostly on nuts, seeds and fruit, squirrels are omnivores. Occasionally eating insects, small birds, mammals and carrion, squirrels play a role in a balanced food chain.  

They’re also an important source of food for many predators, including snakes, coyotes, hawks, and owls.  

Removal 

If you’re a gardener or have a bird feeder, chances are you’ve had a run-in with squirrels. These clever creatures love to take advantage of an easy meal. But before you attempt to trap or remove them consider the following:  

  • Be sure it’s a squirrel. Squirrels are diurnal creatures, so you should be able to catch them in the act in broad daylight. If your plants are dug up during the night, chances are another critter was to blame.  
  • Remove a squirrel and another will likely take its place. Even if you remove several squirrels at once, the lag in activity will be short-lived.   
  • Humanely trapping and relocating results in low survival rates. A relocated squirrel lands in unfamiliar territory where it must quickly find food and shelter and fight off predators. It has none of the security it depends on. 

The easier option is to live in harmony with squirrels.   

  • Reduce or eliminate food sources. Bird feeders are a common attractant. And while it may take a few tries, keeping squirrels at bay can be done. Try some of these suggestions from Birds and Blooms
  • Make your garden uninviting. Consider adding plants that don’t appeal to squirrels such as mint, marigolds or nasturtiums. 
  • If you’re still having trouble in the garden, consider enclosing with chicken wire or mesh cloth. 
  • Keep squirrels out of the attic by trimming tree branches at least 10’ away from the roof. Seal any holes or gaps to prevent access. Just be certain no squirrels are inside before you do.
Their very small and very sharp claws allow them to hang upside down, making many bird feeders an easy meal.

Disease 

The best way to appreciate wild animals, squirrels included, is to watch them from a distance and not feed them. Feeding squirrels discourages natural foraging and can result in a serious bite. Like other rodents, squirrels may be a carrier of rabies, lyme disease, hantavirus and several other diseases according to the Center for Disease Control. Keep your distance and you won’t have any problems.  

So, when you step outside and see a squirrel raiding your bird seed, remember their more likeable attributes. These acrobatic, charismatic creatures are an everyday reminder of the wildlife that share our forested home.  Maybe we should be thanking them for helping plant the trees we enjoy everyday. 

Pictured above is the gray squirrel. The most common of the three species found in The Woodlands.

Questions or comments? Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Walk in the Woods presents Damselflies and Dragonflies

Kick off the Fall Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series from the comfort of your couch. The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department now presents one of our most popular programs online. The entire family is invited the second Thursday of the month, September through November, as local experts explore the wonders of the natural world.   

Be a part of  the fun on Thursday, September 10 at 6:30 p.m. when Bob Honig presents on Damselflies and Dragonflies. Over the course of an hour, Bob provides an up-close look at their predatory behavior, explains the “killer lip,” takes a deep dive into their unique mating rituals, and more.  

Registration is required for this free presentation. 

Questions or comments? Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Creature Feature: Skunks

“Do you smell that?” One whiff and your alarm bells start ringing – skunk!  Like all skunks, our two local species, Striped and Spotted, are equipped with an unforgettable sulphuric spray. While we may not appreciate their smell, skunks have plenty of likeable qualities. Keep reading to learn more about our odiferous neighbors. 

Fast Facts: 

  1. Skunks are omnivorous.  Their diet varies with the season – insects and bugs during the spring and summer, small animals in the fall and winter – and the occasional berry or leaf. Like most urban wildlife, they’re opportunistic and will take a quick snack from the garbage can, pet food bowl or garden. 
  1. Their spray isn’t a weapon, it’s a warning. Spraying is about defense, not offense. The organic sulphur compound ejected from two small glands (known as a musk) tells potential predators that they taste bad, don’t waste your time.  
  1. It takes 10 to 12 days to replenish their stinky supply. Their spray supply isn’t endless. It can take nearly two weeks to produce enough for a few more shots. 

Why do we need them? 

Valuable garden allies, these natural pest control heroes feast on crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, grubs, small rodents and moles. Should the insects feasting in your garden seemingly disappear overnight, you might have a skunk to thank.

Defensive Behavior 

Skunks are passive, shy animals, who would rather flee than fight. Their bold white stripes or spots are all the warning most animals need. When their markings don’t get the message across, skunks give additional warnings with agitated foot stamping, hissing and growling. If the aggressor continues, the skunk will form his body into a “U” shape with both head and tail aimed at the attacker. 

Skunks spray their musk only as a last resort and are impressively accurate up to about 10 feet. Spray that enters the eyes causes temporary blindness. Combined with the lingering malodor, it’s likely their attacker learned a lesson it won’t soon forget. 

A nosy family dog is a common spray victim. If yours takes a hit, mix up the following remedy. Wear rubber gloves and do NOT get the solution in the dog’s eyes. Also, do NOT store this mixture or make it ahead of time, as it is not stable. If your dog has been sprayed in the eyes, call your veterinarian for appropriate care. 

Remedy 

Mix together: 
1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide (available at a pharmacy) 
¼ cup baking soda 
1 teaspoon dishwashing liquid soap 
 
Rub the mixture all over and scrub deep to neutralize the odor. Leave it on until the smell abates – but no longer, peroxide can bleach fur. Rinse thoroughly. 
 

Avoid A Conflict 

It’s more likely that you’ll smell a skunk rather than see one. A persistent, faint musky smell under a structure or woodpile may suggest a skunk has taken up residence. During breeding season, males can spray frequently when fighting over females.

Deter skunks from your yard: 

  • Keep a tight lid on garbage cans or pull them inside. 
  • Remove pet food before nightfall. 
  • Remove boards or debris where skunks may hide. 
  • Close off openings under decks, patios, or sheds.  Use ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth, burying the wire at least 6 inches to prevent skunks from digging underneath. 
  • If you think a skunk has already taken up residence, it’s essential to be sure the animal (and any young) have left the den before blocking the entrance.  

If you come upon a skunk, simply move away slowly and quietly. 

Threat of Rabies 

Skunks are one of four animals (including the fox, raccoon, and bat) considered primary carriers of the rabies virus and is classified as a rabies vector species.  

Though mostly active at night, skunks sometimes look for food during the day, particularly in the spring when they have young to feed. Don’t be concerned if you see a skunk in the daytime unless they also show abnormal behaviors, such as: 

  • Limb paralysis 
  • Circling 
  • Unprovoked aggression 
  • Disorientation or staggering 
  • Uncharacteristic tameness 

If you witness any of these signs, don’t approach the skunk.  For assistance, call the Montgomery County Animal Control Authority at 936-442-7738, or Harris County Veterinary Public Health at 281-999-3191. 

Removal 

Under state law, a person may trap a fur-bearing animal at any time if it is causing damage or creating a nuisance. If you live trap a skunk, you must notify the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before relocating the animal.  A permit must be obtained and permission granted from the property owner where you plan to release the live animal.  Always contact a professional wildlife specialist if unable to safely remove wildlife on your own. 

Skunks have a single litter of 4-6 kits around May-June. The young stay in the den until around 8 weeks old. 

Yes, skunks are a bit smelly. But, these impressive animals are important members of our ecosystem. Most of the time, skunks simply pass through your yard at night and you’ll never encounter them.  Make the compassionate choice to live in harmony with nature. After all, they’ve learned to live with us. 


Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

Backyard Mothing: Easy, Enjoyable and Exciting

Moths are everywhere, including your own backyard. In fact, more than 11,000 species of moths have been identified in North America. An astonishing number, considering there are a “mere” 575 species of butterflies. Despite their diversity and abundance, moths have attracted less study than their more glamorous cousin, the butterfly. That leaves a lot yet to be discovered about moths – perhaps by you! 

National Moth Week, July 18-26, is a great time to try “Mothing”. This easy, inexpensive hobby can be pursued right at home. With a few simple pieces of equipment, you can take an up-close look at our fascinating neighbors and share observations that build our understanding of the magnificent, mysterious moth. 

Outside the polar regions, moths are found across the Earth (their abundance makes them an important pollinator of flowering plants) and in all sizes and colors. They range from the 6” long Cecropia moth to the tiny (1.2 mm) Stigmella maya. Some vibrate with color. Others are drab to better blend with their environment.  

Moths are distinguished from butterflies by a stout body covered in dusty scales, and feathery, thick antennae. Look but do not touch. Touching can easily damage a moth’s wings. A resting moth extends its wings to the side or holds them tent-like over the body, unlike butterflies which hold their wings vertically.  

Like butterflies, moths develop through the process of metamorphosis.  An egg hatches into a tiny caterpillar (the larval stage).  Eating voraciously, the caterpillar develops through several growth stages called instars. At the end of the final instar, the caterpillar either spins a cocoon or splits its outer skin to expose the chrysalis beneath. The cocoon or chrysalis protects the insect while the transformation from pupae to adult occurs.  When metamorphosis is complete, the adult moth emerges and completes the life cycle by laying the next generation of eggs.  

Moths can be highly destructive in their larval stage. Vegetable gardeners dread the appearance of the tomato hornworm.  These large green horned caterpillars can quickly consume tomato plants. In the adult stage, the tomato hornworm transforms into the beautiful sphynx moth. Also known as “hummingbird moths” due to their size and flight pattern, sphynx moths are important pollinators of summer flowering plants. 

Photo of a Tomato Hornworm
Photo of a White-lined Sphynx Moth

Mothing can be done any time of day, though nighttime provides the easiest viewing. Start by simply turning on your porch light; a number of moth species are attracted by white light (LED or CFL work best). Use a black light and a sheet to attract additional species. Hang a white sheet (cotton works best to reflect the UV rays) between two trees or attach it to your fence. Be sure all four corners are secured as moths prefer a stable surface for landing. Place a black light or a plant grow light next to it and wait a few minutes for these beautiful insects to arrive. Your mothing endeavors will be off to a flying start.  

Shine a light on a white, cotton sheet to attract a variety of moths to your backyard for observation

You may also want to experiment with sugar bait in order to attract nectar feeding moths. Homemade sugar bait can be fashioned from ingredients on hand in your kitchen.  Try blending together a ripe banana, one cup of brown sugar, two tablespoons of molasses and a half cup of flat beer or apple cider. For best results, allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for a day prior to your planned observation. Paint the mixture onto the trunk of a tree or two and wait for nectar feeding moths to land. Check with mothscount.org for more ideas on attracting moths.   

A moth feeds on sugar bait

For identification help, choose a good quality moth guide such as the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Southeastern America, by Seabrooke Leckie and David Beadle (cost about $30).  Small laminated moth guides are easy for children to use.  Try Texas Butterflies and Moths: A Folding Pocket Guide to Familiar Species, by James Kavanaugh. This guide is often available in local groceries or may be purchased online.   

Share your backyard moth observations with other citizen scientists by joining National Moth Week July 18-26. The information you submit will be used to help map moth distribution and collect other data.  Join today and have fun mothing! 

Learn more about moths: 

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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Creature Feature: Coyotes

Trickster, creator, messenger and symbol of death, the coyote appears often in the tales and traditions of Native Americans. Most stories focus on the coyotes’ cleverness in achieving victory. These mythological portrayals have seeped into our perception of who the coyote is, for better or worse.  

Modern coyotes do display an impressive level of cleverness, continually adapting to the changing American landscape. These members of the dog family once lived primarily in open prairies and deserts. Now they are found across North America, including densely populated, urban areas. You might spot one running across a golf course or city park or in a culvert alongside a busy road.

Urban areas offer a steady supply of food for these opportunistic eaters. With plenty of rodents, rabbits, deer and vegetation cover around our community, it’s no wonder that coyotes have chosen to call The Woodlands home.

Be sure to look for the Creature Feature article in the upcoming July Community Magazine for more coyote facts and highlights.

Largely nocturnal hunters, seeing a coyote is rare, however it is possible that you may cross paths one day. Unexpected encounters with wildlife can cause confusion and invoke fear for both you and the animal! Familiarize yourself with the following responses and be prepared to act calmly and responsibly if you find yourself in one of these situations.  

If you hear or see a coyote, follow these best practices:

Utilize TheWoodlands311 app service request system (the app will pinpoint lyour location and allow for comments)

Hazing Techniques 

Pathways, Parks, Forested Areas, Open Spaces: Slowly and calmly walk away. If approached, DON’T RUN. Wave arms, make noise and walk toward the coyote until it retreats. Thrown rocks and sticks can be effective. The goal is not to hit the animal, but to scare it away. Be “Big, Bad and Loud.”  

At Home:  Do not approach animal. Wave arms and make loud noise (air horns, car horns, banging pots and pans, whistles). Throw rocks and sticks toward the animal. Water hoses can be effective. 

Pet Safety 

Though naturally timid, a coyote may see your pet as a threat, especially during breeding season, when pups are nearby, or when defending a source of food. Coyotes will try to intimidate your dog by baring their teeth and hunching their backs. This threat display is an attempt to scare your dog away without making any physical contact. If your dog does not move on, the possibility of a physical conflict is more likely. 

Ensure your pet’s safety and follow these guidelines: 

  • Never let your dog chase or play with a coyote.  
  • In an area where coyotes have been seen, keep your dog under full control at all times.  
  • To protect your small dog in coyote areas: 
    • Avoid using a flexi-leash  
    • Avoid walking near bushy areas  
    • Stand or walk with other people or larger dogs  
    • Avoid walking small dogs at dawn 
  • If a coyote gets too close for your comfort make eye contact with  
    it. Leash larger dogs and pick up small dogs. Haze the coyote (see above).  
  • If the coyote doesn’t leave, it’s likely there’s a den, pups, or food source nearby. Don’t run. Leave the area calmly. Change your routine to avoid this area for a while.  
  • If a coyote performs a threat display, or two or more coyotes charge your larger dog(s), leash up, leave the area calmly, and report it to 3-1-1. 

At home, reduce the chances of a coyote encounter by doing this simple yard audit:  

Want more information? 

Coyotes are clever. They have managed to adapt to an evolving landscape, raise their young in densely populated areas and find food and shelter in unexpected places. Understanding how to live with our wild neighbors creates a safe home for all of us. There’s much to appreciate and learn from coyotes on how to adapt to an ever-changing world. 

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov