Wild Critters … The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Critter - BatCourtesy of Allen Sherpa

Having lived in the White Mountains more than twenty-five years, I’ve had the pleasure, and sometimes displeasure, of coming face-to-face with many of the area’s original residents. For many of those years, I lived in a house that fronted the undeveloped forest. An endless stream of furry, feathered and other animals visited our little pond visible from many parts of our house.

If you’re new to the mountains and forest, I offer some observations on what you may see in the neighborhood. Some are viewed as good. Some are perceived as villainous, dangerous and diabolical. Here is a partial list of the “good guys” and “bad guys” as commonly perceived.

Good Guys (or so they say)

Rabbits: These critters are cute and fuzzy. They jump and play. Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Bugs Bunny, the Velveteen Rabbit, Roger Rabbit … the list goes on. And they’re all likeable bunnies. How could a bunny not be good? After all, this is the guy that colors eggs and hides them for the kids.Critter - Rabbit

Eagles (and their cousins): Don’t challenge the conventional wisdom on this one unless you want a tap on your door from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The guy’s on our coins, our dollar bill, the tops of flagpoles, the Presidential Seal and pretty much everything else that says “Freedom”. These majestic birds even have their own fraternal order, the F.O.E.

Hummingbirds: Dainty and adorable, who could not love these little guys? You usually see them with a backdrop of colorful flowers. They only lack light flute and harp accompaniment. Hummingbirds are good.

Deer : They’re non-aggressive, elegant and fun to watch. Must be good guys.

Now the Bad Guys

Snakes: They slither. They always get a bad rap. Get bit by one of the rattlers and you’ll have to crawl down to the rodeo arena to get one of the wranglers to cut a couple of X’s on the wound, suck out the poison and spit a little tobacco into the wound to help it heal. Even the Bible villainizes snakes by calling them serpents. I’m surprised Noah didn’t make them ride along in a tethered lifeboat, but who am I to second guess Noah.

Critter - CoyoteCoyotes: They’re carnivores with sharp teeth. They won’t look you in the eye without looking hungry. Legend is replete with stories about Mr. Coyote who is cunning, sneaky and more intelligent than some of the season’s political candidates. Once in a blue moon, they will grab an edible pet and abscond with it.

Bats: They only come out at night – sort of like my sister-in-law, Babs Ferguson. That’s never a good sign. At least one bat has “vampire” in its name. That can’t be good. Lon Chaney turned into a bat in the old horror movies of the 1930’s. The only good bat is a baseball bat and then only when wielded by the home team.

Javelina: Save the women and children then run like hell. Everyone knows these pig relatives (which ironically are not related to pigs) charge anyone and everyone with the intent of goring them into next week.

Mountain Lions: Large, very big and sharp teeth for eating meat. The first time I came nose-to-nose with a mountain lion, I knew it was the end. Apparently, whimpering and dropping to my knees scared him away.

A plethora of other creatures are commonly found in the White Mountains. They include raccoon, skunk, elk, possum, bobcat, turkey, but in the interest of keeping things brief, I’ll defer judgment on these critters for now.

Upon closer scrutiny, we may discover we’ve put some of these guys in the wrong category. Consider the following:

The huggable bunny rabbit? These little thumpers eat anything and everything I plant. Do you believe for one minute that Mrs. McGregor looked at Peter Cottontail or Benjamin Bunny as a “good guy”? Get real; they dedicated their lives to destroying Mrs. McGregor’s garden. Furthermore, those colored eggs left around by the Easter Bunny rot and stink. They draw other undesirables (like little kids) into the neighborhood.

Now, let’s take it a step further for those in the White Mountains. If you’re still thinking coyotes are in the “bad guy” category, think about this. What do they eat? That’s right – bunnies. They might munch on roadrunners, but apparently they can’t catch them. It’s been my experience in the White Mountains that a pack of coyotes makes a big circuit on a fairly regular basis. They appear for a few days in an area, hunt rabbits until the pickings get slim and then move on to the next area. They show up again in about six weeks, a period of time long enough for the bunnies to do what they do best, i.e., reproduce. It’s feast time again. This cycle goes on month after month, year after year, and century after century.

If you want coyotes in your yard on a regular basis, encourage the bunnies. Now how wonderful is Mr. Cottontail?

Shall we look closer at Wiley Coyote? Is he really all that bad? If nothing else, he keeps the rabbit population under control. He still has sharp teeth, probably fleas and clearly a bad attitude. He’s related to Fido, but there are no reports of coyotes bringing in the morning paper. I’ve seen thousands of coyotes in my lifetime, but I don’t recall ever seeing one wagging his tail as I approached him. He does perform other services.  He eats more than bunnies; he’ll happily chase down and eat mice, rats and a variety of other critters we prefer to not have around. Incidents of coyotes going after pets have been reported, but they are very rare. No doubt, more pets are killed by cars than by coyotes.

The bottom line is that coyotes are intelligent, albeit irascible, fellows who have been here since long before we arrived. They’re part and parcel to the White Mountains. They do a job. They help maintain the balance of nature and for that, we owe them our thanks. Frank Lloyd Wright once asked, “Which is the most important leg on a three-legged stool?” Think about it. Without coyotes in the mix, nature’s balance in the White Mountains would go spinning wildly out of kilter. Call them “good guys” or call them “bad guys”, but be glad they’re here.

Critter - JavalinaJavelina: These guys are quite common in Arizona. They are wild animals, but can become “almost” tame. However, both I and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish strongly discourage you from attempting to do this. Let them be wild. Both you and javelina will be happier.

They have been given a bit of a bad name without cause. There are those who say they charge humans with the intent of doing bodily harm. Like any other animal, they will defend themselves if threatened, however, the “charges” many people report aren’t really charges. Javelina have very poor eyesight and when scared, they’ll run in any direction. Their first choice is the forward direction. If you happen to be standing in that direction, you’ll be certain you’re being charged. There are reports that javelina are slightly more inclined to attack a dog, presumably because they feel more threatened by dogs. I remember one incident where a visually challenged javelina confronted a wooden hobby-horse type critter I had in my yard, but the hobby-horse survived unscathed.

In my book, javelina are good guys until they start digging up my newly planted flower beds. Just remember … they are wild animals. Treat them that way.

Critter - RattlerSnakes … Are they really the bad guys? Over the years, I’ve had many rattlesnakes around (and in) our house. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing, but frankly, it’s not as bad as some people think. Whenever we’d find one, I’d catch him and haul him off well into the woods in a non-populated area. If the truth be known, rattlesnakes are not aggressive animals. They don’t spend their lives looking for someone to bite. When confronted, they usually strike only as a last resort. If you leave them alone, they’ll afford you the same courtesy. Nonetheless, to avoid misunderstandings, it’s probably best that you and rattlesnakes don’t spend a lot of time together. If you get one, have him removed.

There are other snakes that are actually excellent neighbors. The common gopher snake (also known as the bull snake) is a fabulous garden sentry. These snakes eat mice and other garden pests. They are non-aggressive and frequently become somewhat tame and accustomed to being handled. My daughter kept a six-footer as a pet for years.

They also have a hellava sense of humor, although they’re not trying to be funny. They are commonly mistaken for rattlesnakes because of their diamond-like color patterns. When threatened, they’ll do everything they can to mimic a rattlesnake. They assume the classic “S” shape of a threatened rattlesnake and actually shake their tail just like the rattler. The only problem is they don’t have rattles. I always have to laugh when one of these poor guys is trying to look tough by shaking his pointy, rattle-less tail. This rattlesnake imitation seems to work for them, at least until they try it with someone that doesn’t like snakes and happens to be carrying a shovel.

Nonetheless, gopher snakes belong in the “good guy” category. If you’ve got one in your garden, consider yourself lucky.

Bats: None of our wild critters get maligned more than the common bat. The bat has clearly been given a bad rap. Obviously, their P.R. people haven’t been doing a good job over the years. But here’s the reality.

Bats DO NOT attack humans. They are extremely beneficial to humans, especially in the White Mountains. They assist in the pollination of some plants. Bat “guano” is one of the best fertilizers on the planet. But if for no other reason, you should welcome bats to the neighbor because THEY CAN EAT APPROXIMATELY A THOUSAND INSECTS PER HOUR! The majority of these insects are mosquitoes. If the bats weren’t mosquito munching by the tens of thousands, the mosquitoes would be in search of you.

Here’s what the Arizona Game and Fish website says …

Bats should never be allowed to remain in human living areas. However, bats roosting on the porch, in the yard, or in a bat house are far more beneficial than harmful, and the small amount of guano can be cleaned up or used as fertilizer, in exchange for the reduction in flying insects and mosquitoes.

 It all boils down to this. Residents of the White Mountains enjoy so much of nature’s bounty, they’re the envy of millions of other people not so fortunate. The creatures of the forest have lived together for eons. Embrace the wonderful world you’ve got right in front of your eyes. Whether it be bunnies, birds or bats, they’re all good.

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