Western New York is richly populated with wildlife, from the flashy deer, fox, turkey and coyote to the ordinary rabbits, squirrels, birds and skunks that occupy every tree and backyard.
As spring arrives, these animals and birds begin their natural breeding and birthing season, and then the calls start coming in to Joel Thomas, wildlife administrator for the past 12 years at the SPCA Serving Erie County.
"We get calls all year-round, but the busy season runs from the beginning of April to the end of October," Thomas says. He and his staff answer some 5,000 calls a year, 80 percent to 90 percent during this busy season. And most of the calls have a common theme: "We are on the cusp of what we call baby season, when a large number of the phone calls and cases are related to baby mammals and baby birds."
More than 50 percent of the calls are from people seeking information about an animal they encounter, says Thomas. "They don't result in a rescue, but people are concerned and want to know." About 10 percent are calls about nuisance wildlife, which the SPCA does not handle, although the staff does make some suggestions about living with animals, at least until the breeding season is over. About 30 percent are calls for rescue -- "the animal needs to be brought in or we need to go get it," says Thomas.
Many of the calls for information are from people who spot an animal that appears to be abandoned or injured, Thomas says. "We look at it from our human point of view. We see, for example, the fledgling -- a baby bird that is too big to be in the nest and too small to fly yet, and so is hopping around on the ground -- and we classify it as defenseless and in danger and we worry about it," says Thomas.
The two most common mammals people call about are baby cottontail rabbits and squirrels, says Thomas. "Very soon people are going to be spending more time in their yards and they will discover the baby cottontail rabbits, either through gardening or the dogs will stick their noses in the nests. It's human nature that when we see baby animals, we look to the left, we look to the right and we see no adult animal, and we either scoop the babies or we call" the SPCA for advice.
"We would much rather have people call."
But rather than fielding those thousands of calls, Thomas would like to educate readers on what you are likely to see in your garden, backyard -- or even emerging from under your shed -- this spring and summer, what it means, and how to deal with it.
"Based on people's lack of knowledge of the species," Thomas says, the most common call the SPCA Wildlife Department receives is from a person who has found a nest of baby rabbits, sometimes in a flower bed or planter. Or the nest can be "right out in the middle of the yard, where it is absolutely invisible."
The mother rabbit digs or uses a small depression, has three to six kits, and covers them with dry grass and fur that she pulls from her belly. "And then she will leave them and go away," says Thomas. "She only nurses them in the dark, very early or very late, and other than that she won't touch them."
To callers concerned that the nest has been abandoned, "We explain that you are not going to see mom. She is going to slide under that covering of grass and fur, she's going to feed those baby rabbits and she's going to leave, often leaving the nest practically undisturbed."
People who want to be reassured that the nest is not abandoned can cut four long pieces of dental floss and cover the nest (including a few inches of the ground on each side) in a tick-tack-toe pattern, and leave it alone. Check again 24 hours later -- at least one of the lines of floss should be disturbed.
>Squirrel in the attic
Gray squirrels are a different problem. They usually come to people's attention when they build a nest in the house, often in the attic.
"To a squirrel, a home is just a big hollow tree they haven't figured out yet," says Thomas. "As soon as they find an opening in an older house or a house that needs repair, they get in there, make a nest and have the young, and they are often undetected unless that nest is in a spot where the [squirrel] traffic begins to cause noise in the house and people realize they have squirrels in the attic."
Gray squirrels have young -- called kits or pups -- twice a year, in early spring and in late summer. For people calling about spring nests, "We explain that by the end of June, early July, those young will be self-sufficient and gone, then mom will abandon that nest temporarily and then it's just a matter of sealing up the hole. A simple repair stops her from returning."
But if the squirrels have intruded into the living space or for some other reason have to go, Thomas explains how people can get the mother squirrel to "self-evict -- to leave and take her babies with her."
"You have to find the exact location of the nest, then illuminate it with a work light or a floodlight, add a real loud radio, and let it go for 24 hours," he says. "The animals are occupying that space because it's dark and quiet. You make it bright and noisy like a nightclub, and they are going to go, 'Oops, we're out of here!' They fear for their safety."
People need not be concerned about approaching an occupied nest, Thomas says. The mother squirrel will retreat rather than remain.
>Birds of all kinds
Every bird, "from hummingbirds to eagles," says Thomas, goes through that awkward adolescent stage known as fledging. These birds leave the nest and fly to the ground, where they attract people's attention because they "have short tails, look a little bit fuzzy, and appear to be injured, because they can't fly." But, says Thomas, "This is normal behavior. Fledglings hop around on the ground learning to fly." On average, a perching bird spends two weeks in the nest and then another week on the ground in this fledgling stage.
Often the fledgling's parents are close by in the trees, says Thomas, and are caring for it. "They don't get down and stand right next to the fledge and try to defend it; that would draw predators. So they bring it food, or they stay up in the branches and vocalize, encouraging the fledge up into the air. Gradually that baby bird will gain access to a lower branch, and very quickly it develops the ability to fly."
Concerned people will pick up the adolescent bird or want the SPCA to come get it "because they just can't bear the thought of something going wrong," says Thomas. "But there is no safer place to put that fledge. There is no statistically safer place to put any young animal going through its natural behavior" than a spot with its parents close by.
>Eek! A skunk!
The final animal that the SPCA hears about a lot is the skunk. "Skunks upset a lot of people merely by their presence," says Thomas. Often when people call to report, "I've got a skunk," they have simply spotted one "walking through the yard, feeding on grubs, insects, mice, carrion, berries," says Thomas. "It's environmentally a really positive animal to have around, but it has this stinky behavior that frightens people."
But to get a skunk to spray, "You have to get literally in the skunk's face," says Thomas. "A skunk doesn't see you or me from 5 or 10 feet away and just let loose. Nature's checks and balances design this creature with a famous method of defense, and it doesn't give it a hair trigger, otherwise life would be really unpleasant.
"We are all living way closer to skunks than anyone has any idea, and if they were just pulling the trigger when something wiggles in the backyard, we'd have to move off the planet."
The exception is, of course, dogs, which he says "cannot help themselves. They have to go and stick their nose in a skunk's business and then no one is happy."
Skunks live in dens, which in forests would be under a hedgerow or a fallen log to protect the den, but can also be dug under a porch, deck or shed.
Right now, skunks are breeding, and gestation lasts for 62 to 66 days, so the kits will be delivered near the end of May. "If you see a burrow but there's no odor in the home, let this ride until late summer, when the young are raised and gone," Thomas advises. Then cross some sticks over the entrance to the burrow. If the sticks haven't been moved in three or four days, you can be sure the den is empty.
"Get a roll of galvanized mesh or hardware cloth, attach that to the shed or deck, dig the mesh about 10 inches into the ground, and seal that den," he says. "Now we have permanently changed the behavior of all skunks or any denning animals -- they'll move on."
Thomas has shared these tips and many anecdotes from his life as a wildlife specialist in his book, "Creature Comforts: Wildlife Stories and Solutions," which is sold at the SPCA and on Amazon.com. He says, "It educates people on a broad scale toward all these types of problems, and I do sprinkle some interesting stories from an animal person's perspective. I wanted it to be an enjoyable read, but also a resource for people."
To contact Joel Thomas with a wildlife-related question, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.