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Released: June 27, 2005

Wildlife and New Home Buyers in More Confrontations

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Wildlife, beware! For that matter, new home buyers may want to beware, too, because they’re moving into wildlife habitats in record numbers.

In its 2005 “State of the Nation’s Housing” report, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies said U.S. housing starts and manufactured home placements appear roughly to be in line with household demand – even though they’ve been averaging more than 1.9 million units per year since 2000. The center’s economists expect the vast majority of new homes built between now and 2015 will be in lower density areas where cheaper land is in greater supply.

“That translates into more suburban sprawl, which translates into confrontations between humans and wildlife. Of course, where the situation goes from there depends on the particular humans and the particular wildlife – which can range from a 125-pound deer to a 2-pound copperhead or 6-ounce quail,” said Charles Lee, wildlife damage control specialist for Kansas State University Research and Extension.

Some of the more mobile and people-avoiding wildlife, such as foxes and bobcats, will simply disappear – probably while the housing construction is underway.

“If their population numbers aren’t under pressure, due to weather or disease, they’ll be moving into territory that’s already occupied by other foxes and bobcats,” Lee said. “That habitat won’t be able to handle them, so some will die. Or, they may try to persist by looking for what they need near their old home – back in sub-optimal habitat.

“These animals usually run away from humans, but seeing a fox as you go out for your morning paper can be kind of exciting. Seeing a snarling bobcat kill and eat your house cat is a whole other matter.”

Bobwhite quail may disappear more gradually if the contractor doesn’t create bare-earth plots. Game birds have such specific needs, however, that if no alternative quarters are nearby, being forced from its habitat by building or landscaping often amounts to a death sentence, the wildlife specialist said.

“If you’ve got a big enough yard to leave native vegetation near the back or along fence rows, that may be enough to allow some quail to stay alive until your landscape plantings mature,” Lee said.

Although coyotes typically will move out, they also may return fairly soon.

“Coyotes aren’t what you’d call picky eaters. They’ll appreciate your pup just as much as they do any cat food or dog kibble you’re serving outdoors,” he said.

Pet food, bird feeders and garbage cans attract even more squirrels, raccoons and opossums that like easy eating. The squirrels can cause particular problems with bird feeders, and the opossums with pet food. But cute little raccoons not only are curious, smart, omnivorous and able to break into unlocked containers, but also are involved in more than 50 percent of all U.S. rabies cases.

“The top ways to avoid such problems are to feed your pets indoors and to plant, rather than buy bird food,” Lee said. “Golden current shrubs, for example, attract birds but not many ‘hairy critters.’”

Residents of new housing developments often believe their area also is attracting extra deer. In general, however, the house buyers themselves are setting up the deer version of a cow-calf operation.

Irrigated lawns, vegetable gardens, lush landscaping and municipal firearm restrictions can combine to create a deer heaven. And, white-tailed deer are like many other wildlife species in that when conditions are good, they tend to have more young, the wildlife specialist explained.

“When the does are having twins and triplets, you can have a good-size herd in just a few years,” he said. “Then, owning a big dog that’s protective and lives in your yard can be a really good idea.”

Flying creatures also may adapt, but rarely cause problems unless bats gain access to the attic or woodpeckers find the house trim attractive.

Ground creatures such as snakes, however, aren’t mobile enough to have much choice. So, they’ll stay where they can get comfortable – which may be very uncomfortable for move-in humans.

“If a poisonous snake is living in your tomato rows you really have just three options: Leave it alone, kill it or move it to a different location,” Lee said. “Unless you want other problems, though, I’d mostly leave snakes alone. They’re one of nature’s most efficient mouse and rat traps.

“You may never see a snake, though, if you keep your plantings neat and are careful when you pick up rocks and logs. If you’re worried, you also can stomp your feet and make a lot of noise when outdoors. Snakes like small rodents, insects, cover and sunning spots. But they will react to vibrations and try to avoid big creatures like us whenever they can – so long, of course, as they don’t feel cornered.”

To ensure they don’t hurt “good” snakes, homeowners can learn about local reptiles from a county or district Extension office. Lee’s snake booklet is on the World Wide Web: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/wldlf2/L864.pdf . Color photos of snakes that can be found in Missouri are at http://mdc.mo.gov/nathis/herpetol/snake/snake2.htm , and K-State’s Konza Prairie Biological Station photos are at http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~ehorne/snakes_files/frame.htm .

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Kathleen Ward
kward@oznet.ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Charles Lee is at 785-532-5734