September-October 2012

Suburban Jungle

They're lurking just outside your door: foxes, coyotes and bats-oh, my!

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On any given evening, the wildest place in the Bethesda area isn’t likely to be one of its restaurants, bars or clubs. It’s likely to be right outside your door.

Richard Latty of Chevy Chase learned this firsthand when he took his Labrador retriever, Basil, for a late-night walk along the Little Falls basin in January. Suddenly he noticed a six-point buck approaching his dog from about 15 yards away. Dog and deer slowly advanced, regarding each other with mutual curiosity and caution, until they stood nearly nose to nose.

“There was a pause,” Latty says, and then “the buck turned away, as if his curiosity was now satisfied, and he was moving on to something else.”

Though both an urban and suburban environment, the Bethesda area is home to a remarkable array of wild creatures that become active near or after sunset. As we sit down to dinner, eastern red bats and big brown bats are darting about just beyond the dining room window, grabbing a breakfast of mosquitoes and moths. While we store leftovers in the fridge, southern flying squirrels are gliding among nearby trees, gathering acorns in preparation for winter. And as we hunt for the TV remote, a red fox may be sneaking up on an unsuspecting cottontail rabbit grazing in the side yard.

And those are some of the tamer of the bunch. A mountain lion was spotted in Northwest D.C. last year (though a Humane Society spokesperson in Washington told NBC-4 that it likely was a released pet). And in 2010, NBC-4 obtained security camera footage of a black bear and two deer at an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue NW at dawn. After two minutes, the animals headed back into Rock Creek Park.

Contrary to common wisdom, these creatures’ close proximity to us isn’t simply a result of diminishing habitat. Mammals in particular have become adept at living side by side with us, exploiting the yards, buildings and infrastructure we’ve created.

“They’re learning, and they’re adapting,” John Hadidian, senior wildlife scientist for the Humane Society, says from his Gaithersburg office. “I liken it to a two-way street. We’re taking things from them, but they are also gaining things from us.”

Coyotes, a relative newcomer to the area, illustrate Hadidian’s point. They were first spotted in the Washington, D.C., section of Rock Creek Park in 2004. Although accurate data on their population isn’t available, a growing number of sightings suggest they’re adapting well outside the park wilds. In June, Martin’s Additions resident Tom Van Vechten spotted a lone coyote in a neighborhood park. And the previous month, Latty saw three near his home, about 1,000 yards south of Bethesda Row.

That’s right. Coyotes. Near the Apple Store.

A member of the canine family, coyotes can be recognized by their pointed triangular ears and tail, the tip of which tends to be black as if dipped in paint. When they run, their tail stays down, nearly between their legs. The three coyotes sighted in May likely included a monogamous pair and one of their offspring; family groups make up the typical coyote unit.

In addition to digging their dens in brush-covered hillsides and under fallen trees, coyotes also have taken up residence in culverts, drainage pipes, hollow logs, dens abandoned by other animals, and areas below outbuildings, such as garden sheds. If coyotes had a mantra, it would be “make due,” and that adeptness, along with a lack of natural predators such as bobcats and bears, has a lot to do with them becoming a regular part of the urban landscape.

“Because of their adaptable behavior and opportunistic diet, they have prospered in many major cities, with real consequences for people and their pets,” Shannon Pederson writes in a 2004 report arrestingly titled, “Urban Coyotes: Preparing Residents of the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area for Potential Conflicts.”

Though classified as carnivores, coyotes supplement their diet with fruits, berries, vegetation, human garbage—and even pets. This last source of food is one of the “potential conflicts” that concerns Pederson. Nationwide, the number of incidents involving pets and coyotes has been increasing, though local statistics aren’t available. An associate wildlife biologist and subunits and certification program manager for The Wildlife Society, a Bethesda-based organization that represents wildlife experts worldwide, Pederson has spoken to local communities about how to live side by side with coyotes.

“We need to respect their wild nature and not try to domesticate them,” she says. In other words, don’t feed a coyote. Don’t let small pets roam freely, especially near forested areas. And don’t attract coyotes to your yard by leaving around spilled birdseed, pet food or open trash cans.

Pederson sees a direct link between coyote attacks and feeding by humans. “They can lose their natural elusive nature and eventually see people as providers,” she says. While coyote attacks on humans in this area are almost unknown, that is not the case in areas where coyotes have been around humans for longer periods. In California, where coyotes have been living in suburban areas for decades, there were 48 attacks between 1998 and 2003.  

Pederson believes preventing attacks is possible. “If we allow them to act naturally, hunt their food and avoid people, then we should be able to coexist peacefully,” she says.

That a wide variety of crepuscular and nocturnal mammals like coyotes reside in the Bethesda area should come as no surprise. Unlike in the wild, no one is trapping them. And there’s plenty of game for the carnivores. In fact, Hadidian is sure the coyotes will help cull the area’s burgeoning population of white-tailed deer.

There’s also plenty of green space for the herbivores if you include maintained yards. Parks, gardens and golf courses, not to mention chimneys, crawl spaces and the underside of bridges provide opportunities for great dens and nests. Winters can be cold in the city, but less so than in the surrounding countryside thanks to the heat generated by cars and buildings. Birdbaths, fountains, decorative ponds and reservoirs provide consistent sources of water.

In these respects, the standard of living for some of these animals is probably better than in the wild. Now there’s a selling point for the local chamber of commerce.

Not long ago, Bethesda resident Melissa Urofsky spotted a family of raccoons hiding in a storm drain at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues, near the restaurant Mon Ami Gabi. “We noticed a small crowd looking at the drain, so we peeked, too,” Urofsky says. It was like something out of a Pixar film. “I don’t remember them making any noise, but I do remember the raccoons staring intently at us.”

Like the coyote, these nocturnal creatures have adapted well to urban areas. The particular corner where Urofsky saw them satisfies their three basic requirements: shelter provided by the storm drain, water in the fountain outside of Barnes & Noble, and food in the form of discarded leftovers. A cursory glance into a nearby trash can revealed popcorn from the Landmark Theatre and the remnants of a Frappuccino. Alas, no ratatouille.

If Dumpster diving seems a little unsanitary, raccoons do take precautions. They have a habit of washing their food, as their scientific name Procyon lotor (lotor in Latin means “one who washes”) suggests. They also can use their hand-like forepaws to lift a secured lid off a trash can, so wildlife experts encourage us to wait until pickup day to put out our garbage.

One thing a raccoon won’t do with those hands is peel an onion. Even the omnivorous raccoon has its dietary standards, and onions apparently cross the line.

In the 1980s, the D.C.-based Center for Urban Ecology, a research unit for the National Park Service, used radio collars to keep tabs on 24 raccoons in the metro area for more than two years. Though the urban raccoons tended to travel and nest in groups, they did a remarkable job of hiding from the scientists who were tracking them. But just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean we won’t hear them.

If there were awards for the most favored and most frustrating nocturnal animal, the raccoon would win both. In late winter and early spring, pregnant females seek an ideal den in which to give birth to two to five kits. They’re looking for someplace warm and dry near a source of food.  Someplace like your attic.

Thanks to their strong bodies and nimble hands, a downspout used as an “upspout” is all a raccoon needs to enter your home. Because urban raccoons have access to plenty of food, they can be on the hefty side, weighing 10 to 35 pounds on average. So when the sun goes down and the raccoon begins to move across the attic floor as part of its nightly routine, it can sound like a scene from The Exorcist in the rooms below.

If you do end up with raccoons as uninvited houseguests, don’t try to remove them yourself. “Mothers may bite you to protect their young, and post-exposure rabies shots run up to $1,800,” says Tim McDowell, a Frederick resident who has worked for 17 years as a licensed expert in wildlife removal.

McDowell estimates he removes 1,400 raccoons a year, never using a trap. “What I do is like ‘Raccoon Kung Fu’—I use the house against the raccoon,” he says. McDowell has figured out ways to convince the mothers to move their kits to another den site. Then he seals up the point of entry without ever coming into contact with the animals.

A much quieter nocturnal animal that has made this area home is the southern flying squirrel. Weighing only two to four ounces, it’s the smallest squirrel in Maryland. The creature’s diminutive size makes it easy prey to larger predators, so many of its habits are geared toward evening the odds.

To avoid encounters with land-based predators, the squirrels nest in tree cavities and drays, which are big, messy clumps of leaves high in the tree canopy. The messiness of the drays is intentional, since it makes their entrances and exits tough to spot. Their nighttime feeding habits aren’t by accident, either.

Katharine Leysath leads students on an insect hunt. Courtesy photo“Since their diet of nuts and seeds is the same as the larger eastern gray squirrels commonly seen in our area during the daytime, the flying squirrel has filled a separate niche,” says Katharine Leysath, a naturalist and school programs coordinator for the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase. “By coming out at night, they don’t have to compete.”

You won’t see the creatures flying between the buildings of downtown Bethesda, however. Unlike the coyote or raccoon, the arboreal flying squirrels are much more dependent on their natural habitat. “Tree-cavity nesting squirrels are affected by the removal of dead trees or snags,” Leysath says.

Because they’re active at night and spend most of their time up in the trees, flying squirrels are incredibly difficult to spot from the ground. But the Audubon Naturalist Society has made it a little easier. During the winter months, the organization rigs special feeding stations in the wooded amphitheater at Woodend, its 40-acre compound in Chevy Chase. Volunteers feed the squirrels because of the scarcity of food outside, and guests can watch or even help out.  

Despite the name, the creatures cannot fly. “They have this loose skin that connects their front legs and their back legs together, called a patagium,” Leysath says, “and they use it to glide like a kite from tree to tree up to 200 feet at a time.” Their tail acts as a rudder.

The only mammal on Earth that can truly fly is the nocturnal bat. It belongs to the animal order Chiroptera, meaning “hand-wing,” since its wings and hands are one and the same. A fifth of all mammals are bats, and Maryland is home to 10 species. Like us, they have hair, nurse their young with milk and form strong relationships, whether familial or not. A study conducted by researchers at Greifswald University in Germany used microchips to track the roosting behavior of wild bats and concluded that bats maintained social links with other bats within their colonies.

“They’ll roost in all kinds of places,” Leysath says. “Some of them roost in trees; some of them roost in attics or old buildings. I’m from Austin, [Texas], and we have one of the biggest urban bat populations in the U.S. There they roost underneath the big bridges that go over the river. It’s nice and dark under there, and they don’t mind the noise of the traffic driving over them.”

Bats are a great animal to have around because they can eat more than 600 mosquitoes in an hour, and they’ll eat all night long. They camouflage well since the two most dominant species around—the big brown bat and the little brown myotis—are darkly colored.

The bat that has adapted best to urban areas is the big brown bat, most likely because it readily roosts in buildings and under bridges. Also, its 13- to 16-inch wingspan allows it to fly farther in search of food.  

Unfortunately, bat populations are declining. If you happen to have bats in your belfry and want to seal them out, the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service encourages the installation of bat boxes nearby in order to encourage displaced bats to stay in the area.