ecoscapes blog

Living Happily Alongside (Four-legged) Wildlife

Profile of a chipmunk with a nut in its front paws.
If you build it, they will come.

No, I’m not talking about the ghostly figures of baseball players emerging from the corn stalks in Field of Dreams. Rather, I’m referring to the “Welcome Mat” gardeners put out for critters by creating habit with native perennials, shrubs and trees.

For many gardeners, an important goal is to create the right conditions (food, water, shelter) that attracts wildlife they enjoy viewing. Ah, but the rub is that some critters become a nuisance, creating all kinds of unanticipated headaches.

That adorable chipmunk sitting upright on a log? It may have found a cozy home for its family by burrowing under your front porch. Aren’t those little bunnies cute? Perhaps, until they gnaw the bark off the base of your shrub stems over the winter.

Here are some four-legged critters that may wear out their welcome and steps you can take to prevent that from happening:

Rabbits—When rabbits are few, they can be a minor annoyance when munching on tender shoots of some plants. However, the plant casualties climb during ‘baby booms’ like this year, when rabbits seem to be everywhere I look. To limit the damage, purchase plants considered rabbit resistant. There are also repellants you can purchase or various home remedies to keep rabbits at bay (skip the moth balls which can be a threat to children and pets). Repellants typically need to be reapplied/replenished after it rains. The most reliable way to keep rabbits away from your plants is fencing.

Yet while fine for vegetable gardens, fencing isn’t aesthetically appealing nor practical for perennial and shrub beds. For me, the greatest threat from rabbits comes during the winter when driven by hunger, they gnaw bark off the base of a shrub or tree’s trunk. This can severely damage or kill a plant—the latter if rabbits chew off the bark encircling the trunk.

In late November, I put chicken wire or metal garden fencing around new shrubs and trees. I firmly stake it into the ground at multiple points to deter digging underneath. The fence needs to be tall enough (about three feet) so that when we get significant snow accumulation, rabbits can’t just hop over it. I fence for the first two years; after that, rabbits usually leave the plants alone since their thicker bark becomes less appealing to eat.

Chipmunks—Typically, chipmunks can cause minor damage to your garden by digging up bulbs or helping themselves to vegetables. A bigger headache may occur when they cause damage by burrowing under concrete porches, sidewalks and driveways. To discourage chipmunks from making themselves at home on your property, eliminate easy food sources. Feed your pets indoors or bring in food dishes nightly. If you compost food scraps, make sure they are not accessible. And if you find cracks and openings around concrete structures, fill them with gravel and cover with cement.

Deer—If you are fortunate enough to live near a wooded natural area, you likely enjoy viewing a variety of wildlife including deer. Yet when deer wander onto your property, they can leave a trail of destruction. While a hungry deer (like a hungry rabbit) will eat nearly anything, here is a Morton Arboretum resource listing plants disliked by deer. To protect the rest, particularly in the lean winter months, you’ll need to install fencing at least six feet high.

Opossums and Raccoons—I am lumping these two animals together due to the problems they typically cause. First, both can damage your lawn and garden beds when they dig for insects like grubs. Personally, I consider this a free lawn aeration service, as the holes they dig are usually small. When they displace a larger piece of lawn, I firmly push it back into place and water the area. That usually does the trick.

A far greater problem is when opossums or raccoon get entry to your attic. They are both great tree climbers, so make sure you cut back branches that hang over your roof. You can further deter these critters from making your home their home by using ½” x ½” mesh hardware cloth to cover the inside of your attic exhaust fan opening as well as attic end and soffit vents. These animals can also get into your chimney. The best way to keep them out is to install a commercial chimney cap.

Skunks—Like opossums and raccoons, skunks can cause lawn and garden bed damage. What’s worse is when they burrow under your deck, porch or shed and create a den for their young. To keep this from happening, install ¼” x ¼” mesh hardware cloth over openings. (The smaller opening size will help keep out chipmunks, too.) Attach it securely to the above ground structure. Dig down six to eight inches and bend the cloth outward in an ‘L’ shape another four inches. Firmly replace the soil.

If skunks have already moved in, here are two ways experts at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County say you can send them packing:

  • Place flashlights, flood lamps, blinking holiday lights or a constantly noisy device such as a radio, alarm clock or toy in the den. Leave them on day and night — or at least during the day to disturb their sleep.
  • Place ammonia-soaked rags in the den for one week. Resoak the rags daily, and pack crumpled newspaper in the entrance to hold in the fumes. Never use ammonia between March and August; it can harm infants too young to escape. If the crumpled newspaper is not pushed out after several days, the skunks will have left, and you can cover the openings.

Squirrels—For most of the year, the antics of squirrels are fun to watch as they romp through trees and chase one another. But come late fall when we put out our bird feeders, they become incessant pests. We’ve tried different kinds of feeders, moved them away from places squirrels can leap, etc. with no success. That is until we learned about Cole’s Flaming SquirrelTM Seed Sauce. You can read more about that in my blog post For the Birds: Tips to Attract Birds to Your Feeders in the Winter.

Squirrels may also try to find a home in your attic; the advice above for keeping raccoons and opossums out applies to our bushy-tailed friends, as well.

Living with four-legged wildlife isn’t always easy. But by taking adequate precautions, you can relax and spend more time enjoying their presence. Minus the skunks.

Forest Preserve District of DuPage ‘Living with Wildlife’
Living with Wildlife in Illinois
Winter Animal Protection for Trees and Shrubs