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Green and Growing: For better tick control, let nature lead the way

Question: What animals below prey on tick-carrying white-footed mice and other tick-carriers?

A. Owls, hawks, and other birds of prey

B. Foxes, bobcats, fishers

C. snakes

D. opossums

E. all of the above

The answer is E: all these animals indirectly reduce tick populations by consuming rodents.

Why do these predators have so few defenders among their two-footed, upright neighbors?

It’s ironic, especially compared to the almost countless responses by citizens and scientists to the loss of pollinators, such as the popular Pollinator Pathway movement.

While it’s become common knowledge that pesticides harm pollinators, it is far less common knowledge that rodenticides poison birds of prey and other rodent predators when they consume an affected animal.

There’s no equivalent “save the predators” movement, but perhaps there should be.

Consider snakes. While many people are afraid of snakes, herpetologist Dennis Quinn of Plantsville said we have little to fear from snakes. The state has only tiny populations of venomous snakes, located in remote areas.

“But nonvenomous snakes, such as the eastern ratsnake, also feed on small rodents,” he says. He publishes CTHerpetology.com, a photographic atlas for Connecticut reptile and amphibian identification and education.

What about opossums? They’ve become Facebook darlings in the past year under headlines proclaiming their tick-eating habits. An acquaintance recently asked me how she could “get” an opossum for her yard.

“Opossums are fastidious self-groomers, like domestic cats,” said Pam Lefferts, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. “They eat ticks and other hitchhikers that attach to their fur. In that regard, opossums do help reduce tick populations. But opossums don’t aggressively hunt ticks.”

Lefferts and her husband, Bill, specialize in opossum rescue, rehab, and release at Ferncroft Wildlife Rescue, a nonprofit in Woodstock.

In tick-laden woodland edges, opossums pick up countless numbers of ticks on their fur. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands of ticks per week. Aside from eating ticks from their fur, opossums, which are omnivorous, also occasionally snack on mice.

The only way to “acquire” one of these animals, though, is to roll out the opossum welcome-mat and wait.

“They prefer hollow logs or stone walls along woodland edges and old farm fields,” Lefferts said. “They are most likely to be found near water sources, such as streams, ponds and lakes. You may improve the chances of getting an opossum by assuring a water supply.”

She emphasized it is illegal to capture, handle or move opossums, or any wild animal, in Connecticut.

Opossums are North America’s only native marsupial mammal. They are not rodents, contrary to urban myths. And please don’t call them “possums,” which are a distinctly different group of Australian marsupials.

“Opossums are nonaggressive and carry very few diseases,” Lefferts said. “They don’t get rabies or distemper.”

The next time you see a bird of prey, or an opossum, fox or bobcat, or hear a fisher in the night, or see a snake, consider how they make the environment safer for us.

If tick reduction is not enough to convince you, consider some other ways these predators make our world more liveable.

For instance, many people think moles ruin their lawns. Think again. While moles tunnel to dine on underground insects, it’s voles that chow down on roots of grasses and veggies.

To owls and hawks, voles look mighty tasty when these little rodents venture above ground.

Peter Picone, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection at Sessions Woods in Burlington, offered this insight: “All of these animals have behaviors that we like, or we might not.”

For instance, bobcats, fishers and foxes hunt skunks, raccoons, and rabbits, animals most of us would rather not have in our gardens, garages and garbage cans. Yet we might also fear encounters with our pets.

Opossums, though not aggressive, are fond of bird eggs, including chicken eggs.

“Nothing is simple,” Picone said, “but with a little education, we can learn how to live with wildlife peacefully.”

Editor’s note: This article is the first of two on natural tick and mosquito reduction.

Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscapes, land care, horticulture and ecology. Reach her through her website, www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.

Wildlife resources

Injured or sick wildlife: Call the local Animal Control Officer, the Police Department or the statewide DEEP Dispatch at (860) 424-3333. To be prepared, take a few minutes to learn about wildlife rescue at https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Rehabilitator/Dealing-with-Distressed-Wildlife.

Attracting and living with wildlife: "Enhancing Your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife," by Peter Picone, is a free download from https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Learn-About-Wildlife/Habitat-Fact-Sheets.

Wildlife factsheets: portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Wildlife-in-Connecticut.

Build nest boxes for owls and other birds: Visit www.nestwatch.org, operated by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Build other wildlife support structures: "Woodworking for Wildlife" by Carrol L. Henderson, published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

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