Tuesday, June 20, 2006

hummingbird feeder : Furry encounters

By Mark Nale
For the CDT
We have had quite a week for wildlife in my household.

It started with running into a pair of baby raccoons while on one of our evening walks. The ring-tailed raccoons were not quite sure what to make of their first encounter with us two-legged mammals. They were curious, yet afraid, and definitely cute as they took turns attempting to hide under each other.

Of course, my daughter assumed that they were abandoned and wanted to take them home, while the rest of us insisted that it would be best if we left them alone. A compromise was reached, and we put some tuna out for them away from the highway, hoping for the best.

The following night, we were awakened by our dogs' barking. This happens dozens of times during the course of a year, and we get tired of turning on the spotlights, only to see nothing but the late-night forest that surrounds our house. Our dogs often have what we call "ghost barks." We quieted the dogs and went back to sleep thinking nothing more of it.

Vandalism was apparent the next morning. We noticed a large branch was broken off of one of our redbud trees and the bird feeder that had been attached to that limb was missing -- no ghosts this time. We had had a late night visitor -- a bear had knocked down every bird feeder, put them on a pile and proceeded to eat or lick whatever nourishment was available. All told, we lost two hummingbird feeders, two small suet feeders, a thistle seed tube feeder and an expensive metal and plastic squirrel-proof sunflower seed feeder. The squirrel-proof feeder had been well made, but it certainly was not bear-proof.

There was also evidence that the bruin had been rummaging around in our garage, but no damage was apparent. Later, 25 yards away from the house, I discovered a clear plastic pretzel tub that had been carried out of the garage. Apparently the bear had chewed it open to get the salt and the few crumbs that might have been inside. Two hanging flower baskets had also been toppled and a large potted Norfolk island pine was bent over.

I was not surprised that the bear would have been attracted to the old suet feeders. To be honest, they should have been taken down and cleaned in early April. However, the attraction to the hummingbird feeders did surprise me. Then I remembered that one of the nectar feeders had mysteriously "fallen" from its branch a few nights earlier in the week.

The hummingbirds (and the bear) had to do without nectar until our feeders were replaced two days later.

Our next animal activity was another raccoon. This time, a baby was disoriented and sitting along the side of the highway near where the other two young raccoons had been. One of its eyes was either missing or infected. It did not appear as if it had been hit with a car, but it did not run away, either. We decided to rescue this one in a sweatshirt and, without touching it, I carried it home. After calling the Game Commission, we drove it to the wildlife rehabilitator near Bellwood.

On our return trip from the rehabilitator, two baby raccoons were again along the side of the highway in the same area as before. Fortunately they scampered away. Following their direction of travel, I was able to spot a large hollow tree about 35 yards off the highway, most likely their den.

Our week-long animal encounters were yet to be over. That night, Sage, one of our Shelties, jumped up on our bed to huddle between my wife and me, and started a low growl. Then we heard a noise right outside of our bedroom. It was 1:15 a.m., about the same time of night that we had been previously awakened, but had not looked outside.

My wife looked out the window as I flipped on the rear floodlights. Just a few feet from our house, standing on its hind legs, was a bear pawing at the newly-hung hummingbird feeder in our injured redbud tree. She yelled (rather loudly), "It's a bear -- a big bear," and the medium-sized bear splashed through our small water garden, across a flowerbed, between two rhododendron bushes and took off into the woods. Any bear looks pretty big when it's only seven feet away.

We took the nectar feeders down at dusk the following night, but just as we were settling down for the night we heard a loud bang outside. After I took a few seconds to process the sound, I recognized it as the metal lid from the 30-gallon can where we store birdseed on our elevated deck.

I fully expected to see a bear on our deck when I flipped on the lights, but instead they were furry masked bandits -- three raccoons, two adults and a youngster, had popped the lid off the can and were helping themselves to the sunflower seeds. That probably had not been their first visit, either.

Several days before that, we had come down in the morning to see the lid lying on the deck and about 8 squirrels "fighting" over the chance to eat out of the can. I had assumed that a family member -- not me, of course -- had carelessly left the lid loose on top.

We have been invader-free the past few nights and hopefully removing the suet, taking in the hummingbird feeders at night and closing the garage door will discourage the bear from returning. Having a bear in the backyard does not frighten us, but it does -- and should -- make us a little more cautious before we step out the door after dark or let the dogs out for their before-bed "business."

The Game Commission puts out a news release each spring about how to avoid creating nuisance bears. Mark Ternent, bear biologist for the PGC has the following advice for homeowners wishing to avoid bear encounters:

"Now is the time to keep bears from becoming a nuisance later in the summer," Ternent said. "Bears that wander near residential areas in search of food are less likely to stay or return if they do not find anything rewarding. Conversely, if bears find food in your backyard, they quickly learn to associate residential areas with food and begin to spend more time in those areas.

"The best solution is to prevent bears from finding food at your house in the first place," Ternent continued. "Food placed outside for any reason -- whether it is food for wildlife, pets or unsecured garbage -- is food available for bears. Homeowners should remove any source of food or make it unavailable to bears."

Food placed outside for pets or wildlife, such as corn for squirrels, might attract bears, also. Even bird feeders, as we learned, can become bear feeders.

According to Audubon Pennsylvania, feeding birds during the winter months is fine, but at other times of the year you run the risk of attracting problem bears. If you do choose to feed songbirds during the summer, avoid foods that are particularly attractive for bears, such as sunflower seeds, hummingbird nectar mixes or suet. Bring feeders inside at night or suspend feeders from high crosswires, so they are at least 10 feet above the ground and away from over-hanging branches.

It should be noted that a regulation prohibiting the feeding of bears went into effect in 2003. The regulation made it unlawful to intentionally "lay or place food, fruit, hay, grain, chemical, salt or other minerals that may cause bears to congregate or habituate an area."

According to the commission, the intent of this regulation is to reduce human-bear conflicts, not to put a stop to other wildlife feeding or songbird feeding. However, the regulation enables PGC Wildlife Conservation Officers to issue written notices that direct landowners to discontinue songbird and/or other wildlife feeding if bears are being attracted to the area and causing a problem.

We have a population of about 15,000 bears in the Keystone State. Ternent noted that, although they are not strangers to Pennsylvanians, bears are often misunderstood.

Outside noises should be checked, but do not do it on foot with a flashlight. Black bears blend in too well with nighttime surroundings, providing the chance for an unwanted close encounter. Instead, do it cautiously, using outside lights to full advantage and from a safe position, such as an elevated porch or an upstairs window.

"Bears needn't be feared, nor should they be dismissed as harmless. They simply need to be respected," Ternent said.

He stressed that, in the past 25 years, fewer than 15 people have been injured by bears in Pennsylvania. More importantly, there are no known records of a Pennsylvania black bear killing a human.


Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a biology teacher and member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.


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