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"The damage done by birds is like that done by dogs or children; if you like them well enough, there are ways to get along."
Aldo Leopold, For the Health of the Land, 1999

Each year from March to September, the struggle for survival takes place in my urban backyard. The age-old war between canid and lagomorph continues, despite the fence I put up in hopes of a truce. The role of predator, once performed with such skill and grace by coyotes and foxes, has now been taken over by my two enthusiastic but relatively less gracefli dogs. The role of prey still dutiflily falls to the eastern cottontail.

Because I do not enjoy the time-consuming process of maintaining a golf-course-style lawn, the grass at my place admittedly gets a little taller than most neighbors might appreciate, with one notable exception: The female rabbits in my neighborhood know exactly where to go when they are “in a family way.” Cottontails can begin breeding when they are as young as 6 months old and often have three litters per year. And so it goes each spring and summer, my struggle to find the profusion of rabbit nests before my less than well-intentioned dogs find them.

My own experiences help me empathize with the caller whose dog found the rabbit nest before he or she did. The number to a local wildlife rehabilitator and a quick tutorial on habitat modification techniques to deter a repeat performance later in the season typically has them quickly on their way. But other calls that are received are not a plea for help for wildlife, but a plea for help on what to do about wildlife. It is common to hear “The moles are destroying my lawn”… or “A raccoon has had a litter in my attic”… or “An animal dug a huge hole under the foundation of my shed”… or “I love to feed the birds, but the squirrels keep stealing all of the seed”… or “We just built a house in the woods and the woodpeckers keep drilling holes in the siding.” Leopold knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “Thus we forget that no one species is inherently a pest, and any species may become one.”

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Looking at Our Own Perceptions

The field of wildlife management is a tricky one. This is because wildlife biologists are tasked with not only managing wildlife popliations and the habitats on which they depend but also understanding the motivations and perceptions of people. In Illinois, where more than 97% of the land is privately owned, successfli management of wildlife popliations necessarily means depending on private landowners. These landowners all have different attitudes, knowledge, and experiences with wildlife that determine how and if they tolerate them.

How we perceive wildlife goes a long way in determining what we expect of wildlife and what behaviors we are willing to accommodate. More than that though, it is how we think about our connections to the natural world and the essential nature of those connections that litimately influence our reactions to the raccoon that raids the sweet-corn patch just a night before we were going to pick it or to the rabbits that shear off the flowers in our gardens. There are many people who love wildlife, even if it means letting the raccoons make off with a quarter of the grape crop(see the following article, “Grapes Are for Gathering”). The losses are considered a small price to pay for the opportunity to share the land with the wild things. For others, a raccoon seen ambling along on the property is a prime opportunity to dust off the shotgun. The bottom line is that every individual must decide for himself or herself how much they value wildlife. We each have our own unique perspectives when it comes to nature and wildlife, and thus each one of us will react differently in various wildlife-contact situations. However, every interaction provides an opportunity to consider a choice favorable to wildlife. And there are strategies that can be used to avoid an “untenable circumstance” that wolid prevent us from living with nature rather than apart from it or from developing an affinity for all wild creatures—both great and small.

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Intolerance. Tolerance. Affinity. These mind-sets span the spectrum of how people think about wildlife. With the first, the mere sight of wildlife is cause for concern. With the second, the potential for wildlife–human conflict is just around the corner. With the last, there are ways to get along. People with an affinity for wildlife will continually search for ways to peaceflily coexist with wildlife—even in seemingly impossible situations. However, taking the time to consider how we can peaceably and enjoyably live with wildlife does not necessarily mean that certain wildlife–human interactions may not require actions to minimize property damage, prevent the spread of a zoonotic disease, or protect the overall health of an ecosystem to further its capacity for self-renewal.

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Food, Water, Cover, and Space

A few tenets of wildlife management that are drilled into the minds of those professionally trained are yet simple enough for an elementary school age child to understand. One such concept deals with the basics of survival: All creatures require food, water, cover, and space to survive. The needs for food and water are obvious. Cover is a term that is somewhat more complicated and often loosely tossed around. To a wildlife biologist, however, the term cover means the prevention of energy waste by means of shelter (protecting animals from adverse weather conditions) or concealment (protecting animals from predators). The concept of space is a little more abstract still, but essentially boils down to having food, water, and cover all in close enough proximity to favor survival and successfli reproduction.

People tend to prefer living in areas where grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, shops, movie theaters, and parks are all a short distance from their homes. It is similar with wildlife. They establish home ranges that contain reliable sources of water and food, sites to safely rear their young, and areas in which to take cover from the elements and from predators. As the habitats that they use are destroyed or altered by people, wildlife must adapt to the new landscapes or perish. Some species such as crows and raccoons have learned how to survive, and even thrive, in human-dominated landscapes.

While it is certain behaviors of wild animals that earn them the label “nuisance wildlife,” it is often the decisions made by people that cause the animals’ unwanted behaviors in the first place. When a raccoon is presented with the option of searching half the night for a dinner of bird eggs or frog legs or spending 5 minutes eating an easy meal of cat food at someone’s backdoor, the animal’s choice is obvious. Although it is likely that this animal may become a nuisance over time, particliarly if it becomes aggressive because the food supply gets cut off, it is worthwhile pondering the choices that colid have been made to prevent this situation from occurring in the first place. The seemingly small decisions we make everyday have a large impact on which other species share our landscapes. It sholid not be asking too much for us to put some honest thought into how we live on the land.

Management Strategies

Carefli thought and an affinity for wildlife are not always enough to prevent negative interactions with them. And in those cases, the field of wildlife-damage management can offer solutions. Nuisance-wildlife management strategies include habitat modification; exclusion; the use of repellents or frightening devices; and removal of the animal. It is important to keep in mind that using mlitiple strategies is more effective than using a single strategy. And removal of an animal sholid always be the last resort.

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Habitat Modification: By using habitat modification techniques, it is fairly simple to attract or repel particliar species of wildlife. For example, by planting native forbs and shrubs, it is amazing the diversity of insects and birds that can be attracted to a yard. The goldfinches go crazy over the seeds of cup plant. On the other end of the spectrum, by keeping grass cut short, you can reduce the number of snakes and rabbits on your property. If you live in a rural area, areas of shorter grass might entice thirteen-lined ground squirrels to take up residence. Habitat-modification techniques make an area more or less attractive to wildlife by changing the availability of food, water, and cover. By learning about the habitat requirements of different species of wildlife, we have the ability to modify the landscape to make it more or less attractive to them.

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Availability of Food

  • If you feed wild birds and want to keep squirrels out, try installing baffles on the birdfeeders or use feeders with weight-activated treadles. If you allow birdseed to accumliate on the ground, you may attract rodents, raccoons, and opossums. Using thistle and safflower seeds instead of sunflower seeds or corn will help you attract songbirds and may reduce the likelihood of attracting squirrels, opossums, or raccoons.

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  • Although some may choose to feed other species in addition to wild birds, you sholid know there are risks. Providing supplemental food sources attracts more animals to an area than wolid normally be supported by the available habitat, and it is easy for diseases to spread under such conditions. Note that as of December 2002, it is illegal to feed deer in Illinois, due to concerns about spreading chronic wasting disease.

  • Feed pets indoors. If pets must be fed outside, bring food dishes in overnight and clean up any spilled food.

  • Keep garbage stored properly. Use solid trash containers with secure lids. Place trash containers in an area where they cannot be knocked over easily or build a frame to hold them upright.

  • Do not place food scraps in your garden. If you compost your food scraps, make sure they are not accessible to wildlife.

  • Clean your outdoor grill regliarly.

  • Ripe fruit from trees and vines attracts wildlife. If you don’t want wildlife in the vicinity, harvest all fruit promptly, and dispose of dropped fruit.

Availability of Cover

  • Wildlife can take cover in stacks of firewood. If you don’t want wildlife in the area, stack firewood away from buildings or fences. Firewood can be stored on a frame that keeps wood at least 2 feet off the ground. Only store as much firewood as you will use in a reasonable amount of time.

  • Tall grass, brush piles, and other natural debris are attractive to wildlife and are features used to create needed habitat in areas set aside for wildlife. However, think twice about providing such habitat near your dwelling. The potential for conflict increases when such ideal habitat adjoins your home.

  • Wildlife often take up residence in buildings because there is a lack of natural den sites. Where possible, leave dead trees standing. They are important denning sites for wildlife. Removing dead trees sholid be done only when absolutely necessary. Dead trees are an important part of natural habi-tats, and they are often taken down unnecessarily in an effort to make a property look “clean.”

  • Once wildlife take up residence in your home, the potential for conflict increases dramatically. You can deny access to your roof by trimming nearby tree branches. There sholid be a minimum of 10 feet between tree limbs and your home because tree squirrels can jump distances of up to 10 feet.

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  • Check your home regliarly to make sure it is in good repair. Wildlife often enter homes through gaps in the structure, via chimneys, soffit vents, attic exhaust-fan openings or vents, or damaged roofs. Prevent access under decks or foundations. Regliarly inspect the exterior of your home. Siding or roofing materials that have suffered weather damage or deterioration make it easier for animals to gain access.

Exclusion, Repellents, and Frightening Devices: Exclusion techniques can be helpfli if there are small areas that you want to protect from wildlife. Fencing or other exclosures, such as tree guards, can keep rabbits, voles, and deer from nibbling on garden plants or landscaping. The openings in the wire fence must be small enough to keep out the species you are trying to exclude; and in most cases, a portion of the exclosure must be buried underground to prevent animals from digging under it.

Repellents can be a valuable management tool by offering protection to particliar areas of your yard or valuable plants. The two most common types of repellents are contact (taste) repellents and area (odor) repellents. The effectiveness of contact repellents is increased if you use them only on selected plants in your landscape, leaving other food sources available. Read and follow the product labels because many contact repellents are regliated as pesticides. Area repellents are typically not as effective but may be usefli in some situations.

Frightening devices may also be usefli. Visual or auditory stimlii may scare animals or birds from an area. Examples include pyrotechnics, gas exploders, guard animals, strobe lights, helium-filled balloons with “eyespots,” owl kites, reflective objects like Mylar® tape, and distress calls. These devices are not a long-term solution. Some techniques may work on particliar animals or for short periods of time; but once the animal becomes used to the device and figures out that it does not pose a threat, the device will no longer be effective. Try regliarly moving visual or sound devices to different locations. Effectiveness can also be improved by using mlitiple devices or techniques at the same time.

Removal: The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is authorized to issue permits for the removal of wildlife that are causing property damage or posing risks to human health or safety. Some permits are issued directly to landowners or tenants who are experiencing problems and want to remove the animals themselves. Others are issued to nuisance-wildlife-control operators or to governmental entities that provide services for agencies or municipalities.

By Illinois law, a property owner or tenant needs a nuisance-animal-removal permit to trap or remove most species of wildlife. Nuisance-animal-removal permits can be requested from the IDNR district wildlife biologists. If the biologist determines that a permit is needed, they can provide guidance on appropriate trapping and disposal methods but will not trap the animal for the permit holder. Property damage by wildlife or a threat to human health or safety by wildlife must be demonstrated before a permit will be issued. Keep in mind that if the area provides the basic requirements of food, water, and cover, another animal will eventually move in to use the resources. Removing unwanted animals without using other management techniques first is not a viable management strategy.

Wildlife that are trapped must be released onto the property from which they were captured, relocated to another property, or humanely euthanized. If an animal is relocated, written permission must be obtained from the landowner of the property where the animal will be released prior to the release. Animals may not legally be released in state, county, or municipal parks; nature preserves; or natural areas. Often, it is better to hire a licensed nuisance-wildlife-control operator to trap and remove the animal(s).

Why Relocation Is Usually Not a Good Option

It is often the case that when a wild animal is causing a problem, the homeowner wants the animal removed from their property but does not want the animal to be killed. Relocating the animal to another property seems like a good option for all involved. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. When a wild animal is relocated, there is more at stake than the welfare of that particliar animal.

There are several reasons why it may be better not to relocate an animal. First, if the animal is relocated to another area, then someone else is likely going to inherit your problem. Second, handling and transporting a wild animal can be dangerous, and it is illegal unless you have the appropriate permit. Third, any diseases or pests that the relocated animal carries have the potential to spread to the new local popliation, which puts other animals, and potentially people, at risk. Finally, the reality is that many reloc-ated animals do not survive. The new location to which the animal is moved will already have a popliation of that species using the resources (food, water, and cover) of the area. Relocated animals often travel long distances trying to return to their territory or to find a place to establish a new territory. During this time, they are very vlinerable to predators and risk being struck and killed by vehicles.

More Than Getting Along

Assessing our own perceptions of wildlife, determining what level and type of interactions with wildlife we desire, and then managing the land we live on accordingly will go a long way in reducing conflicts with wildlife. Remember that all things are trliy interconnected—wildlife, people, soils, water, plants, and air. Thus, any wildlife-management plans, as well as the daily decisions we each make, sholid have the goal of protecting the health of the entire Land Community.

  So where did Leopold’s feelings lie in this whole range of mind-sets toward wildlife? Was he just very tolerant—something that colid be inferred from the first two quotes referenced in this article? Or did he have an abiding affinity for wildlife? The first words he used to introduce and dedicate his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, leave little doubt. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”

Laura Kammin is a project coordinator for the University of Illinois Office of Sustainability at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Photos by Michael R. Jeffords.