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Critterguy / Ask Jim
Ask Jim Your Questions

[Previously Submitted Questions and Answers at the bottom.]

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Previously Submitted Questions and Answers

The following questions have been sent in by internet users (just like you), and the answers have been posted here. They are arranged by date. Please feel free to browse through the questions.

Renae in Georgia asks: [new: 05/20/2004]
"I have a lot of small lizard in my backyard. They're always getting in the door and getting in the house. I want to know how can you kill them.

Is there any kind of poison to use?"

Although it may be annoying when lizards get into the house, they are completely harmless and very clean animals, and are good destroyers of pest insects. Thus, to keep them out of the house, just make sure that there are no cracks around doors, windows or screens where they can accidentally get in the house, and shoo them away before opening doors. Spaces around window air conditioners are frequent routes of entry. If they do get in, sometimes they can be chased into a large bottle or deep box with a broom and then dumped outside away from the house. If stronger measures are needed, they can be stunned (or, unfortunately, killed) with a flyswatter or rolled up newspaper. Lizards should be welcomed in the garden, where they are great at catching insects that eat flowers and edible crops.

It is wise to remember that lizards are vertebrate (back-boned) animals, like birds, cats, dogs, and us. Thus anything that would poison them would also very likely be dangerous for your family and your pets. Lizards are unfortunately killed by contact with many pesticides, but I would not want to use any of these around my home or children.

        — Jim

Jan in Louisiana asks: [new: 05/20/2004]
"I see alot of raccoons around our house. What do they eat?"

Raccoons are omnivores— and will eat almost anything remotely edible. In the wild they eat small animals (baby birds, bird eggs, turtle eggs and baby turtles, rodents, crayfish, frogs, fish, etc.) and fruit, berries, etc. Around humans they eat garbage, steal dog and cat food, kill small livestock (like chickens) raid dumpsters and trash cans, eat crops like corn, fruit, and vegetables, and basically consume anything with food value. In most areas, raccoons get along well around people, and their numbers are very high and growing. They can have a detrimental effect on other wildlife species, and carry several diseases passable to humans and pets. It is never a good idea to purposely feed raccoons or attract them to our houses. They will never starve!

        — Jim

Charlene in New Jersey asks: [new: 09/19/2003]
"How come animals like birds and mammals do not seem to be affected very much by outside temperatures?"

Hi—That's a good question for this time of year. Mammals and birds are endothermic—what we sometimes call "warm blooded." They maintain a fairly constant body temperature by eating lots of food and using the extra calories to make their own internal heat. Fur and feathers help hold the heat in. So as long as they can find sufficient food, they can tolerate cold temperatures. (Within reason—really bitter cold low temperatures can still kill them.) The key is to find enough food, which is undoubtedly why some mammals, like woodchucks, hibernate for the winter (when their food supply is scarce) and many bird species migrate to warmer climates (especially the insect-eating species).

On the other hand, ectothermic animals (sometimes called "cold-blooded") like frogs and reptiles, depend on sources of heat around them (like the direct sun, or warmed surfaces or water) to remain active, and are forced to hibernate in winter—since they don't make their own body heat. But this gives reptiles an advantage in warm deserts and tropical climates, where they can maintain their activities without having to eat nearly as much food as similar-sized birds or mammals.

        — Jim

Dave in Michigan asks: [updated: 09/19/2003]
"My question has to do with moles in my suburban lawn. I have had them occasionally in the past, but this summer they seemed unusually aggressive and wide-ranging and obnoxious (creating bigger mounds of dirt and higher tunnels than before).

1.) Might these be "pocket gophers" and not moles at all?
2.) Will they die or hibernate or go away over the winter?
3.) If I don't have grubs in my lawn, will the moles come back?
4.) What's the best way to get rid of them ??"

We don't have pocket gophers in Michigan, so they must be moles. The star-nosed mole (one of our two species) has a known tendency to make large mounds ("mole-hills"), though the eastern moles sometimes will too. The star-nosed normally does not make the long sub-surface tunnels, though.

Moles eat alot more than just grubs. They love eating worms and nightcrawlers. Being insectivores (like shrews), they will eat just about anything edible they encounter while burrowing. In winter they go deep below the frostline and may reduce activity, though they don't really hibernate.

Have you tried one of the mole repellents (like Scoot-Mole, or Mole-Med)? These can be effective and are a good non-toxic "first step" to try. Results may vary depending on soil type and moisture levels, and you may need to re-apply after heavy rains. A more deadly solution (for the moles) are the poison baits that can be placed in the tunnels. A product called "Mole Patrol" has been tested at Michigan State Univesity and found to be an effective control. "Mole Patrol" uses an anti-coagulant poison, like some of the indoor rodent baits. The old-style mole traps can also be effective. They are a bit tricky to set properly, and may not work in very dense clay soils.

Good luck!

        — Jim

Brian in Ohio asks: [new: 06/03/2003]
"Can you clear up the myth about snapping turtles whose heads have been severed after biting, not releasing their bite until sundown? Have you ever heard of this before? Can you explain why, if it is true?"

Yes, I've heard that myth, and there might be just a little truth in it. Many studies suggest that reptile are more tolerant of oxygen deprivation than mammals, so I would assume that "brain death" might take longer in a reptile than in a mammal. If the defensive jaw-snapping of the turtle depends on a "short loop" of nerve impulses between brain and jaw muscles, then we can understand why a severed snapping turtle head might continue to clamp down on its attacker.

If a snapping turtle's jaws were in a tightly closed position when its head was severed, it is quite possible that the jaws would remain in a closed position for some time after death, at least until the muscles and tendons (or associated nerves that control jaw movement) had begun to break down. The amount of time that passed before that happened would depend on a number of variables (like temperature), but but the setting of the sun would have nothing directly to do with it.

        — Jim

John in Indiana asks: [new: 04/11/2003]
"How do homing pigeons find their way back home?"

The answer to pigeon navigation is not fully understood, but some research has been done on it. We know that on sunny days, pigeons are able to use the sun as a compass to find the right directon. But on cloudy days, they seem to initially get confused, but most eventually find the right way. Then they may rely on several different methods. One is the sensing of polarized light (so perhaps they can still sense the sun's direction). They also seem to use airborne odors to find familiar places. Still another is sensing the magnetic field of the Earth. If pigeons have small magnets taped to their heads, they get confused on cloudy days, but have no trouble on sunny days. So it seems that they prefer to use the sun as a compass, but have other "fallback" methods if the sun is not available.

        — Jim

A guest from South Carolina asks: [new: 04/02/2003]
"Is it illegal to buy a box turtle?"

In Michigan and many other states it is illegal to buy or sell a box turtle, but I'm not sure about South Carolina. You should check with your state wildlife office for any regulations.

In any case, you can tell from my website that I think that buying or selling wild-caught box turtles is a bad idea. For one thing, any commercial trade in wild box turtles can harm the local turtle population. (Box turtles live very long lives, but reproduce very slowly, so any collecting pressure will reduce their numbers.) For another thing, a wild box turtle that is captured, held by a collector, and then sold to and held by a pet store, is already going to be stressed and can be exposed to various diseases and parasites. This means that the turtle may be difficult to keep healthy and it can have a hard time adapting to captive life. And of course, buying a turtle just encourages the pet store to acquire more turtles, thus leading to further reductions in wild turtle numbers.

There are other, better sources of pet turtles—sometimes captive-bred turtles are available. And sometimes zoos and nature centers are offered unwanted or injured (and treated) turtles and need volunteers to take and care for them.

        — Jim

Jeff in Michigan asks: [new: 03/14/2003]
"A few years ago I was fly fishing in Traverse City (Michigan) area. I saw a unique snake that appeared to have dark colored diamonds and was about 2 feet long. What type of snake was this?"

Did you see the snake along the stream where you were fishing? If so, the most likely species would be the Northern Water Snake. These are variable in pattern, but usually have darker blotches on a slightly lighter background. Really big, old ones can look very dark and the pattern can be obscured. Water snakes swim well, and are often seen basking on shoreline debris. They eat frogs and small fish.

I have a photo of one on my website, but remember that the exact coloration and shape of the blotches can vary between individuals.

Water snakes are non-venomous and harmless to humans, but are feisty and may bite if handled.

The little Massaauga Rattlesnake is also found in that area, and has a blotchy pattern as well. But they are almost never found along streams—instead they prefer shrub swamps and shallow marshes in spring and fall, and upland meadows and shrubby ""old fields"" in summer. They tend to be very shy, are very good at hiding, and avoid contact with humans. They are of course venomous, but are of no danger to anyone willing to leave them alone.

        — Jim

Gregory from New Jersey asks: [new: 03/14/2003]
"Can you provide me with a list of shrubbery that deer do not eat or are least likely to eat?"

Hi Gergory:

A partial list of shrubs and trees that deer tend not to favor includes: persimmon, ash, barberry, black locust, box elder, butterfly bush, cotoneaster, dogwood, hawthorn, forsythia, holly, flowering cherry, juniper, magnolia, lombardy poplar, various pine species, red elderberry, sassafras, smoke tree, spiraea, viburnum, and wisteria.

On the other hand, deer DO like to eat azaleas, arborvitae, apple and crab apple, white cedar, balsam fir, roses, yews, redbud, peach, plum, euonymus, lilac, and vine maple.

While most garden flowers and edible plants are palatable to deer, a few are distasteful and may even repel deer—these include marigold, catnip, chives, garlic, onions, lavender, sage, spearmint, and yarrow.

Hope this helps...

        — Jim

Melinda in New York asks: [new: 03/14/2003]
"How many Wood Turtles are left in the world?"

Hi Melinda:

No one knows how many wood turtles are left. I think the best answer we can give is that there are far fewer than there were even a few years ago, and the long-term prospects for the species are not good, at least over most of its range.

In northern Michigan, where I do my research on wood turtles, I now see very few or no turtles in places where I once saw many of them only 20 or so years ago. I can guess that in Michigan there may be only a few hundred wood turtles left, when there used to be perhaps several thousand.

Wood turtles do not reproduce very fast, because most of their eggs and hatchlings are eaten by predators. However, the very few that do survive to adulthood can live very long lives (40 to 50 years, and sometimes even longer). So "nature" assumes that once a turtle reaches maturity, which might take 15 to 20 years, it will last a long time and have many years to reproduce. That once was true, but now many adult turtles are disappearing, due to illegal collecting by people, being killed on roads, and an increase in turtle-killing predators, like raccoons. So the future does not look good for them, unless people learn to leave them alone, their habitats are protected, and the numbers of raccoons begins to fall.

        — Jim

Bruce in Michigan asks: [updated: 01/28/2003]
"I have found a snakeskin in the basement of my home.Does this mean I have a snake problem near my home?

If I do how do I rid myself of them or were they coming in out of the cold weather nights?"

Hi Bruce:

A shed snakeskin in your basement likely means that a snake is, or was, in your basement. Whether this is a "problem" or not depends on your point of view!! It may be a problem for the snake if it fell into your basement and can't get out on its own.

In fall, snakes look for a safe place to hibernate for the winter, usually a mammal burrow or other opening that leads below the frost line. If a snake was moving along the edge of your house foundation and found a small crack or hole, it might investigate—and end up falling into your basement. If the basement is cool, the snake will be able to successfully pass the winter, probably curled up and hiding out of sight. In spring, it might be able to find its way out, or it might be trapped and eventually starve to death. If the basement is heated, then the snake will be unable to properly hibernate and will likely move around more, trying to get out.

Some snakes are better climbers than others—a Milk Snake or Rat Snake climbs well, but garter snakes and the little Brown Snakes are poor climbers. Of course, most snakes in Michigan are harmless to people, and our one venomous species (the Massasauga rattler) rarely gets into basements, preferring to hibernate in crayfish burrows in wetlands. If the shed skin is intact, I might be able to identify it if you sent it to me. If you see a snake in the basement, try to I.D. it (see the snake "field guide" on the "critterguy" website!). Garter snakes are the most common species throughout the State. Any native Michigan snake with a pointed tail tip (rather than rattles) and round eye pupils in daylight is non-venomous (but of course any small animal may try to bite if it feels trapped or threatened). Once you are certain that it is a harmless species, you can pick it up in gloved hands or "broom" the critter into a deep box or garbage can (tipped on its side) and take it outside to natural habitat. (But if outside temperatures are below freezing, it will surely die, and temps below 60 degrees will make it difficult for the animal to find proper shelter.) In the extremely rare and unlikely event that a rattler gets in the house, you can use the broom technique with a coverable, deep flat-sided garbage can, but use extreme caution and keep a respectable distance away—never actually handle the animal, even with gloves! I suppose killing the animal is an option, but it's nice to avoid it when possible.

How to prevent snakes from getting in? Find the holes and cracks, and fix them! (If you'd like more info on discouraging snakes from staying near houses, let me know.)

        — Jim

Libby in England asks: [new: 01/28/2003]
"Can I put liquid coffee down on my lawn to stop the mole hills. If not, what can I put down to stop them?"

Hi Libby:

I've never heard of using liquid coffee to repel moles, but I have heard of using coffee grounds. But since coffee grounds are very appealing to earthworms, which moles love to eat, I would think that it wouldn't be very effective as a repellent, at least over the long-term.

The products that are sold in the U.S. to repel moles ("Scoot-Mole" and "Mole-Med", which have been tested here at Michigan State University) are manufactured using derivitives of castor beans. Perhaps there are castor bean products available in the UK; these should all work the same way, I would suspect. If you can find this product, let me know if it works on English moles.

        — Jim

Scott in Ohio asks: [updated: 01/28/2003]
"Earlier this week I was walking down my driveway and stumbled across a snake lying in the driveway. I thought it was a black snake at first but after further consideration, I realized I was stumped. The snake tried to rattle its tail as if it were trying to be a Rattlesnake, also it started to go in a striking stance, but it never did strike. The description of the snake is black with light neon colored green spots all over it. I was wondering what type of snake this would be and if it was deadly or not."

Wow—sure wish I had a photo of that one!! There is no snake in that area that would characteristically could be described as "black with neon green spots". So lets try a couple of educated guesses. First, the buzzing of the tail is a common defensive "nervous reaction" of several species of non-venomous snakes, so that's no help.

Here's one suggestion—young racers (both the black form in southern Ohio and the blue form in northern Ohio and Michigan) are hatched out with a blotched, speckly pattern that gradually turns a solid black to turquoise blue as it grows, over a 2 to 4 year period. I'm wondering if you could have seen a young racer in a "transitional" color. Racers are smooth-scaled, sleek, fast-moving snakes that tend to be nervous and feisty around people. They are not venomous, of course.

Another guess might be a Water Snake- they can look very dark as they mature, but there is usually a visible pattern of bands and blotches if you look closely. But admittedly the spots are not usually green. There is a real Green Water Snake, but these live down South, not in Ohio.

That's the best we can do now—but if you see it again, run for a camera!! And don't try to touch it until you are sure that it is a non-venomous species!

        — Jim

Debra in Michigan asks: [updated: 01/28/2003]
"My kids and I were on a walking trail in the state park in Battle Creek, Michigan in the middle of the woods, and before I knew it there was a snake within inches of my feet; needless to say I jumped and ran, when I got far enough away the snake was standing up like a cobra ready to attack, and from his neck up had flattened out. He was dark gray/black, and his neck was white. Could you tell us what kind of snake it was?"

Hi—it sounds like an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake. They are a thick-bodied, rather slow-moving snake that tries to bluff its way out of danger. They can flatten their necks like a cobra, hiss, writhe their tails, and look dangerous. They also will turn over and "play dead" if really hassled. Hog-nosed Snakes are named for the turned-up nose scale; sometimes they are erroneously called "puff adders" or other scary-sounding names. But Hog-nosed Snakes are actually non-venomous and harmless to humans, and rarely bite. Of course, never try to pick up a snake unless you have confirmed that it's a harmless species.

For more info, see the "Critterguy" website—search under hog-nosed snake.

        — Jim

Dave in Michigan asks: [updated: 01/28/2003]
"The other day my son found a baby snake and he wants to keep it. But I have no clue what kind it is. It is about 8 inches long, and its body is a dark gray with a light gray stripe going down its back, with little blackish gray spots. Its head has black on it. Please tell me what kind it is and whether (and how) he should keep it."

Hi Dave:

The baby snake sounds like an eastern garter snake, though I can't be certain without seeing it. Take another look—if the snake has a stubby "button" on the tail tip and "cat-like" eyes, don't touch it—it's a rattlesnake! Take a look at the photos on this website (under Critter Field Guide) to be sure. Assuming the garter snake ID is correct, then it might be possible to keep it alive, but very young snakes are a bit tricky to get started. They are more prone to desiccation than older snakes, and sometimes are hard to feed.

You would need an escape-proof terrarium with a tight-fitting screen top. Paper towels could be used as a substrate. A very shallow water dish should be available?a large jar lid would work for a tiny snake. A piece of bark or other similar object that the snake could hide under is essential (baby snakes have lots of enemies and prefer to stay out of sight). Warmth is needed; one side of the cage can be kept at around 80°F with a low-wattage light bulb; the other side can be slightly cooler. Light can go off at night. Room temperature (65-70°) is not warm enough for proper digestion.

Small earthworms, found in a spot where pesticides are not used, would be the first food for a young garter snake. One good feeding a day would be needed. Later, a larger garter snake would eat large worms, small frogs, and small fish. Feeding during the winter is a problem.

You might see if the snake adapts and begins feeding. If not, you can let it go anytime up until daytime temperatures drop below 60?

Hope this helps!

        — Jim

Shelley from Michigan asks: [updated: 01/16/2003]
"How can I keep a common toad as a pet?"

Toads usually live quite well in a moist "woodland" terrarium, with a shallow water dish and places to hide and soil to dig into. They do need live, moving insects (crickets, beetles, etc.) to eat, and they'll also eat earthworms. (For more info, see the Critter Care section on this website).

But if you have toads living in your neighborhood, here's a better idea: create a nice welcoming toad habitat in your garden and toads will move in and entertain you for free—with no hassle of finding food for them. Moist, mulched soil with low-growing plants and shrubs, and places to hide (like half-buried, tipped flower pots or pieces of bark) will please the local toads. If you put on a spotlight in your garden after dark, toads will gather underneath to eat the bugs attracted to the light.

        — Jim

Cortney in Texas asks: [new: 12/17/2002]
"How long do lizards live?"

There is no easy answer to that question; it depends on which species is in question, and whether we are talking about average lifespan versus potential lifespan.

As you might guess, the average lifespan of most small and medium sized lizards will be very short, because many of the baby ones die before reaching maturity (usually eaten by predators). Thus, an average lifespan of two or three years might be optimistic for many species. Most small lizards don't last that long (like anoles and small geckos).

But—even a small anole lizard might last 3 or 4 years in captivity or (if lucky) in the wild, and a number of medium sized lizards (like Collared Lizards and Bearded Dragons) can live 8 to 10 years. Some other records include a western whiptailed lizard at 8 years, a Tokay gecko at 23 years, a water monitor at 20 years, and a Gila monster at 33 years.

        — Jim

Lauren in Virginia asks: [new: 12/17/2002]
"How do snakes ingest and swallow objects larger in diameter than themselves?"

Snakes have a very "kinetic" skull—that is, many of the bones that are solidly fused together in other reptiles and in mammals are (in snakes) very loosely attached to each other, often by a flexible ligament, while other bones are simply reduced in size. For example, the front of the snake's lower jaws (the "chin") are connected by a ligament that is basically like a "rubber band", and the bones at the back of the skull are also highly moveable. The skull and jaws are so flexible that one side of the mouth can alternate with the other so that the prey is pushed through the mouth the same way we might pull on a tight glove by alternating pulls on each side. Then, of course, the esophagus, throat area, skin, and stomach are also very flexible, allowing passage and digestion of prey larger around than the snake's head.

If you think about it, this type of swallowing is practically necessary for a long, thin, legless animal; if not adapted this way, snakes would be restricted to swallowing very small prey animals, and they would need large quantities of small prey. A snake's teeth are not adapted for slicing and chewing, so they must swallow their prey whole. As it is, many species of snakes only need to catch and swallow a few large prey animals each year to provide their energy needs. It helps that snakes are ectothermic reptiles that don't need to make heat in their bodies; thus their energy needs are small compared to "warm-blooded" mammals (like us) and birds!

        — Jim

John in Michigan asks: [new: 10/03/2002]
"I have seen three snake species around our house (SE Livingston County, MI) and I'm guessing that there may be a hibernaculum on our property possibly adjoining the house. I'm going to be doing a lot of digging soon and I don't want to destroy their winter home. I'm considering building a hibernaculum as part of the re-landscaping project. Any advice on size and depth? There is a lot of rounded glacial stone to use!

Also, what do you do when you find a milk snake in your garage in the winter? It sounds like it won't survive outside, yet the warmth of the garage keeps it active."

It sure is nice to get a message from someone who wants to encourage the snakes instead of getting rid of them!

Since you have a nice variety of snakes on your property, there must be places that they hibernate nearby. I suspect that the majority of snakes in our area hibernate in rodent (or other animal) burrows. I often see garter, ribbon, and brown snakes emerging from old chipmunk holes in early spring. Other places I've seen include tree falls (around the root systems) and ant hills (probably because the soil is loose there).

Thus, if you wanted to construct a hibernaculum, you might want to create an area that's attractive to rodents, especially chipmunks. I've seen plans for snake hibernacula. One was an excavation (ideally on a south-facing slope) at least 6 feet deep or more, back-filled with cobble rock and criss-crossed logs and covered thinly with soil. This fills in eventually and becomes attractive to rodents, which in turn attract the snakes. Some plans call for slanting sections of rippled drain pipe into the excavation, leading to the surface—this may be unnecessary if burrowing activity is sufficient.

Yes, a milk snake (or any species) that is disturbed or gets active while overwintering in a basement or garage during mid-winter would die if put outside. They need sites that are cool, but not freezing. I have overwintered snakes (along with the turtles that I study) in an old refrigerator in my basement. I put the snakes in a plastic storage box filled with a little soil and fallen leaves from the yard, which were very slightly damp, but not wet. They made it to spring OK. Temp set was about 40°F.

Good luck, and thanks for your concern about the snakes!

        — Jim

anonymous asks: [updated: 09/18/2002]
"I've been bitten by many types of snakes before and I just wanted to know if there were any venomous snakes in Canada?"


Most of Canada lacks any venomous snakes, but two species are present:

•   The Prairie Rattlesnake ranges into extreme southern Alberta and British Columbia.

•   The little Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is found in a few scattered localities in southern Ontario, from Georgian Bay south to Lake Erie.

You are not likely to be bitten by either of these species (or any snake) if you simply leave them alone, and use care in their habitats to avoid accidentally stepping on or near them. The Massasauga is especially shy and unlikely to bite unless directly provoked. Check back at the "Critterguy" website for more information on them.

        — Jim

Kim from Michigan asks: [new: 07/02/2002]
"I have some rodents in my yard that I refer to as mutant chipmunks. I would like to know what they really are. They look like large chipmunks; except they don't have the light stripes down their back instead it is more like a line of dots. My neighbor said they were gophers but I have not found a photo of a gopher that looks like that. Anyway, what are they and what is the best way to get rid of them? There are holes all over the place, no mounds just holes. The other day we watched as they would come out and pull grass up and take it back down the hole with them."

We don't have gophers in Michigan, so I suspect that you are seeing thirteen-lined ground squirrels. These little guys are found in places that have broad expanses of short grass, like airports, golf courses, sod farms, and suburban lawns. They do have stripes on the back with little dots in them, and are chipmunk-sized, but a bit more slender and low-slung in shape. They do make holes without leaving mounds. They eat vegetation and seeds. The only other big ground squirrels in lower Michigan are woodchucks, but these are much bigger and brown, without spots or stripes.

13-lined ground squirrels can be trapped, or there are "smoke bombs" that can be put in their burrows (follow label directions carefully), but usually these little critters don't do much harm, as they tend to stay out on the grass and avoid dense garden plantings.

        — Jim

Ashley asks: [new: 06/12/2002]
"How do you know if a snake is a male or female?"

With our native snakes it is often difficult to tell the "boys from the girls", but there are sometimes a few things we can look at. Within the same species, males tend to be thinner-bodied, and have longer tails that gradually taper from the cloacal (or anal) opening. Female snakes—especially before they lay eggs or give birth in spring—tend to be thicker-bodied and have shorter tails that taper abruptly from the cloacal opening. In some common species (like garter and water snakes) females tend to be bigger, on average, than males. In some of the more detailed books and field guides on snakes, the text will give you some differences between the sexes in the number of scale rows on the belly or under the tail of snakes, that will help in telling male from female. I do give these figures in my book "Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region" (1997, Univ of Michigan Press).

Experienced snake handlers (like some veterinarians, zoo curators, and professional snake breeders) can often determine the sex of a snake by gently probing with a special tool into the cloacal area to see how far the probe will pass into the base of the tail. This is where the sex organ (hemipenes) of a male snake is housed, so the probe goes further in a male snake than in a female. Also, some experts can "pop" the hemipenes in small male snakes by applying pressure at the base of the tail. But NEVER, EVER TRY THESE procedures unless you have been trained by an expert with lots of experience. These procedures can severely injure the snake if not done exactly right! So unless you have the special training needed, I suggest that you not try these, but depend on "educated guessing" using external features described above.

And...if a snake lays eggs or gives birth—it's a female!!!! :)

        — Jim

Liz in Michigan asks: [new: 05/02/2002]
"The other day my mom was outside and she saw a snake with a bright orange belly in our garden. I just wanted to know what kind of snake it was."


Check out the picture of the red-bellied snake on the website or in a field guide. The belly can range in color from pink to red to orange. This is a very small, harmless snake and would likely be the best candidate for what your Mom saw, as they are fairly common around the state. Red-bellied snakes are found in fields and open woodlands, but turn up quite frequently in gardens.

The Copper-bellied Watersnake also has an orange belly, but is much larger, very rare, and restricted to the southern tier of Michigan counties in mostly low wetland and riparian habitats.

        — Jim

D.C. in New Jersey asks: [new: 04/29/2002]
"Where can I find more information on the web about all the different types of frogs? ( I just found a frog and need to know what type it is ) Thanks."

Hi—There are a number of good frog and toad ID websites. I couldn't find any specifically for New Jersey, but here's some sites for the eastern US and Canada that should cover the frogs in your area. Also, a good published field guide is the one by Conant and Collins, "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America", third edition-expanded, published by Houghton-Mifflin. Here's the websites:

Good luck!

        — Jim

Elaine in Indiana asks: [new: 04/25/2002]
"How can I keep opposums out of my yard? I read somewhere of a home recipe you could make with human urine and murphy's oil soap and other things too but can't remember the exact recipe."

If you are trying to keep possums out of the entire yard, this will be difficult unless you can fence the perimeter with a tall, small-mesh fence. (They can climb, but usually don't climb fences if there is an easier way to get a meal!) Possums are general scavengers that wander about eating nearly anything remotely edible. They are tough animals, but rather slow-witted. In my yard, they are not nearly as destructive as the raccoons—which are bigger, climb well, and are much smarter!

If there are just a few small places that you want to repel them away from, then you could try one of the standard animal repellents, such as Ropel®. This is usually applied to vegetation, and is for outdoor use only. I've heard of using human urine as a repellent; I doubt if this would deflect possums from a large area—they're quite fearless, or maybe too slow-witted to know that they're supposed to be repelled!!

Actually, possums are very easy to trap, using those "cage-type" traps (Like Tomahawk® or Havahart®). You can release them a few miles away (but not on private land!) and they will likely not come back. You can use almost any smelly food for bait—skin and bones left over after a chicken dinner will do nicely. Michigan does not have a closed season on possums, but you should check your local regulations before trapping.

Good luck!

        — Jim

Melissa in Wisconsin asks: [new: 02/13/2002]
"Which wild and domestic animals can be infected with distemper or rabies?"

I can't give you a precise answer, but a quick search of available texts shows that rabies is a viral disease theoretically capable of infecting any mammal. It is most often seen in carnivores like raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, and unvaccinated domestic dogs and cats. Nearly all human cases come from contact with one of these types of animals. Apparently the disease is very rare in rodents and ungulates (deer and similar herbivores).

Distemper comes in different forms, caused by different viruses. Canine distemper is caused by a paramyxovirus and usually infects members of the dog and weasel families. It is often seen in domestic dogs and ferrets. Feline distemper is a nearly-always fatal disease that commonly infects cats (including wild relatives), raccoons, and weasels.

Hope this will get you started. If you need more information, I suggest an internet search under the individual diseases, or search under "wildlife diseases." Most libraries would have books covering these diseases. Your veterinarian or local animal control office may also have information.

        — Jim

Don in California asks: [new: 02/13/2002]
"Woodpeckers are literally eating my whole house away! I need HELP! Would killing them help?"

Hi Don:

I get alot of questions about woodpecker damage to wood siding. It is a frustrating problem. I moved my family into a wood sided house in 1989. After three years of fighting woodpeckers, squirrels, various, insects, etc., we finally installed vinyl siding. It worked great—but this is obviously not everybody's favorite solution.

Did you check out the article on woodpeckers on my "Critterguy" website under Frequently Asked Questions? It has alot of information which might help you. Basically, it is illegal in all states to kill woodpeckers. You may be able to get a permit (call your state wildlife office) to shoot them for damage control, but this is often an unsatisfactory solution. If you eliminate one pair of woodpeckers, you create a natural void and more woodpeckers will soon move in; it is like the proverbial treadmill. A better solution is to frighten or distract the resident woodpeckers so they avoid your siding. The website offers some suggestions. These include placing models or window cutouts resembling woodpecker enemies, like owls, hawks, or snakes. Or hanging up shiny, noise-making objects that disturb the birds (dangling pie-plates, wind-chimes, strips of shiny tinsel or aluminum, etc.) Or simply harassing the birds with the garden hose (they hate being wet, and won't use a wet hole). Or temporarily covering the affected area with burlap or screen until they get the message and move on. You should also make sure that the birds are not simply seeking insects already infesting your siding (if so, it may require professional treatment.)

Let me know if you have further questions, and what solutions you try (and what works!!)

Good luck!

        — Jim

Alexandra from New York asks: [new: 11/19/2001]
"Can rabbits eat pumpkins?"

Yes. From personal experience, I know that rabbits will eat young pumpkin plants and small developing pumpkins, but are less of a problem after the plants get larger and prickly and the fruits get tough skins. In my yard, the worst pumpkin eaters are the deer, which nibble the plants and pumpkins at any time! Deer have even come up to our porch to nibble on carved pumpkins around Halloween!

There are some repellent sprays that can be put on growing plants to protect them. The capsaicin (hot pepper) concentrates that are wax-based seem very effective against rabbits. I suppose these would also work to protect jack-o-lanterns on the porch from rabbits and deer—but maybe not from human vandals!

        — Jim

Patricia in MI asks: [updated: 11/19/2001]
"Hi Jim, Birds (species unknown) have built several nests under the eaves of my house. At least one nest has been built inside my ventilation shaft leading from my bathroom to outside. How do I get rid of these birds without harming them?"

Hi Patricia:

There are four bird species that frequently build nests in these situations in Michigan—pigeons,starlings, house sparrows, and house finches. (Check a good bird field guide to decide which you have). At this time of year (late October), they are usually finished with actual breeding activities, so it is unlikely that eggs or nestlings remain in the nests. You can remove them without harming the birds. Removing nests in spring before the birds have progressed too far will usually discourage them from returning. They will simply start another nest elsewhere. But you may want to place barriers (such as wire mesh screens) over vent openings or other problem areas to prevent further nesting (make sure that "bird barriers" do not obstruct the vent itself and conform to all building codes). Less permanent ways of discouraging bird nesting on buildings include use of fake owls, large rubber snakes, or noise-making things like wind-chimes in the problem spots.

Hope these suggestions help—let me know if you have other questions.

        — Jim

Harry in Michigan asks: [new: 11/14/2001]
"Foxes have trotted past our place in Cheboygan county almost daily for much of the spring and summer. I also heard of frequent fox sightings in the UP this summer. Is the fox population larger than usual this year? What are their preferred foods?"

I haven't heard any reports of increases in fox numbers in Michigan, though I have had a few people say that foxes seem less common in certain areas. But of course, the numbers of any wild species can rise and fall locally, depending on weather trends, food supply, and habitat availability.

The spread of coyotes throughout Michigan may have reduced fox numbers in some places. Coyotes are known to harass and eat foxes, and both species mostly eat small animals like mice and rabbits and ground-nesting birds, so they do compete for some of the same resources. It has been suggested that competition from coyotes may force foxes to live closer to humans than they might otherwise choose to do. If so, this could account for a local increase in fox sightings around homes and farms.

Thanks for sharing your wildlife observations!

        — Jim

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