Columbus, Ohio USA
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Short North Wildlife
By Joel Knepp
May/June 2016 Issue

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Barb Wyrick

Folks who live in the many new luxury apartments in the ‘hood might not think so, but there’s a lot of animal life beyond dogs and cats right here in the Short North. The most obvious four-legged variety is the gray squirrel, which scampers around in ridiculous numbers and is a major menace to gardeners. These cute but destructive critters will take one bite out of twenty-five tomatoes and laugh at your rage. In some years they’ve eaten every pear on our large tree. They maintain multifamily condos in the rotten eaves of some run-down rentals in our neighborhood (Thank you, sleazy landlords!) and build leaf nests high in nearby trees. These little monsters are like the Borg of Star Trek fame; resistance is futile.

Their prodigious reproductive capabilities overwhelm all control efforts. For years I would catch and release them across the river in Grandview, a neighborhood which I heard needed more squirrels. One year my neighbor and I trapped and exported 40 of the varmints, and next year just as many were digging up bulbs, eating from the bird feeders, and generally terrorizing the neighborhood. We now have a soon-to-be-diabetic little monster that sucks the sugar water out of our hummingbird feeder. Goodale Park also hosts a large population. Once in a while you spot squirrels in the park with red tails and even an all-white model, presumably albino.

Our trap has caught more than squirrels. I caught the same possum twice in two days (technically opossum, but nobody actually calls them that). I guess possums are not the brightest bulb in the marquee. I had to pick up the trap and shake him out. Actually, it could have been a “her” but I didn’t care to check. One time a possum sat on a fence not three feet away from my back door and just stared at me with its beady little eyes.

Some years back we had some nice broccoli plants that were chewed down to spikes. The culprit was a groundhog, which we trapped and relocated to the colony between Olentangy River Road and the actual river. Before recent construction, you could see groundhogs by the side of that road almost every evening. I once saw a ground hog eating leaves high in a tree growing by the railroad tracks just north of the Nationwide building by the Front Street bridge. Arboreal groundhogs – who knew?

Every so often in the summer a cute little bunny shows up in our side garden lot. We don’t hassle it because it does no observable damage. Unlike Bugs, it even leaves our carrots alone. There is some cause for concern, however, because last week we saw four big rabbits across the street chasing each other. At least one of them made it into our yard the following day.

Another wild creature that has become thoroughly urbanized is the raccoon. These bold intruders originally came from Central America. A theory put forth on a recent PBS show is that they moved northward and adapted to winter conditions by sheltering in the barns of pioneers. Now there is even a large population in Toronto. In the chaos and bombing of World War II they escaped from zoos and invaded England and Europe. Later, a popular Japanese cartoon series featured a cute baby raccoon that was released into the woods. Unfortunately, this led to the import and later release of many American raccoons, which now pose a major threat to Japan’s ancient wooden temples and are targeted by bounty hunters.

Back to Ohio. Some years ago I shared the second floor of a creaky old house in Delaware with some college buddies. The attic and passageways under the eaves were occupied by a family of raccoons. I doubt if they paid rent. They held a ballgame in the attic every night around 1:30 a.m. These pesky omnivores have hands that can grip, turn knobs, and open latches. One night we caught a raccoon on the dining room table eating out of the sugar bowl. Like many of its kin, this forager was totally unafraid and just kept eating as we yelled, waived our arms, and jumped up and down. Finally, it crawled out the window and backed down an ancient iron escape ladder on the side of the house. We took to chasing these resident raccoons around the house with a toy gun that shot little plastic discs. During one Christmas vacation, they opened a kitchen cabinet and knocked down and broke a big jar of jelly and a bag of flour and made a nasty, dirty, crusty trail on the counter, down to the floor, around the corner, past the stove, and into the bathroom toilet. They like their food wet but are definitely not clean animals.

Raccoons come out at night, and they are everywhere in the neighborhood. If you walk down a quiet street or alley in Victorian Village, Italian Village, or Harrison West you might see one on a fence, on a garage roof, or climbing down from a tree. I’ve witnessed groups of them crossing the street in single file. One night a few years ago we were sitting in our back yard drinking wine with friends and we heard a racket of weird yipping sounds. Suddenly, our cat came running in the back gate chased by four raccoons of various sizes.

On the morning I wrote this, a peak urban wildlife experience occurred on our block. Some neighbors and I were shocked to see four large deer in the front yard next door. This took place less than a block off Neil Avenue, not in some sylvan suburb. The deer strolled through a narrow passageway into the next back yard and just hung out while several folks came out and stared. I called my neighbor to look out her back door but she was at her mother’s. We have an excellent view of the yard from our third-floor window, so I grabbed a camera, rushed upstairs to the high window, and focused. Just as I was about to click the perfect shot, the dead battery sign came on and the camera shut down. Rats! Which reminds me, I recently chased a rat out of our garage. It had been eating a block of bird suet which I had foolishly left on the floor. We also have mice in the compost container and cute little snakes under the side-yard pavilion. We pick them up and stroke them for good luck – the snakes, not the mice.

A few weeks ago we were sitting on the back porch enjoying some early spring sunshine when little wisps of feathers started to drift by in the breeze. Looking up at a nearby tall cottonwood tree, we spotted an imposingly large red-tailed hawk lunching on a lesser bird of some type. Speaking of birds, we often see woodpeckers, starlings, and goldfinches in the yard along with the usual robins, cardinals, sparrows, and mourning doves. Occasionally we spot a great blue heron in the nearby Olentangy River. There are plenty of other animals down by the river just a few blocks away and even into downtown, including fish, muskrats, turtles and egrets.

Lest we think we and our pets actually own our urban neighborhood, remember that a wide variety of creatures occupy the Short North. If we left, it would probably be overrun in a few months with turkeys, coyotes, foxes, etc. Keep your eyes and ears open and you can see a lot.

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