Wild Mammals: Habitat and Interdependencies

Care Urbine and Carol Roberts

White-tailed Deer (Heather Baker)
White-tailed Deer (Heather Baker)

The diverse mammals living in the Cedar Creek valley’s woods, fence rows, wooded stream banks, prairie-like habitats and old farms each play an important role in the Cedar Creek ecosystem. This article describes deer, badgers, coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, minks, muskrats, fox squirrels and Eastern cottontail rabbits, and their relationships to each other and to the lands and water they inhabit. If we know what we’re looking for, we are more likely to see, appreciate, and protect the habitat that makes it possible for them to live here.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is one of our most beautiful mammals. Bucks weigh up to 175 pounds and shed their antlers yearly, usually in January or February. Does weigh about 120 pounds; their fawns are born late May or early June. Deer usually roam within a 2 mile radius of their home, eating wild herbs, fruits, and crops. They do not hibernate, instead surviving winter eating twigs, tree buds, leaves, bark, and acorns, and sheltering under evergreens and in Cedar Creek canyon woods. In this area, human hunters are their only remaining predator. Decreasing deer populations in our area are primarily due to habitat loss from development.

Badgers--the great diggers, are gradually making a comeback in this area. They can grow 3 feet long, weigh up to 30 pounds, and dig elaborate burrows 60 feet long. They eat insects, bird eggs and snails, and use their long claws (front claws about 1.5”) and strong legs to easily dig out ground squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, mice, voles, and snakes. Their coarse (very short on top) silver-gray fur has a white stripe running from the tip of the nose to the top of the back. Long side fur and stubby legs make them appear as if they’re hugging the ground. Two to five babies are born in early spring in a grass-lined burrow. They prefer living in open fields and meadows where they’re less likely to encounter underground rocks. Although badgers do not hibernate, they seldom emerge from their burrows unless the temperature is above freezing. Their few predators (cougars, golden eagles, bobcats, and bears) are gone from this area. Loss of habitat is the primary reason for badger mortality.

Coyotes, members of the dog family, can weigh 20 to 50 pounds, usually about 30 pounds in Indiana. They mate in February, and pups are born in April, usually 5 to 10 per litter. Coyotes live in a family or with an unrelated pack (generally males) and are usually seen during winter. Small mammals, rodents, farm animals and birds comprise 90% of their food, although they also eat fruit, grains, and grass. In this area, packs of coyotes may hunt bigger animals such as sheep and deer. Coyotes are very vocal creatures: they howl! Their biggest threat in our area are humans and loss of habitat. In some urban ecosystems, coyotes help control populations of Canada geese, deer, rodents, and feral cats.

Foxes (Carol Roberts)
Red Fox (Randy Roberts)

Red fox is a member of the Vulpes vulpes family. This small wild dog weighs 8 to 14 pounds and has a long, bushy, white-tipped tail, and pointed ears and muzzle. While litters can be as large as 12, usually 5 or 6 kits are born in March or April. Foxes are skilled hunters, feeding upon quails, rabbits, chipmunks, mice, squirrels, birds, and larger insects (and sometimes, farm animals such as chickens). During summer months they rely heavily on fruit, grasses and berries. Coyotes and eagles are their natural predators. In our area, red fox are extremely helpful controlling rodents and insects and spreading native plant seeds.

Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus family) are cousins to the red fox but not as plentiful in northern Indiana. They usually weigh 8 to 15 pounds, are ashen silver (rather than red), have oval eyes (instead of the red fox’s slit-like eyes) and lack the red fox’s black “socks.” Gray fox kits are born in late April and early May, usually in a litter of 1 to 7. The gray fox likes to hunt by itself, eating birds, rabbits, fish, insects, rodents, squirrels, and fruit. It is unusual in that it can climb--and may even live in--trees. Grey foxes are nocturnal, coming out of dens at dawn and dusk, and active year round (they do not hibernate in winter). Their natural enemies in our area are dogs, coyotes, and distemper. Like the red fox, gray fox are important in controlling rodent populations.

Minks (Mustela vison) are small animals: males weigh up to 4 pounds, the females, 1½ pounds. Their fur is a soft, silky, dense, rich dark brown, turning black toward the pointed tail. Bodies are long and slender with short ears and legs. Five or six cubs or kittens are born late April or early May. Excellent swimmers, minks live near ponds, lakes, and streams (including Cedar Creek) where they eat crayfish, small fish, frogs, small rodents, birds, and muskrats. (Minks avoid decaying meat but will eat crippled or sick waterfowl.) Nocturnal animals, they do not hibernate. They are hunted by great horned owls, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, and foxes, but are killed less frequently by wild creatures than by human activity (traffic, trapping, habitat destruction). Minks help control rats by driving them from their holes.

Raccoon (Carol Roberts)
Raccoons (Carol Roberts)

Raccoons (Procyon lotor) are native only to North America. They weigh 12 to 25 pounds, have bushy tails, a mix of gray, brown and black fur, and a distinctive black, mask-like marking across the face with dark and light alternating fur rings. Litters of 1 to 9 are born in April or May. Raccoons are opportunistic eaters! Their nimble fingers even enable them to open containers with lids. In the wild, they eat fish, frogs, crayfish, turtle and bird eggs, insects, small animals, domestic fowl, sweet corn, field corn, beechnuts, acorns. When it’s cold, raccoons go into a torpor (rather than true hibernation), sleeping curled up for weeks to lower their body temperature and energy needs. Raccoons are nocturnal but also look for food and drink in daylight, especially mother raccoons needing to feed their babies. Raccoons are hunted by bobcats, wolves, coyotes, great horned owls and some domestic dogs. Racoons help control both wasps (they eat wasp larvae and destroy their nests) and rodents, which they also eat.

Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) weigh 1.3 to 4.4 pounds. Their short, thick two-layered fur helps protect them from cold. This medium-to-dark-brown-or-black fur grays as they age. Both tails and feet help them swim: back feet are semi-webbed; long, scale-covered tails help propel them forward. Most Indiana muskrats produce 6 to 8 kits in May or June but can produce two or three litters a year. Muskrats do not hibernate and are most active at dawn, dusk, and night. They are vegetarians (cattails are their primary food), but if no plants are available, they will eat remains of fish, frogs, and other muskrats. Muskrats are an important food source for other animals including minks, raccoons, owls, hawks, and foxes. As with almost all other mammals in the Cedar Creek watershed, loss of habitat is the primary cause of their decline. Abandoned muskrat burrows become homes for other species.

Fox Squirrel (Carol Roberts)
Fox Squirrel (Carol Roberts)

Although four different tree squirrel species live in the Cedar Creek area, the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is most plentiful. Weighing 1.1 to 2.2 pounds, their extremely sharp claws help them climb trees. Their vision and sense of smell are extremely good. Fox squirrels eat nuts, seeds, acorns, berries, and wild fruits. Litters of three pups are born all year except December and January. Although they do not hibernate, they conserve energy in winter by being relatively inactive, living on food they have buried, crop remains, or home bird feeders. Squirrels are food for bobcats, foxes, raccoons, rat snakes, hawks, eagles, and opossums.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Heather Baker)
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Heather Baker)

Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) live in the Cedar Creek valley (and throughout Indiana) in shrubs, grassy areas and meadows. They have red-brown or gray-brown fur, large hind feet, a short fluffy tail, long floppy ears, and weigh 1.8 to 4.4 pounds. Rabbits average 3 to 4 litters each year but can have up to 7, each with 5 to 12 kits. Rabbits will eat any plant--especially if it is young and tender. They love clover and new shoots of spring grass; in winter, they eat bark, leaves, twigs, buds or seeds. Active all year long (they do not hibernate), cottontails can be seen during the day but are mostly active twilight through night. Cottontails are food for foxes, coyotes, weasels, raccoons, mink, owls, hawks, and snakes.

If you make time to watch from your window and walk outdoors-- on your own land, at the Izaak Walton League, in ACRES Land Trust preserves in the Cedar Creek corridor--you will see, over time, a breathtaking variety of wildlife: fox kits chasing each other in spring; a herd of deer wading gingerly across Willow Creek in Bicentennial Woods; a Great Blue Heron flying down the middle of Cedar Creek in the Dustin Preserve. As we learn more about wild creatures’ interdependent predator and prey roles, we may become increasingly motivated to help preserve their habitat, so Cedar Creek’s amazing ecosystem--both flora and fauna--can thrive.

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