By Esther Lutz, East Central Master Naturalist for U of I Extension in Coles County
Watering flowers on a summer morning is a relaxing and pleasant start to the day. There is something about the beauty of colorful blooms, green foliage, and a warm breeze that calmly nurtures the need for a connection with nature. On my front porch on a recent morning, I was giving the geraniums a drink when my eye caught a glimpse of something rapidly bouncing towards me on my front lawn. A young fawn had burst out of the hedge next to the pasture, scampered across the yard and stopped right in front of me less than ten feet away. I ducked down behind the sprawling plant and stayed still, hoping that I could take in the beauty of this gentle creature, quietly observing it while remaining undetected.
My surprise encounter with such an elusive animal reminded me of how this is the time of year when humans often come upon creatures in the wild that they otherwise seldom see. As we spend more time outside in our yards, parks, playgrounds, and camps, it is inevitable that some type of contact with a wild animal will occur from time to time. There are plenty of wildlife myths that have been around forever, so it may be helpful to dispel a few of the more common ones that have been passed down through the years:
Myth: If I find a fawn alone, it's been abandoned or orphaned and needs help.
Until a fawn is about four weeks old, it will rarely be seen with its mother. Fawns have no scent of their own and have a dappled effect of spots on their backs so that they can be camouflaged. The mother will "park" her offspring in one spot and will visit it two or three times a day to avoid attracting predators to her own scent. The baby lies perfectly still and can hide virtually out in the open and still not be seen. Because the doe will not hover too close, it is perfectly normal to see a fawn all by itself. It is always best to assume that the mother is in the vicinity, and leave the baby alone.
Myth: I've been seeing bats flying around at dusk quite often lately. If they fly too near me, they can get tangled in my hair.
Bats would really rather not fly into our hair if they can help it! They navigate through the air using a complex sonar system called "echolocation" which helps them to "see" the world around them with very good precision. When they get trapped inside confined spaces, like houses or barns, they often display swooping flight patterns as they try to escape. Because their wingspan is long relative to their bodies, they must swoop in order to remain airborne and fly out. Opening a window or a door to the outside and then leaving the area is the best way to enable them to escape. They really are much more fearful of us than we are of them!
Myth: Opossums come out and are on the prowl almost as soon as it gets dark. They can be vicious and can carry rabies, so we should always avoid them.
It is always best to avoid interacting with any wild animal, but the opossum is not to be feared for these reasons. They are generally harmless, benign creatures that can barely defend themselves. Opossums tend to be resistant to rabies, and it is thought to be most likely due to their low body temperatures. They may hiss, bare their teeth, and drool in response to a confrontation with a human or a predator, but that is not a sign of rabies. Rather, it is a defensive move to convince the other creature to "Leave me alone -- I'm scary!" And if that act doesn't work, they simply play dead. When the enemy loses interest and leaves, the opossum slowly comes back to life and moseys on its way.
Myth: Years ago, we would see wild Canada geese only in the autumn when we looked up and saw them in V-formation flying south for the winter. The reason we see them now year round is because they have forgotten how to migrate.
The geese around our lakes and ponds throughout the year are not the wild species so familiar to us from years ago. The ones we see today are members of several subspecies that have descended from captive-bred Canada geese introduced by wildlife agencies a few decades ago to create "opportunities" for hunters. Others were released by people who thought they would add an aesthetic quality to their ponds and landscaped areas. The birds simply never learned to migrate with their parents, through no fault of their own. These transplanted geese have thus successfully adapted to staying in one place and now thrive in our rural and suburban landscapes year round.
Myth: If you touch a baby bird and put it back in its nest, its parents will abandon it.
Birds have a very limited or absent sense of smell (except for vultures), so handling the baby will not influence the parents one way or the other. In fact, most birds are very bonded to their chicks, and will not abandon them even if they are handled by humans. We are perfectly safe replacing a baby that has few or no feathers back in its nest. If the baby is fully feathered and is running or flopping on the ground, however, it is best to leave it alone. This is quite normal as the fledglings are learning to fly from the ground up and are just not yet getting lift-off! The parents are often nearby keeping a watchful eye and will continue to feed the youngster until it learns to use its wings to fly away.
Myth: If you get anywhere near a skunk, you know you're going to get sprayed.
Believe it or not, it is not likely that a human being behaving normally will get sprayed by a skunk. These animals spray only to defend themselves, and it is usually only when something runs up and grabs them or they feel threatened by something moving quickly such as dogs or coyotes. This "smelly" weapon of musk is a precious commodity, and the animal is unable to "refill an empty tank" very swiftly. For this reason it will not waste it and uses it only as a last resort for escape. An alarmed skunk will usually stamp its forefeet and lift its tail as a warning that it is about to "let loose", so if you move slowly and speak softly or not at all, it is usually safe to proceed in the opposite direction. If the skunk has not stamped its feet, chances are good that it is unconcerned and will not react "odiferously."
Keeping these and other myths in mind can often help us to coexist peacefully with our wild neighbors. The young fawn that burst into my yard stopped abruptly, glanced back toward the pasture and panted as it caught its breath. Though it still had its spots, it looked old enough to be out of the "hiding" stage, and I suspect it had been following its mother when it became alarmed enough to break away from her. What a pleasant surprise for me to catch a glimpse of such a lovely creature, and so close! Soon startled by some walkers on the road, it bounded off towards the back yard and into the pasture beyond, never knowing I was there. My hope is that it soon reunited with its mother, as nature intended. After all, I have a feeling that through all of the commotion, she was always lingering, safely hidden and protectively watching in the weeds nearby.