Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

The most teeth of any mammal in North America.

There are plenty of cool facts about Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), but that one’s my favorite.


This Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) was photographed by Cody Pope and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

How many teeth?  50!  (Adult humans have a measly 32.)

And those many, tiny teeth are employed chewing everything from fruits and grains, to insects, earthworms and snails, to snakes and mice and even carrion.  Opossums will even eat the skeleton of a dead animal that all of the other scavengers have left behind!  They’ve also been known to feast nightly on pet food left out for cats and dogs at night.

Opossums are about the size of a house cat, but it would be unfortunate to mistake it for one.  You do not want to startle a creature with that many teeth while it’s eating Purina from Fluffy’s bowl.  (Another excuse not to make that last run taking the trash out at night.)  You may be lucky and only get an intimidating show of all of those teeth, with hissing for extra fright value, or they may excrete foul smelling liquid from glands on their hind end.  If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a perfect impression of those 50 teeth on your ankle to show the doctor at the emergency room; biting the dust instead of biting you is never guaranteed.

Playing “possum,” or feigning death is actually a reaction of last resort for the opossum; it’s more like fainting into a coma from extreme fear and stress.  You’d think this would make them highly desirable to predators, but it actually benefits the opossum in two ways:  predators who eat live food will be turned off and not eat a “dead” opossum, and large animals protecting their young will not fear, and therefore not fight, a frozen lump of fur.

Opossums are a classic example of Virginia’s nocturnal creatures.  They have excellent night vision, with a tapetum lucidum (reflector in the back of the eye common among nocturnal creatures) that doubles the amount of light they see in what we would call “pitch dark”.  That tapetum also reflects the light of a flash light back as orange, which is another great way to distinguish them from a house cat, whose “eyeshine” is yellow.


A Virginia opossum at night – if you look very closely, you can see a hint of the orange eyeshine, but since the camera’s flash isn’t shining directly at the opossum’s eye, this picture doesn’t show the full effect. Photograph taken by M. Betley and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

These little nocturnal predator/scavengers are at home in both forests and suburbs, in the trees as well as on the ground, and will nest in empty tree cavities, which they pack with leaves, or in another animal’s burrow.

They are also North America’s only marsupial, growing both in the mother’s womb and then, later, in her pouch.  Opossum babies, called “joeys” just like their Australian marsupial cousins, the kangaroos, are born tiny, the size of a honeybee.  They then crawl up into their mothers pouch where as many as 13 of them safely nurse and grow for another 10 weeks.

When the babies finally poke their heads out into the moonlight, mom lets them ride on her back instead of in her belly pouch, caring for them for another three months.  They can even use their long (sometimes longer than their whole body), furless, pink and prehensile tails to grab and lift joeys that have fallen back on to their backs.

And opossums don’t wait for sprint to start making babies – their breeding season begins now, in December, and may stretch all the way through next October.  In that time females may have two or even three litters.  They make up for a short life span (only about two years in the wild) by being prolific joey producers, which is good news for hungry coyotes, large owls, red foxes, and hawks.  And, sometimes, humans.  ‘Possum stew, anyone?

Opossums are active year-round, even on the coldest winter nights.  To observe them (again, from afar, smart people), go out with a flashlight and look for that orange eyeshine, and listen for the raspy clicking sounds they use to communicate.


This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  Learn more about common nocturnal animals with these posts:

Eastern Screech Owl


Hawking the Road (Red-tailed Hawk, Common 10 Birds of Prey)

The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.

My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.

Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches.  Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!


A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree. Check out that tail and those talons! Photo provided by MONGO via Wikimedia Commons.

The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.

Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.

Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures.  Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture.  A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.


Red-tailed hawk in flight. They look like a brown lump when perched, but when they’re flying overhead you’ll not only a brown head on a mostly light colored body, except for that rufous tail, of course! Photo provided by Bear golden retriever via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey.  They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post.  Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.

In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature.  A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.

Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk.  I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.

You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven!  Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks.  My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Boo Hoot Hoot

I blew it.

Yesterday was my owling-with-experts opportunity and, despite my best intentions, I totally blew it.

I was so prepared.  I had layers upon layers of clothes all laid out the night before, my thermoses ready to fill with hot coffee, and even got myself to sleep before midnight with my alarm set for 4:45 a.m. – plenty of time to get dressed and drive to the meeting spot in Christiansburg by 5:20 a.m., the appointed meeting time.

And at 4:45 a.m., I hit the snooze button.  Apparently, I also hit it at 4:54 a.m., 5:03 a.m., and 5:12 a.m..

I woke with a start at 5:17 a.m. – panic!

I immediately sent a bleary-eyed email to my Christmas Bird Count circle coordinator:  “Overslept!  Be there ASSAP!”

The misspelling of ASAP could have been just a typo, but I think it’s more Freudian than that – I truly felt like a jackass.

I dressed and brushed and brewed at lightning speed (accidentally waking my daughter with my heavy, booted footsteps in the process – I kissed her head and sent her to take the warm spot I’d left in my bed), gathered my things and rushed to the car.  I paused only long enough to let my eyes adjust to the dark of a moonless morning, which was necessary to prevent me from falling down my own front steps.

I wasn’t fast enough, though – I didn’t arrive at the meeting spot until 5:42 a.m., 22 minutes late.  There was no one there.  I didn’t blame them – you don’t stand around waiting in 23 degree weather, you get going.  They had gotten gone.

I was crestfallen.  I made two calls to see if I could get in touch with someone who knew where they’d gone, but the numbers I could find were all home phones and I could only leave messages.

I was home and asleep almost exactly an hour after I’d woken up.

When I woke again hours later and well after sunup, I was still a little sad, but I’m talking myself out of it.

That’s the thing about nature – there are always going to be missed opportunities.  Whether it’s not being quick enough with the camera to capture the critter you see or having two weeks of rain squelch any hiking plans at the beak of autumn colors or being too friendly with the snooze button – there are always going to be plenty of missed moments.

The only way to keep your chin up is to know that, at least where nature is concerned, the season will roll around again, and the next opportunity may be different, but it will come.

I will see an owl this year, as I said in my previous post . . . just maybe not this calendar year.  But I’ve got 366 days (leap year!) and a whole lap around the sun to make it happen.

New opportunities are always just around the bend.  Nature is just cool like that.

Grayson Highlands State Park in Pictures

GHSP - Sugarland Overlook

The view east-northeast from the Sugarland Overlook just off of the main park road.  The overlook gets its name from the many sugar maple (Acer saccharum) trees found on the slope, which can be tapped for sweet sap that’s boiled down to make pure maple syrup.  The mountains in the far distance on the right are part of the Blue Ridge.

GHSP - ice columns

A huge section of needle ice found at the beginning of the Rhododendron Trail and enthusiastically flipped over by my husband and daughter.  These are actually ice columns (“needles”) that have pushed up a layer of soil.  My family was inspired to turn them over to get a better look at these hundreds of miniature ice stalagmites.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing, but the air at the ground surface is below freezing.  Capillary action in the soil pulls water to the surface (or within a centimeter or so of the surface, in this case) where it freezes.  As the process continues, more and more water is pulled up and frozen, growing upward until it either lifts soil particles or raises a section of soil altogether, as it’s done here.

GHSP - frost formations

Here we see another batch of ice needles, but these have either penetrated through the soil or been rearranged by other hikers.  Note the interesting curves; to see even more amazing ice formations, search the Internet for images of “hoarfrost” and “frost flowers.”

Seven Layer Mountains

I count seven “layers” of ridges fading into the distance.  This kind of vista is one of my favorite things about the Virginia Appalachians.  This shot was taken looking southwest from the Rhododendron Trail; somewhere out there is the Virginia/Tennessee/North Carolina border.

GHSP - our first pony

This is the first pony we saw, resting in the sunshine about 50 yards off of and not even a quarter mile up the trail.  We were lucky to find several ponies; there are no guarantees that you’ll see part of the 100+ member herd.

GHSP - three ponies

Can you see all three ponies?  There’s a black coffee colored pony with a platinum blonde mane on the left, a milk chocolate and cream pony in the middle, and a dark chocolate pony on the right.  They stand about 4 feet tall at the shoulder, though we did see one or two who were a bit larger.

GHSP Pony 1

The ponies didn’t seem to mind us getting up close and personal, though park signs warn that they will bite and/or kick if “harassed.”  We followed general rules for safe behavior around horses:  don’t stand behind them or approach quickly from behind, keep hands and fingers away from their faces, don’t touch them in any way that you wouldn’t want to be touched.

GHSP - rockstar pony

I was incredibly reluctant to let our daughter touch them at all, but in the end, the ponies paid no attention to her careful, gentle petting.  This rockstar pony was the first she touched and the only one I touched.  Her coat was incredibly thick and furry, good for the formidable winters atop the highest mountains in Virginia.  (In fact, Virginia’s two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are visible from the park.)

GHSP - big pinnacle and ponies

Here are two more ponies we watched, captured with the “Big Pinnacle” peak in the background.  The herd is managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, who sees to necessary veterinary care for the animals and keeps the herd size steady with annual pony auctions in the fall.

GHSP - waterfall

We hiked only one other trail in the park on this visit, but it was the perfect one:  the Cabin Creek Trail.  The trail is a 1.8 mile spur and loop that leads down to (what else?) Cabin Creek and upstream where a series of small falls leads up to this 25 foot cascade.  We sat happily on huge boulders in the middle of the stream watching this falls and dreaming about coming back to the park in summer, when we might dare to wade and even (gasp!) swim in these frigid, crystalline mountain waters.


Eastern Screech Owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

This year, so help me, I’m going to see an owl.

I haven’t seen one since we moved here from Louisiana.  (There I saw a barred owl sleeping on a tree branch while I waited in the pickup line at my daughter’s school.)

It’s not that we don’t have owls here – we have plenty!  I’m just a very diurnal creature, unwilling to leave my cozy bed in the wee hours to go looking for very nocturnal owls.

But, this time, I’m going to do it!  I’ve just signed up to be a part of this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 19.  A fellow master naturalist and expert-level bird watcher talked me into it.

I’ve never participated in a Christmas Bird Count before because they start so early in the morning.  Voluntarily getting up and out of the house to meet the birding group by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday in December???  No thank you.

But to see owls, I’m going to make the sacrifice:  I’ll meet my group not at 8:00 a.m., but (and here’s where I wish I was about to say 8:00 p.m.) at 5:15 a.m.! 

In my (only mostly joking) opinion, 5:15 a.m. shouldn’t even be an actual time, legally.  If not legally, then at least morally.  I’m surprised the presidential candidates haven’t weighed in on this crucial issue.

At 5:15 a.m. on that Saturday, I can guarantee that I will come prepared, dressed in many layers and with two full thermoses of piping hot, creamy, sweet coffee.  I cannot, however, guarantee that I’ll be willing to share any of that coffee.

There are no guarantees that we’ll see owls (though going with experienced birders who are likely to lead me to some is 90% of my motivation to participate), but if we do, it will be one of the four owls native to Virginia:

Good Morning Sunshine

A barn owl that I photographed in its enclosure at a zoo in Florida a few years ago. I sell this image as a blank note card entitled “Good Morning, Sunshine” in my Etsy shop.

  1. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
  2. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
  3. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
  4. Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

It’s this last one, the Eastern Screech Owl, that I’m most hoping to see.  The first three are big and impressive and so often used in birds of prey demonstrations and as zoo specimens that I’ve actually met them all before.


See? It is adorable! This rufous morph Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) was photographed by Bill Waller and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Humans just love big eyes, and the Mighty Mite has champion peepers, which is probably the reason for its genus name “megascops”, which means “big eyes”. “Asio” means horned owl, and our little buddy here does have those classic owl feather tufts that look like horns.

Not so with the “Mighty Mite”; at a Lilliputian 9 inches tall, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter is less than half the other owls’ size and more than twice their cuteness.  They are absolutely adorable, though probably not if you’re a mouse or earthworm or tadpole, which are all part of the owl’s diet.  (To learn more about any owl’s diet, try dissecting an owl pellet – the little ball of indigestible fur, feathers, and bones that they regurgitate after eating.)

These are cavity-nesting owls, small enough to make a home in a tree cavity that’s not much larger than they are.  In the wild they choose wooded areas to live in and they prefer to be near water.  Eastern screech owls will also happily move in to an owl box put up by a homeowner and help rid the property of insect and rodent pests for free!  These owls can be fairly common even in suburban areas and small towns (there are several living in downtown Blacksburg) as long as there are trees in which to roost!


Here’s a photo of the grey morph of the Eastern screech owl, showing off those “horns.” Photo provided by Wolfgang Wanderer via Wikimedia Commons.

What the Eastern screech owl won’t do for you, unfortunately, is screech.  Or maybe that’s fortunate, especially if they’re living in your neighborhood!  Screech owls’ calls are better described as whinnies or ghostly trills.  Listen to their calls at their All About Birds webpage.

The screech for which they are misnamed was probably that of a barn owl, another species which doesn’t mind being around humans as long as there are rodents around to catch.  (Where there are barns, there’s generally stored grain or hay, which rodents come in to eat and then are, in turn, eaten by the barn owl.)  Hear the barn owl’s screeching scream call at its All About Birds webpage.

It’s good to be able to differentiate the calls, too, because a birder is much more likely to hear a screech owl than see one; their brown, grey, and white plumage pattern gives them excellent camouflage against tree bark.


Now imagine this fellow not leaning out of the tree cavity and the cavity 10 feet off of the ground. Practically impossible to see. I’ve got my hopes pinned on a flash from those bright yellow, reflective “megascops”.

But I’m going to see one.  Why else would I get up and out by 5:15 a.m.???


Another #10minwri on the Common 10.  This one actually turned into a #20minwri, but I was having too much fun to stop in the middle!

Ursa Major (Common 10 Constellations)

I have a thing for bears.  All types and all sizes, I love them.

My husband, whom I nicknamed “Bear” 20 years ago, brought me out to “Bear Creek Cabin” for the weekend so that I could see the stars.

And I do – the stars here are diamonds spilled on velvet, so many that you feel the universe is just showing off – but no matter where I am, small town, big city, or backwoods, I can count on seeing at least one constellation:

Ursa Major (The Great Bear)


A print of Ursa Major, showing stars visible to the naked eye and those to faint to see. Provided by Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Most folks know it as “the big dipper,” but, as I said, I’ve got a thing for bears.

The big dipper can be seen in the northern sky every night of the year in Virginia; it circles around the north star with its cup turned down in spring, as if it’s pouring out seeds and rain on the waiting land, turned up in fall as if it’s scooping up the harvest, and held sideways in summer and winter.

The constellation Ursa Major is larger than the seven stars of the big dipper (the big dipper is technically an “asterism” within the great bear).  The four star cup of the dipper forms the great bear’s body and its 3 star handle creates the bear’s tail.  For a full bear’s body, though, the full constellation includes several more stars forming legs and a head, for a total of 16 or 18 stars all together.


These are the visible stars of Ursa major. Image provided by By Stu10255 via Wikimedia Commons

The two stars that form the forward edge of the bear’s body or the dipper’s cup make a straight line to the last tip of the cup of the little dipper (Ursa Minor – the smaller bear) which just so happens to be the north star.


Finding Ursa Minor and the north star (Polaris) from Ursa Major. Image provided by By Bonč via Wikimedia Commons.

The big bear always helps me find my way in the night sky.  Once I’ve found it I know where to look for the north star, where to find the little bear (which is only about a quarter of the big bear’s size) and, following that same straight line across the heavens to that “W” of stars that is the constellation Cassiopeia.

You can see Ursa Major now, in December, in the northeaster sky here in Virginia around midnight.  (I don’t mind staying up late, to see it I’m on vacation!)

For more Ursa Major info, check out EarthSky and Space.

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

I wasn’t sure which species to write about today . . . until a small herd of white-tailed does started browsing in the yard right outside our cabin.


Does in the yard! We can be fairly certain they’re all females because none have antlers. Male white-tailed deer grow antlers in September for the autumn mating season and don’t drop them until January.

Yeah, that pretty much clinched it.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the only member of the deer family that lives wild in Virginia.  They make up for being the only species with huge population numbers.

The lack of natural predators (cougars, wolves) has allowed the deer population to explode.  Even in a (small) town like Blacksburg, the deer numbers are estimated at 17 animals per acre.  That’s about 211,000 deer within the town’s borders!

The deer outside right now, though, are country deer.  They’re browsing the close cropped lawn around the cabin.  (We’re at a wonderful cabin in the Grayson Highlands for a couple of days to celebrate our 20th anniversary with velvety black, star-filled night skies and, hopefully, a glimpse of the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park.)

They’re browsing at mid-day, which is either a sign that they’re unafraid of anything in the area – including humans – or that food sources are scarce.  Usually, deer are crepuscular creatures; they’re most active in the dim hours of dawn and dusk, resting in the forest in the brightest hours of day and darkest hours of night.

During those dawn and dusk hours, their warm, cafe au lait fur blends in nearly perfectly with the leaf litter on the forest floor and the taupe trunks of trees.

The deer aren’t named for the brown fur, though, but for the white fur on the underside of their tail.  When they feel safe and relaxed, their tail hangs down and its brown top completes their camouflage.  When frightened, though, they pop their tails up like a big white flag while running away.

Biologists have two theories about why the species has evolved with an foot-long white target on their backside:

  1. The white tail serves as a signal to other members of the herd that there’s trouble nearby and helps the herd keep together as they move away.
  2. The white tail is what chasing predators focus on while following the deer, but since the deer are extremely maneuverable and run in a leaping, zig zagging pattern, the predators following the white tail flag run to the left (toward the tail) while the deer is already turning to the right.  Confused, the predator loses a few steps with each turn.

The deer grazed for a half hour or so.  We watched them from inside the cabin, enjoying every twitch and head tilt.  With any luck, they’ll come back tomorrow.

And that’s 10 minutes on this common 10 mammal.  Check out two other mammals that make the list:  the black bear and the skunk.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Mixing it up among Common 10 lists, as promised (but with an unexpected,  fun segue), we’re going from yesterday’s stinky skunks to the species I blindly pulled from the Common 10 prompt box today:  stink bugs.

Stink bugs have made their way onto the Common !0 Insects list for the New River Valley, and most of us wish they hadn’t.


This is the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) adult. It’s weird to see just one, isn’t it?  Photo provided by David R. Lance, USDA APHIS via Wikimedia Commons.

The brown marmorated stink bug – A.K.A. the BMSB – (Halyomorpha halys) is an invader from Asia.  Accidentally brought here in the mid 1990s, the BMSB population has exploded because this area’s climate and ecology are remarkably similar to east Asia (many of our non-native, invasive species come from Asia, e.g. the hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer beetle, Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu vine, tree of heaven, and many, many more) and because none of the BSMB’s natural predators live here.

They gather on warm, sun drenched exterior walls in autumn by the dozens or hundreds, and as temperatures drop, they find little nooks and crannies through which to work their way inside walls or even into a home’s interior.  They will spend all winter in these warm refuges.  I have had neighbors and friends complain of finding hundreds loitering around sunny windows.

And did I mention that they stink?  You know s species really smells bad when they put stink right there in the name.

Everyone has a different level of sensitivity to the BSMB’s smell.  They don’t bother me much as long as they’re out of doors and unmolested, but I’ve never had them gather inside my house, so I may be being unrealistically generous about it.

The stink they emit is actually a chemical compound used for self defense.  They emit this vile compound from holes in their abdomen in order to make themselves smell highly unappetizing to any would-be predators.

When poked or, heaven help us, squished, they release a load of this foul chemical brew and the stench could knock a buzzard off an outhouse.

I experienced this rank odor in full during Master Naturalist training.  We were learning about insects (3 bodyparts, 6 legs, antennae, wings, exoskeleton) in an entomology lab at Virginia Tech and one of the already certified naturalists brought dead stink bugs in for us to explore and dissect.  (I’m only now realizing that this may have been hazing.  Cheeky!)

Thirty trainees picking apart stink bugs under macro scope for at least a half hour.  Thank goodness the lab door was left open (small  mercies) or I’m certain that I would have a) vomitted or b) passed out.

If you’re visited by unwanted stink bugs in your home this winter, I suggest removing them by sucking them into a handheld vacuum or one with a hose.  Then, either throw the bag away immediately inside of a sealed trash bag or, if it’s bagless, dump the contents of the vacuum’s plastic container into a plastic grocery bag that you can knot up tight or completely seal before putting it in the outside garbage bin.  Releasing unconstrained BMSBs outdoors gives them an opportunity to find their way back inside – a challenge they’ll meet with ease.

Do I feel bad about advising the mass slaughter of these invaders?   A little, but they don’t belong here and they’re throwing our native species off balance.  (Here’s a guide to telling the BSMB apart from its native look-alike bugs.)  The only good thing you can say about them, in fact, is that at least they don’t sting or bite.  They’re a real pest in orchards though, destroying fruit by the acre.

So, for the sake of the fruit and to save all our noses, go get your vacuum and suck the little stinkers up!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Skunks (Common 10 Mammals)

The skunk checks off a box on two of my Common 10 lists; it’s one of the most common mammals in this part of the Appalachians as well as one of the most common nocturnal animals in the area.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, just one type of skunk lives in this area of Virginia, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).


Unsurprisingly, there were very few images of the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) available on my free photo source, Wikimedia Commons. Where there were dozens and dozens of black bear photos for my last 10 minute/Common 10 post, there were only about 15 skunk photos. That says something about humans’ fears: apparently skunk funk outranks bear mauling! This photo was provided by Diotime1 via Wikimedia Commons.

The striped skunk usually gets all the press, and rarely is any of it good.  The truth is, though, that skunks are a positive part of our environment and, especially if you’re a lawn lover, they can even be a good friend to a suburban yard.  (Not to a suburban dog, though – and we’ll get to that in a a minute.)

Back to a reason to love a skunk:  skunks love grubs!  Grubs, the larval stage of the June beetle, spend their youth munching on the roots of plants, particularly enjoying the roots of your nice green lawn.  Skunks, in turn, enjoy digging small depressions in order to find themselves a grub snack.  Grubs are their grub!  (Classic nature nerd joke.  Why don’t I hear you laughing?)

Before digging holes in your lawn, though, grubs will help reduce your yard’s grub population by getting the easy-to-dig grubs out of your mulched flower beds.  This helps aerate and turn over the soil and does the garden plants not one iota of damage, as far as I can tell.

In the wild, skunks feed on insects in the leaf litter of the forest or the rich soil beneath a meadow, not to mention berries and fruits, and ground nesting birds and their eggs.

Yes, they do spray the most ungodly stink, but only as a defense mechanism, and only after fair warning.

Skunk’s Fair Warnings:

  1. ‘Mephitis” comes from the Latin for foul odor or stench emanating from the earth and is associated with the demon devil Mephistopheles, so even the animal’s scientific name lets you know that its stink is worse than a devil’s fart.
  2. For those animals that can’t read, the high contrast coloration of the skunk’s black and white patterned fur is a warning of poison or foulness within.  In diurnal animals, bright colored patterns such as red and black (ladybug), yellow and black (monarch caterpillar), or red, yellow, and black (coral snake) warn potential predators away.  Since bright colors don’t show up well at night, nocturnal animals stick to classic black and white as their warning signs.
  3. When it feels threatened, a skunk will back up and begin to stomp its front feet at you.  This is your clue to calmly and quickly remove yourself from its general area.
  4. If the stomping doesn’t scare you off (you giant, scary predator) the skunk will then begin to lift its back feet off the ground and assume a handstand position.  At this point you’d better multitask:  run and pray at the same time.
  5. From the handstand position, the skunk will bend until its hind end is pointed directly at your face.  I hope you never have to look down the barrel of that stinking gun because, odds are, no one will want to look at or smell you for weeks afterward.

More often than a human target, though, it’s a pet dog that gets skunked.  There are many purported remedies to help counter the malodorous sulfur compounds in skunk spray, from tomato juice to vinegar, baking soda, and even specialty enzyme washes.  If your dog is skunked, you’re likely to try them all – please remember to use products that will be gentle to the dog’s skin.

Better yet, avoid the problem all together:  don’t let the dogs out at night if you know there are skunks in the area.  Skunks are slow, plodding creatures, and a bounding dog will likely catch the skunk and get sprayed before the skunk can get away.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Weighing in at up to 500 pounds, measuring seven feet long, and strong enough to flip over a 300 pound rock with just one paw, the black bear (Ursus americanus),  is the largest and most formidable predator in the Virginia Appalachians.

That said, it’s also a great animal to illustrate my top rule in nature:

“Do not be afraid.  Be cautious.”

Fear in nature makes us do stupid things – like getting scared by a spider and jumping up to run away so fast that you miss a step and twist your ankle.

Caution, however, lets us observe nature without getting hurt.

Black bears require caution and respect.  They may be as cute as a childhood teddy bear from a distance, but you don’t want to get up close and personal with their inch -and-a-half long teeth and claws.

These large, furry mascots of the woods do not see humans as prey, and generally only menace or attack humans in an “I’m the mama bear and you’re too close to my babies” situation.  (There’s a reason we call human mothers “Mama Bear” when they’re angry, aggressive, and protective of their kids.  You don’t want to mess with either kind of mama bear.)

Black bears are omnivores, feeding mostly on wild berries, leaves and stems of plants, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Big animals just aren’t on its menu.


A young black bear practices her climbing on a pine tree. Photo provided by Jim Bowen – originally posted to Flickr as Tree Climbing, Bear Style. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

True to stereotype, though, they do love to eat honey.  They climb trees with relative ease (the long claws come in handy there) and their mouths aren’t bothered by bee stings which, to put it in human terms, makes honey a crunchy-sweet snack with carbs for energy and lean bee protein for muscle building.

Not that they always eat healthy.  They will happily sniff out and steal “pick-i-nick baskets” and other human food, which is why smart (cautious) backwoods campers know to suspend their food supplies in a hanging bag in a tree a good 40 yards away from their tents.


This photo of black bear tracks was provided by I, Padraic Ryan via Wikimedia Commons. Black bears have five toes on each foot, but their “pinkie” toes are on the inside of the foot and their big toes are on the outside.

Now for the stereotype killer:  black bears do not hibernate.  True hibernators’ bodies drop their temperature to within a few degrees of the ambient temp in their den and they dramatically reduce their heart rates to slow their metabolism to a molasses-like crawl all winter.

Black bears do allow their heart rate to drop dramatically (around 55 beats per minute when active, 8-12 beats per minute while sleeping), but their body temperature only cools slightly, from about 100 degrees Fahrenheit down to around 88 degrees.  This allows them to wake up much more quickly.  This low-heart rate, high-body temperature rest is called “torpor”.  I like to think of it as a six month sleepy season.  Though the bears gorge themselves before bed in October, they can wake up on warm days to forage for a midnight (mid-season) snack.

During that sleepy season, which can last from mid-March to early May here in Virginia, mama bears will give birth to one or two cubs, who will nurse in the den until spring, using up the last of her fat reserves. So, in spring, you have just-woken-up, super hungry new mamas.

Think of them as if they’re me before I get my morning coffee; you want to give them a lot of personal space, appreciate from a distance, and be cautious.

For more great black bear info, check out these web pages:


This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)