University of Minnesota
Go to the U of M home page

Home > General Information > Publications & Resources > Wildlife Information Service

Wildlife Information Service

At this time, the wildlife information service hotline from the Bell has been discontinued due to lack of funding. In the meantime, here are answers to the top ten wildlife information service questions!

Top Ten Wildlife Information Service Questions...

Now that's a gray squirrel of a different color?

Have you ever been walking down the street and out of the corner of your eye you see a flash of white, you look up and there, climbing the nearest tree, is what looks like a gray squirrel only it's completely white?

You have just seen an albino animal. Albino animals are born with little or no pigment in their skin. This means that they appear white. Their eyes are either pale blue or red because you can see the blood flowing behind the iris.

For some animals, such as city squirrels, albinism is fairly common but in most cases albino animals are rare because being white makes it hard to hide from both predators and prey. Albino city squirrels get by because there are fewer predators to catch them and people tend to favor white squirrels by feeding them more.

What's tunneling under my lawn?

If your yard is criss-crossed with speedbump like tunnels you probably have moles! In Minnesota we have two species of moles, the star-nosed mole and the Eastern mole. Both are small mammals, gray to black in color with large digging claws on there front feet. They are insectivores, meaning they eat invertebrates especially worms and soft-bodied insects such as beetle grubs. Moles do not eat plants but they do eat the insects attracted to plants. Moles are very important to soil health; their digging search for insects aerates the soils and allows new seeds and plants to take root. Moles are extremely difficult to get rid of and in most cases are doing more good then harm to your yard.

Things you can do to control the number of moles in your yard:

  1. Cut back on how often you water, moles will dig deeper if the surface soil isn't moist enough to keep their tunnels from collapsing.
  2. Use a barrel-roller to compress the surface soil making it more difficult for the moles to dig through.
  3. Plant flowers and shrubs instead of grass in your yard, moles love the white grubs that are attracted to grass.
  4. Trapping is the most effective way to control mole numbers. There are many traps available to kill moles. When using these traps be sure to read the instructions. Mole traps should only be used on active tunnels. You can check this by stepping on a tunnel in the evening and if that tunnel is raised again the next morning, it is an active tunnel.

What should I plant to attract butterflies?

Butterflies and moths are small, colorful visitors that can easily be attracted to a neighborhood garden, the trick is knowing exactly what to plant. Start by looking at what animals need to survive; food, shelter, water, and a place to raise young. Plant a combination of flowers for the adults and plants for caterpillars. Without caterpillar food, butterflies are only temporary visitors and will move on looking for places to lay eggs or find mates. Water can be a shallow dish filled with sand and water, placed in a sunny location. Shelter can be a dense bush or a butterfly house.

Below is a list of good butterfly plants.

Butterflies prefer flowers with large places to land and yellow, orange or purple color.

Moths prefer white flowers, often trumpet shaped.

Caterpillars are picky eaters, this is a list of food plants and the caterpillars that eat them.

How do I feed the birds and not the squirrels?

There is a million dollar industry related to squirrels and bird feeders and still no one has come up with a foolproof solution. Squirrels are clever, nut eating rodents. Thanks to their constantly growing incisors squirrels can chew though almost anything including wood and plastic.

Some things that you can do to discourage squirrels:

  1. Place feeders in the open away from trees and other overhanging objects.
  2. Put feeders on metal poles at least six feet off the ground and skirt the pole with metal about four feet off the ground.
  3. Choose food that squirrels dislike. Squirrels prefer sunflowers and peanuts (so do most birds) so selecting a food without these contents can decrease squirrels emptying feeders just to get those tasty bits.
  4. Put food out when the squirrels are resting. Squirrels tend to feed in the morning and afternoon so putting your food out at noon may allow the birds first shot at it.
  5. Put food out, such as dried corn, specifically for the squirrels.

It's a bird, it's a plane, no it's a moth?

In late summer we start to get calls about a mysterious hummingbird-like creature flying from flower to flower, it's brown about 3 inches long and has a long "beak." This hummingbird mimic is actually a fat bodied insect called a sphinx or hawk moth. These moths have a very similar life-style to hummingbirds. They survive by drinking large amounts of nectar from trumpet shaped flowers, although the moths prefer white flowers and the hummingbirds prefer red and orange flowers. This is just one of the many mystery creature calls we get, so what can you do to make it easier to identify a mystery creature?

What should you remember when trying to identify a "mystery creature"?

  1. Do you think it's a bird, mammal, fish, reptile, etc.? (sometimes tricky as with the hummingbird and hawk moth)
  2. Size — have a comparison ready. "It was as big as a robin."
  3. Color — both the over all color and any distinguishing markings. "It was black and white with a red patch on its head and white bars on its chest."
  4. What was it doing? Many animals have unusual behaviors that can identify them.
  5. Where did you see it? Some animals only live in certain parts of the state or around certain habitats so remembering that you saw it in a pine tree or near water can help.
  6. When did you see it? Time of day and of year can also be clues.
  7. Extra information — What did it sound like? What was it eating? Photographs, or sound recordings can be helpful.

Why are there garter snakes in my yard?

Minnesota has 17 species of snake and by far the most common is the Common Garter Snake. The familiar black and yellow striped garter snakes is harmless to people and does a great deal of good eating insects, frogs and mice. The problem is that many people fear snakes and they just don't want them around. Snakes are found in areas were there is plenty of food and somewhere to hibernate. Garter snakes in particular hibernate in large groups underground, in woodpiles, and occasionally foundations. Whenever possible hibernation sites should be left intact.

Things that can be done to discourage snakes from a yard.

  1. Remove of all low growing vegetation from around the house. This cuts down on food sources and hiding places.
  2. Remove rockpiles or woodpiles. This may include retaining walls.
  3. Don't live near preferred snake habitat, such as water and bluff lands.
  4. If you have to move an individual snake, gently scoop it into a shovel, place it in a covered cooler and transport it at least 5 miles away. Only rattlesnakes found along the southeast border of the state, south of Afton, are dangerous to people.
  5. If snakes are getting into the foundation, the best time to deal with the problem is July and August when most of the snakes have moved away from the area. All cracks and openings in the foundation of more then 1/4 inch should be filled with caulk or cement. In some cases, whole foundations should be covered with window screening to prevent the snakes from getting next to the wall.
  6. Build an alternative hibernation site. Plans for building alternative hibernacula are available in the DNR publication "Landscaping for Wildlife".

How long will this bird be nesting in my yard?

Many different birds nest close to people and are fun to watch, but how long will they be around and just what are the best ways to keep track of nesting birds. Most of the common city birds have no problem with people watching their nests but some simple rules should be followed to make sure that you don't spook the birds and you don't lead predators to the nest. Never touch a birds nest, if possible stay at least five feet away. Check the nest only once day, repeated visits can cause the parents to abandon the nest.

You can encourage many birds to nest in your yard by putting up nest boxes or by planting dense shrubbery.

Some common birds and their nesting times

  Eggs Incubation Nestling period Fledgling period
American Robin 3-4 12-13 days 13 days Up to 4 weeks
Mallard Duck 8-10 23 days 1 day 50-60 days
Common Grackle 5 12 days 12 days possibly none
Killdeer 3-5 24-28 days none Up to 5 weeks
Barn Swallow 5 15 days 18-20 days Up to 4 weeks
Cardinal 2-5 12-13 days 9-10 days 3-4 weeks
Blue Jay 4-5 17 days 17-19 days Up to 2 months
Mourning Dove 2 14-15 days 12-13 days 1 week or more
Kingbird 3-4 14-16 days 14-17 days 2-3 weeks

Eek! What should I do about bats in my house?

Bats are beneficial and gentle creatures but occasionally they get "too close for comfort." If this happens, don't panic! If it is a single bat that hasn't bitten or scratched anyone, open a window or door and it should fly out, or carefully push the bat into a can using a piece of cardboard and release it outside. If it's several bats they may be roosting somewhere in the house, such as an attic. The bats are there because attics and chimneys provide warm and safe places to roost and raise young. The only consistently successful method of getting the bats to leave is physical exclusion. The best times to exclude bats are April and August/ September so you aren't trapping flightless babies in your house.

Steps in excluding bats.

  1. Locate the entry point(s) by watching your house a half an hour before dusk until dark. Typical entry points are around chimneys, eves and fans and can be 1/4 inch or bigger.
  2. If there are many entry points seal up the less frequently used holes. You can used hardware cloth, caulk, weather stripping, even duct tape.
  3. The next step is to put an exclusion device on the last exit. The simplest method is to tack a pillowcase, with the bottom cut out, around the hole. The bats will crawl through the pillowcase to leave but won't be able to crawl back in.
  4. After a week the exclusion device can be removed and the hole sealed.

Why is that woodpecker hammering on my house?

Woodpeckers go after houses as an alternative to increasingly rare dead trees. Sometimes woodpeckers are looking for a place to make a roosting or nesting hole identified by the woodpecker digging a hole several inches across and pulling out insulation. A second reason for woodpeckers to repeatedly bang on the side of the house is to declare territory, this is called drumming and woodpeckers even do it to aluminum siding. The most common reason is the woodpeckers are looking for food, identified by several small holes often near the eves. Cedar siding provides great places for solitary bees and beetles to nest and can be attractive carpenter ants making it a smorgasbord for the woodpeckers. Even if there are no insects the sound of electric current running through the walls can deceive the woodpecker into thinking baby wasps are buried beneath the surface.

So what can you do to protect your house and discourage woodpeckers?

  1. You may not kill the woodpecker - it is illegal.
  2. Woodpeckers are skittish birds and can often be discouraged from areas by hanging strips of shiny metallic party streamers so that they blow in the wind.
  3. Repair or fill with wood putty any existing holes to prevent visual clues.
  4. Bird netting or screen tacked at least one inch from the wood surface can be hung in areas where woodpeckers are persistent.
  5. Hanging a nest box may discourage woodpeckers from making large roosting holes but may increase feeding holes.

How do I help an orphaned animal?

First of all, make sure it is an orphan. Well-intentioned people take many babies away from their parents. The most common "orphans" are rabbits and baby birds. To prevent predators from finding their babies, rabbits visit their nest only a couple of times a day. You can test to see if mom is coming back by placing a few pieces of straw over the nest and if they have been moved the next morning, you know mom's been there. Gawky baby birds, such as Robins and Blue Jays, often leave their nests as much as a week before they can fly, and hop around hiding in bushes with the parents watching from a distance. Always remember a young animal's best chance for survival is being raised by its natural mother.

Once you are sure an animal is an orphan.

  1. Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. It is illegal and sometimes dangerous for the average person to raise wild animals. Trying to raise animals on your own can result in problems for the animal later on. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and the Raptor Research and Rehabilitation Center at the University of Minnesota are both excellent places to take animals.
  2. Place the animal in a cardboard box with an unfrayed cloth on the bottom. The box should be kept in a warm quiet place until the animal can be transported to the rehabilitation center.
  3. Animals should be handled with gloves or through a towel. Never let children handle orphaned or injured animals.
  4. Do not feed the animal.
  5. These same rules apply to injured animals as well.