Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Night Life

At the flick of a switch, the backyard was bathed in light and sure enough, there it was. You had to know where to look, as its hunched-up shape and scruffy gray and white blotched fur blended into the surrounding ground cover. Munching away on leftovers under the bird feeder, it seemed oblivious to the light - didn’t even look up until I tapped on the window, then its weird little white face appeared. With round, black ears at attention, pointed snout a-twitch, it stared briefly with beady black eyes before returning to its meal. Another movement caught my eye - it had brought a friend along this night.

Opossums are usually solitary creatures, but females tend to live in groups. Among the most primitive of living mammals, they have the unique distinction of being America’s only native marsupial, carrying their young in a pouch similar to a kangaroo or koala. They have 1 - 2 litters a year of up to 13 young, with 7 to 9 the average. Scavengers, they eat mostly insects and carrion, but also fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and bird eggs. They need to feast while they can - they only live for around 18 months.

Earlier, My husband had heard a muffled thud at the window. He looked up just in time to glimpse a bat at the screen. It landed - briefly and unceremoniously - then disappeared into the night. We thought this strange as bats usually avoid light, but various bugs are attracted to light and bats eat bugs. As temperatures rise in the spring, more bugs are active and available. Most insectivorous bats don’t catch insects directly with their mouths but scoop them up with wing or tail membranes first, consuming 30 to 50 percent of their body weight each night - that’s a lotta bugs! Perhaps bat and bug met at the screen.

A late night switch flick revealed that the opossums had been replaced by a lone raccoon. Also solitary, nocturnal creatures, raccoons will eat what opossums do, but tend to be more aggressive. The best meal for them is found in the wild, but they’re highly adaptable and cleaver. If human garbage or pet food is left unprotected, they readily devour it. They take what they can get and are very good at getting it.

We’d both been awakened in the wee hours the previous night by an eerie, strange wailing sound coming from the road out front. All was silent for a while, then the wail again, from further away. Silence - then a spine-tingling version, louder than before. We did not get up to look, so never did see the wailer, but we’ve heard it before. No regular dog sounds like that, so it must have been a lone “song dog” - a coyote.

Coyote families break up in late summer to early fall with the young hunting alone until late winter or early spring. Then, with distinctive yapping, howling, and barking, they try to establish their own territories and attract their lifetime mate. As far as we could tell, the cries that night went unanswered, but the season is young and we’ll see what the summer brings.

Highly intelligent and adaptable, coyotes vary their diet with the seasons or with what they can find. In the spring and summer, they feast on fruits and berries; carrion sees them through the winter. They aren’t picky and will munch on the same foods as opossums and raccoons. The paths of these creatures are bound to cross in the night, with small raccoons and opossums being fair game - bats get off scot-free.
The moon marks off the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:19-20, 27-28

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