Night eyes are watching

There are lots of animal species that are active during daytime hours and others at night.  Some are strictly nocturnal, others can be active day or night but prefer to hunt at night.  Think owls as the night shift, and hawks as the day shift. For a prey species like a mouse, vole, or rabbit, the night shift is full of dangers to their lives for prowling owls. These same prey animals get no relief in the daytime when eagles, falcons or hawks ply the airwaves to spot a potential food source.

The game of prey-predator relationships is not an easy task for either.  Many food catching attempts are unsuccessful. But enough times the predator is successful. It eats and lives.  In biology a term used a lot is the food triangle, broad at the base and narrow at the top.  At the bottom are many smaller critters with huge population recovery capabilities. Above them are a new layer of larger but not as numerous predators who feed/live and thus survive because of a wide variety of things to catch. The next layer up will have fewer consumers and finally at the top will be apex predators, big animals mainly, who are at the top of the food chain.

The examples one can draw upon in a food triangle are extensive.  But for today, the raccoon will serve to illustrate this principle. Almost anything is food for raccoons. Natural wild foods include berries, nuts, grapes, grubs, crickets, grasshoppers,, voles, deer mice,, squirrels, fish crayfish, worms, young muskrats, frogs, snakes, bird or bird eggs, dragonfly larvae, clams, small turtles and definitely turtle eggs  and acorns. A raccoon is called an omnivore for its plant and/or animal foods.  Invertebrates are about 40 percent of the diet, 33 percent plant foods and 27 percent vertebrates.

For city dwelling raccoons, doggy and cat dishes left full of food on the porch overnight will be found by raccoons who relish a free meal wherever they can get it.  Leave it to a raccoon to exploit any and all opportunities to the buffet line house to house looking for food.  And if that doesn’t work, tipping over trash cans is high on this animal’s specialty list.

Raccoons may wash their food, so thinks human kind. But in reality, water serves a bigger purpose to enable improved nerve receptivity in the toe pads of raccoons to help identify potential foods.  Additionally water assists in kneading and tearing at the food item.  Part of the feeling process is to identify inedible parts for discarding.

Food chains work in other ways also into the microscopic world of nematodes, parasites, and diseases. These microscopic critters can negatively affect the health of the host animal, and sometimes lead to its death. Now it the worm’s and maggot’s turn to consume the host. No it is not pretty, but these decomposers have a vital task to perform.  Common raccoons harbor a nematode (roundworm) which is harmless to raccoons but dangerous to woodrats and probably many other mammals including humans. Roundworm eggs and found in soil and animal dung.  Add to this the ability of roundworm eggs over time to become more infective as time goes by. Raccoons may carry rabies. For this reason alone dog or cat food should not be left outside overnight. And human contact with raccoon droppings should be avoided.

Hunting or trapping of furbearing animals is one way to help control populations of raccoons. Skillful trappers can set traps specifically for the masked bandits of the night.  Hunters with trained coon dogs allow the scent deciphering capabilities of dogs to find a raccoon scent trail and run the critter up a tree.  Then and only then, can a light be cast into the tree to spot the raccoon looking back. Raccoon furs have been in good demand in past decades for use in clothing of winter coats for wrist cuffs and collar edgings.  Low prices at this time reflect a slow market for pelts. In fact, some cold storage facilities are full of past year raccoon pelts that have not been shipped out due to low demand. Properly cleaned and with the hides tanned expertly, fur pelts have a multitude of clothing applications.

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FURBEARER SEASON kicked off yesterday, Nov. 5. For those dedicated outdoors savvy people that trap or hunt for furbearers, good populations of raccoons, red fox, mink, muskrats, beaver, coyotes, bobcats (southern Iowa only) and river otter are out there.  Population wise all are doing well, so says Vince Evelsizer, furbearer biologist for the Iowa DNR. One exception is the gray fox whose population is very low.  Common striped skunks are numerous. Iowa may have a very low number of Eastern Spotted Skunks, an endangered species.  Muskrats have been the mainstay for many trappers over the last century. As wetland marshes disappeared, so to have muskrats. But wherever a good wetland exists, giant huts of cattail reeds and mud tell the trapper of muskrats inside the burrows and denning areas.

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Close encounters with DEER are being reported to this scribe.  For archery deer hunters, the close encounters they relish is getting really close without the animal knowing a human is close by.  This past week, for example, I was standing in my tree perch awaiting patiently the comings and goings of deer. It typically is a lot of waiting with nothing happening punctuated with a few moments of thrilling close action. So it was that a very quiet evening hunt turned out fast and furious when a doe ran under my tree and hid in thick underbrush. Right behind her was a ten point buck in hot pursuit. He came to a skidding stop under my tree. He looked up at me and I was starring down at him.  The buck was trying to figure out what that “thing” was in the tree, that strange bump of a camo ghille suited object.

While the buck was distracted with me, the doe slipped away.  Eventually this ten pointer backed off a few yards and then walked past a shooting lane to stand broadside at 10 yards.  I was ready.  I shot him about ten times, with my camera, flash working perfectly to illuminate his body and nice symmetrical antlers.  The reason I did not shoot an arrow at him was because this nice buck is a City of Marshalltown dweller.  It is illegal for me to take this deer since I do not have (at this time) the required three doe deer removed from the city limits.  Even then, there are only two, maybe three, special incentive buck licenses available to qualified archers.  City of Marshalltown certified archers, about 12 of us in total, are spread out within the city to try and remove a good number of doe deer, an essential factor in reducing deer that live in the city limits.  Each doe deer removed will be reflected next spring in hopefully a somewhat reduced overall urban population of deer.  Her potential twin fawns will not be here either.  Left unchecked, deer numbers can become more problematic causing extensive vegetation damage and run-ins with motor vehicles.  Marshalltown’s urban bow hunts for deer is now in its eighth year.

Another close encounter involved deer to deer with locked antlers, a fatal battle for both. This happened out in the county on a farmer’s land.  Two nice evenly matched bucks got in a shoving match. Their antlers became locked.  Unable to free themselves, the battle continued downhill where the duo fell into a pond. The two bucks drowned each other in this mishap.  A few days later, the landowner was checking his property and discovered two belly up deer floating carcasses in the water. Game Warden Tyson Brown was called and he confirmed the scenario just described. Salvage tags for the deer were issued. The heads will be cleaned and white skull mounts will be prepared in a few months.

Locked antlers of big bucks happens every year in a few locations.  About ten years ago, the Marshall County Conservation Board was notified of a similar finding.  This time the deer were found frozen against a log jam in the Iowa River.  Permits from the conservation officer were obtained.  Those skulls, now cleaned and nicely mounted on a display stand, can be viewed at the Conservation Center at the Grimes

Farm. Such is the way nature works sometimes.  It is an example of a close encounter of one deer with another.  Both met their fate in a not so nice way.

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CHRISTMAS TREE sales at the Izaak Walton League will begin on Nov. 25, a Friday, and the the 26th and 27th. From then on, only on weekends of Dec. 3-4, 10-11, and 17-18, cut your own Christmas Tree will be available from about 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. each day. An Ikes member will be on site to furnish hand saws to the public purchasing a tree.  Cost is $35 per tree, no matter what size. A good selection is available again this season. Enjoy a fresh cut tree for your Christmas decorating needs. This advance notice is being offered so you can mark your calendar for a time best for you. The Ikes grounds is located two miles south of Marshalltown’s Iowa Avenue on Smith Avenue.

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“One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day had been.”

— Will Rogers


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.