There’s a fascinating reptile that calls the Blue Ridge Mountains home. Known for its triangular head, slanted eyes and elliptical pupils, the timber rattlesnake has become a feared species among some Western North Carolina residents. Learning the facts and using caution will show that there’s much more than meets the eye.
 
Rattlesnakes are venomous creatures. Despite their reputation, however, rattlesnakes prefer not to bite. Their initial defense mechanisms are to either lay motionless, camouflage with their surroundings, flee or warn off predators by “rattling.” Knowing how to identify native venomous snakes will minimize potential interactions.
 
Large and stocky, rattlesnakes often measure between 36 and 68 inches in length. Their ridged scales give them a rough-skinned appearance. WNC rattlesnakes can be identified by their color morphs. Yellow phase rattlesnakes are yellow or tan with black or brown cross-bands while black phase rattlesnakes are almost solid black with darker patterns. Coloration often varies between regions. Their camouflaged patterns are especially important for successful hunting tactics. As sit-and-wait predators, rattlesnakes will blend into their surroundings, wait in an ambush position, capture their prey and kill it by injecting venom. Their carnivorous diets consist mostly of small mammals and occasionally birds.

Distinguished by the rattle on the end of their tail, rattlesnakes may add a new segment each time they shed. The number of segments are often said to determine age. However, rattlesnakes may shed more than once a year and segments may come off with each shed resulting in an inaccurate age estimation. When frightened by potential predators, they will vibrate the tip of their tail to create the well-known “rattling” sound. As members of the pit viper family, rattlesnakes can be identified by the pits or heat-sensitive organs located between their nostrils and eyes. They use these sensitive organs to detect body heat of both prey and potential danger.
 
As ectotherms, all snakes must acquire heat through their environment. To increase their body temperature, rattlesnakes will often bask on rocks or in areas with little tree cover. During the gestation period, gravid or pregnant rattlesnakes need to keep their body temperature up for successful development of young. Mating season generally occurs during the months of spring through early fall. Males will seek out females by following their pheromones. Females incubate the eggs in their body for an average of six months and give live birth to an average of nine young in membranous sacs. To cut through the clear membrane, the young use a special egg tooth. Typically, young rattlesnakes measure 8 to 10-inches long and are equipped with venom glands, fangs and their first rattle segment called a button! 
 
As both predators and prey, rattlesnakes play an important role in the ecosystem. These carnivorous reptiles assist with small mammal population control and disease control. They are also a food source for larger predators like coyotes, bobcats, foxes, birds of prey and even other snakes. Humans are one of the most common predators of rattlesnakes. 
 
Timber rattlesnake populations are highly susceptible to human activity. To help protect rattlesnake populations, avoid relocating individual species, protect habitats and do not disturb den sites. To avoid unwanted interactions, always be aware of your surroundings and watch your step when you are walking or hiking. Be cautious when picking up items that might provide shelter to rattlesnakes, such as woodpiles, scrap metal and similar debris. Don’t forget to share your knowledge of pit vipers and rattlesnakes to increase community awareness. In the rare case of a bite, seek immediate medical attention. 

The WNC Nature Center is home to a number of native reptiles including two timber rattlesnakes. Next time you take a trip to the WNC Nature Center, stop by Appalachian Station to practice your venomous snake identification skills!  
 
Shannon Lora
AmeriCorps Volunteer & Education Associate 

Rarely spotted by the human eye, the elusive bobcat roams Western North Carolina. Resourceful and versatile, bobcats are capable of adapting to a variety of habitats including forests, swamps and deserts. They can live to be 12 years in the wild and 32 years in zoos.

Bobcats are named for their short black-tipped tails. They have tufted ears, long legs and large paws. Their short, thick top fur coat can range from light brown to red and their under coat is white with dark black spots. They have ruffs of hair on the sides of their head, which appear to look like sideburns. Bobcats are sexually dimorphic with males typically weighing more than females.  

Today, bobcats play an important predator role in the ecosystem. Bobcats are carnivores and solitary hunters. Their diet consists largely of small mammals like mice, rats and rabbits. They will also hunt birds, reptiles and larger prey like deer. Bobcats have a well-developed sense of smell and excellent eyesight. Their binocular vision allows them to focus on swift prey and their pupils will expand to take in all available light, making them effective night hunters.  Bobcats are also efficient climbers. Their sharp, retractable claws enable them to quickly approach their prey. Bobcats hunt by ambushing their prey. They will begin by stalking their prey and end with a powerful pounce. Their long, sharp teeth and strong bite enable them to quickly kill their prey.

Bobcats display territorial behavior. Males will occupy a larger home range than females. Successful male home ranges will overlap with more than one female’s home range. To mark their territory, bobcats will use urine, scat, scratches and anal gland secretions.

As solitary mammals, bobcats exclusively interact during the breeding season. Mating typically occurs in February or March. Bobcats will breed with multiple partners. After courtship and mating, male bobcats will not help raise the young.  Females will choose a secluded den to give birth. They may den in hollow trees, rock piles or root masses. Females will give birth to an average litter size of 3. Young bobcats will leave the den at the early age of 1 month. The female will nurse the young for 2 to 3 months and will begin teaching the young how to hunt. Between 8 to 12 months of age, the young will become independent.

Once found throughout the United States, today the bobcat’s range is limited. Vehicles, urbanization and habitat loss all pose a threat to bobcat populations. Aside from humans, natural bobcat predators include wolves and cougars.

The WNC Nature Center is home to one resident bobcat, Missy. Missy was born at Zoo Boise in Idaho and she arrived at the Nature Center in 2001. Since Missy was born and raised in a zoo, she does not fear humans and she did not learn the necessary survival skills to live in the wild. Missy is one of the oldest mammals at the Nature Center but that does not stop her from hunting and exercising. You can frequently find Missy sleeping in her hammock or climbing on her new exhibit structures. Stop by the Nature Center soon to get a better look at Missy, the Nature Center’s bobcat! 

Shannon Lora
AmeriCorps Volunteer & Education Associate 

There is a secretive hunter that makes its home in the mountains of western North Carolina, and while you may not see it very often, it is instantly recognizable. The red fox is a fairly small predator, built for speed and agility. These beautiful animals are extremely adaptable, and range across the continental United States from Alaska all the way to Florida. They are generally solitary and shy, so if you catch a glimpse of one in the wild, consider yourself lucky! To get a better look, you can always come to the WNC Nature Center to meet our resident red fox pair.

Red foxes have a reputation as cunning and intelligent animals, and they are very talented hunters. Their slender bodies, long legs and small stomachs allow them to reach speeds of up to 26 miles per hour! They also have incredibly sensitive hearing, which helps them detect low-frequency sounds and locate rodents digging underground. You may have seen photographs of red foxes pouncing into a snow bank after prey that’s invisible to everyone else – that’s all thanks to those impressive ears! While they serve an important function as pest control specialists - making meals out of rodents we might not want around - red foxes are true omnivores. They will also chow down on everything from fruit and berries to worms and even garbage.

Red foxes are generally easy to identify because of their distinctive coloration. They typically have red fur on their faces, backs, sides and tails. Their throats, chins and bellies are usually a grayish-white shade. Red foxes tend to have a white tip on their fluffy tails, an easy way to tell them apart from gray foxes, which have black-tipped tails. Those tails serve several functions for the red fox, from helping them balance to keeping them warm to communicating with other foxes. They also communicate through a series of yips, barks and screeches – answering the all-important question “what does the fox say?”

Mating season for the red fox is during the winter months, and they normally mate for life. A mated pair will find a den to give birth in and use for raising young, but red foxes generally prefer to live and sleep in the open the rest of the year. Female foxes (vixens) typically have between 2-12 pups in a litter, which both parents will care for through the summer months until the young are ready to strike out on their own.

Here at the WNC Nature Center, we have two red foxes, Toby and Elvira. Although they’re not related, they were both born in 2007 and both came to the Nature Center the same year. Toby was born in the wild, but orphaned at a very young age. His first home was the Hogle Zoo in Utah, but he was donated to the Nature Center as a kit. Elvira was born on a farm in Montana where they raise animals for commercial photography and movies. Because Toby and Elvira were exposed to people at such a young age, they are both “imprinted” and don’t have a healthy fear of humans needed to survive in the wild. We’re proud to have them here as animal ambassadors for their species, helping people learn about their natural history and their important role in the environment! 

“Whooo” are some of the newest members of the WNC Nature Center animal family? They’re nocturnal, pale, and a little mysterious...they’re barn owls!

Barn owls are medium-sized owls with a distinctive flight style and smooth, rounded heads. They also have characteristic white, heart-shaped faces and dark eyes. They are generally pale overall and have varying levels of light brown or gray coloring on their heads, backs, and upper wings.  At night, however, these owls appear to be all white, and they fly silently, almost eerily, along their hunting grounds. The call of a barn owl is unlike that of most other owls; male barn owls make a long, harsh scream that lasts for several seconds to ward away threats, establish territory, and call to females. Barn owls also make warning hisses and short, territorial screams that sound downright chilling.

As a result of these unique and sometimes eerie characteristics, barn owls are known regionally by several nicknames, including White Owl, Night Owl, Silver Owl, Delicate Owl, and even Ghost Owl. These owls are strictly nocturnal, so most people only see a flash of white wings in the darkness, which lends to the mystery and “ghostlike” appearance of barn owls.

The Nature Center’s new barn owls are just as spooky as their wild counterparts. They have those unmistakable barn owl characteristics: long legs, dark eyes, and pale faces. But these two are a little different; like many of their animal neighbors at the Nature Center, both barn owls have permanent injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild. In other words, their injuries hinder their abilities to fly, hunt food, or otherwise survive like wild owls should.

For these barn owls, the journey from the Arizona Department of Fish and Game to the Nature Center turned into quite an adventure. The owls flew via commercial plane, and like so many flights on the way to Asheville, they had a layover in Atlanta. But the owls’ flight left Phoenix a little late, they missed the Asheville connection out of Atlanta, and they unexpectedly spent the night in the world’s busiest airport.  After double- and triple-checking to make sure the owls were okay, the Nature Center staff patiently waited until the next morning for the owls to finally board a flight into Asheville.  Although everything went well and the owls didn’t seem to mind the delay, the Nature Center was very relieved when they finally arrived safe and sound.

The new barn owls are now on exhibit in the Birds of Prey area next to the great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and turkey vulture. The exhibit is modified to fit their needs since they aren’t able to fly very well, and they spend a lot of time hanging out inside their nest box (they are nocturnal, after all). Next time you visit the Nature Center, get a glimpse of these elusive owls for yourself!

This season’s Animal Spotlight belongs to none other than…the groundhog! 

Groundhogs (scientific name Marmota monax) are members of the rodent family Sciuridae, which means that they are closely related to squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, and even flying squirrels.

Groundhogs have several different common names depending on the region, and the most well known are “woodchucks” and “whistle-pigs.” Groundhogs are vastly different from pigs, but they do whistle! They make a high-pitched whistling sound to warn their colonies of danger, which allows fellow groundhogs to run for cover. Another regional nickname for groundhogs is “mouse bear.” We know that groundhogs are rodents, not bears (and definitely not pigs!). However, you can imagine that someone who has never seen a groundhog might mistake one for a very small bear-like animal.

Groundhogs are mostly herbivorous, which means that they primarily eat vegetation. They consume wild grasses, berries, weeds, and even some agricultural crops, and a groundhog may eat one third of its body weight in vegetation each day. Groundhogs are not as omnivorous as other squirrel species, but they will sometimes eat insects, grubs, and snails.

Haven’t seen many groundhogs lately? That’s because these mid-sized marmots are true hibernators, and they’re bedded down for the winter in cozy, underground burrows until the weather becomes a bit warmer. Their burrows may be very large; up to 46 feet of tunnels may wind underground, allowing the animal plenty of room to sleep, raise young, escape from predators, and to hibernate. Groundhogs are considered “true” hibernators because they fatten up in the months leading up to winter by consuming much more food than usual – up to a pound of vegetation in one sitting! Before entering hibernation, a groundhog is at its maximum weight. When a groundhog enters true hibernation, its heart rate slows to only a few beats per minute, its breathing rate drops to as few as two breaths per minute, and its body temperature may drop to as low as 37 degrees Fahrenheit (we humans risk death if our body temperatures dip below 70 degrees!). Because of this extremely reduced metabolism, groundhogs are able to sleep for about three months and still have some fat left over for the early spring.  

But what about the Groundhog Day holiday? Yes, Groundhog Day is in early February (when the weather is usually still cold), but it’s actually common for male groundhogs to venture out of their burrows to search for mates in February.  While outside their burrows, these males forage for what little vegetation is already growing, but they often return to hibernation to wait for spring to officially begin. As you can see, a groundhog’s springtime prediction is often influenced more by weather patterns and food availability than a fear of its own shadow, but the Groundhog Day tradition is a fun, whimsical way to break up the winter season.

Next time you visit the WNC Nature Center, be sure to drop in on Nibbles, our resident groundhog, in her winter home down at the barn.  You may be lucky enough to see her out and about before spring arrives!

The Nature Center is home to a number of awesome raptors, including Buzz the turkey vulture, Xena the red-tailed hawk, and a lovely fellow called Artemis the barred owl—you may know him as Art.

Barred owls are often called hoot owls. Have you ever heard a voice calling in the woods at night, “Who cooks for you? Who—who cooks for you all?” That’s the hooting of a barred owl. And this fellow would definitely be a member of the “Clean Plate Club” if he ever had to sit down to dinner with his mother and promise to eat all the different menu items on his plate. Barred owls will prey on a wide variety of small mammals, from the tiny field mouse to the much larger and meatier opossum. They’ll also eat birds, like woodpeckers, snakes, lizards, bugs…some barred owls have even been seen wading into the water for a fish or frog or turtle.

While you may have heard the voice of the barred owl asking you about your cooking habits, it’s unlikely you’ve heard the flap of his large wings (42-inch wingspan!). The feathers on a barred owl’s wing have a fringe on their outer edges, allowing the air to pass silently over them when the owl is flying. Their noiseless flight can make them very startling to folks enjoying the woods at night—and especially to the barred owl’s prey!

Silent feathers aren’t the only cool adaptation barred owls posses. While many species of owls have large ear tufts, barred owls have round heads and practically invisible ears. Their ears are placed unevenly on their head, and are even rotated in slightly different directions. This seemingly off-kilter physical feature gives the barred owl excellent hearing. Barred owls also have two sets of eyelids—sort of. Their outer eyelids are more or less like ours, but they also have a clear, “nictitating membrane” that flicks over their eyes from time to time (for example, when they strike their prey.) Instead of closing up-and-down, like our eyelids do, this membrane slides diagonally across their eyes.

And what about that famous 360-degree head turn we always see the owls in the cartoons do? Well, barred owls’ eyes don’t rotate like ours do, so they have to move their whole head to see from side to side. They do have very flexible necks, and though they can’t quite spin the whole way around, they can turn their heads an impressive 270 degrees.

Art, like many owls, had an unfortunate accident with a moving vehicle, resulting in the partial-amputation of his wing (hence why he lives at the Nature Center.) While his story is sad, there is something you can do for owls and other birds still in the wild. That apple core or crust from your sandwich on a long road trip? Instead of tossing it out the car window, hold on to it until you get home and dispose of it there. Rotting food bits on the side of the road attract the little rodents that birds of prey like to swoop down and snatch for their own snack. This can put them in danger of collision with cars and trucks whizzing by on the highway.

Art is a very special ambassador at the Nature Center. He’s an Education Animal, which means he lives behind the scenes, but is brought out by our caring Animal Staff and volunteers to meet the public face to face. The next time you visit the Center, be sure to check out the special education programs that are held daily. It may be your big chance to meet this fine-feathered fellow, or one of the other fantastic creatures from our Southern Appalachian mountains!

UPDATE AUGUST 6 2012: Mayo, Phoenix and the pups are on exhibit. Visit them in the Red Wolf Run at the WNC Nature Center!

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2012 is the Year of the Red Wolf at the WNC Nature Center! Red Wolves are critically endangered, with only about 300 in the world – and only a little over 100 of those left in the wild. The Nature Center is honored to be part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for these native canids.

Rufus and Angel were chosen by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to live in Asheville as a breeding pair. They had two litters – one in 2004 with five puppies, and one in 2009 of one puppy. Mayo was the 2009 puppy, and she lives here still as our next generation breeding female. Just this January, Mayo was introduced to Phoenix, who we hoped would become the father of a new generation.

Red wolves selected as breeding pairs are chosen to increase genetic diversity in the population, and to adhere as closely as possible to the pure red wolf strain. In the past, due to dramatically decreased populations, there was some natural hybridization between red wolves and coyotes. It is these hybrid genes conservationalists are working to breed out of the species. The foundation stock for today's red wolf population came from just fourteen pure red wolf individuals.

On May 9, Mayo gave birth to four puppies, a cause for celebration at the Nature Center! These four pups (two males and two females) contribute not only to the numerical population of red wolves in the world but also to the gene pool. Hopefully these pups will someday have their own litters, and the descendants of Angel, Rufus, Mayo, and Phoenix may someday be in the wild. On August 1, the whole family moved onto exhibit where the public can now watch the pups grow.

In some ways, red wolves resemble the coyote more than their cousins the gray wolves. They are lean and slender, with short reddish coats and large ears. Their coloration varies from coppery red to dusky gray to dark brown, but the cream markings on the face and legs make them distinct. These beautiful animals were once native to most of the southeast United States, but the only wild population left in the world is in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of North Carolina.

Just like gray wolves, red wolves live and hunt in packs. These packs have a dominant breeding pair, and usually a few other individuals who may be previous litters or subordinate adults. Red wolves are carnivores, and their diet consists of a wide variety of prey – from mice and voles to deer and elk killed by the pack.

The mythology of the wolf often works against it, though most associate lore about ‘big and bad’ wolves with the larger gray wolf. Still, it a struggle against mythos and legend for the red wolf as well. Red wolves are shy creatures, just like the gray wolf, and vital components of a healthy ecosystem in their role as apex predators. Reintroducing the red wolf to its native habitat would not be a danger to human residents, but a boon to the environment. It is the hope of the WNC Nature Center and the Fish and Wildlife Service that one day red wolves will once again be found in the wilderness of western North Carolina. Until then, you have a chance to meet one of these critically endangered canines right here at the Nature Center.

Charlie Green has a passion for all turtle species, but he reserves special admiration for the Eastern Box Turtle—and no wonder. Box turtles are a fascinating, beautiful species, and an important part of our state’s natural history. In 1979, the Eastern box turtle was chosen as North Carolina’s state reptile. They are one of the most recognized turtle species in the southeast because they are terrestrial, which means they do not live in water but on the land. This brings them into contact with humans more frequently than water dwelling species, and the box turtle has had both positive and negative repercussions of this proximity.

The box turtle is well admired and appreciated by the public. They are often seen in yards, gardens, and wooded areas, and are welcome additions to the ecosystems. If suitable pockets of habitat exist, a box turtle can survive even in urban areas. Fields and forests alike are home to box turtles, and they prefer a moist environment. As omnivores, they eat just about anything, including poisonous mushrooms! Box turtles spend much of their time buried in the litter of the forest floor, and emerge to feed. In the winter, box turtles hibernate by burrowing, remaining protected from the frost until spring.

They are eye-catching reptiles, with bright yellow markings on their dark shells and on their legs. Their shells are unique, with hinges on the underside that allow the turtle to pull in and close up completely when threatened. Once ‘boxed’ in, their shells are almost impossible to pry open. When they close up, box turtles release the air in their lungs with a hissing sound. This serves not only to frighten whatever is trying to get at them, but also helps them fit better into their own shell. Some captive box turtles or turtles living in plentiful environments become too chubby to close their shells properly!

Identifying the species of a box turtle is not difficult, and if you meet one in the wild, you can quickly identify the gender as well. Male box turtles have bright red or orange eyes, while female box turtles have brown eyes. Young box turtles do not have the bright colors of the adults, and the eyes of baby box turtles will not develop the red or brown coloration for several years. Few people ever see baby box turtles, however, because they spend much of the first years of their life buried, keeping safe from predators until they have developed the hinge in their shell that allows them to ‘box’ closed. When a turtle first hatches, he is hardly larger than a half dollar coin, and can be easy prey to raccoons, birds of prey, foxes, and other predators if he doesn’t stay hidden.

2 month old Eastern Box Turtles. Their shells are marked so they can be distinguished from each other. They will be wintered by a rehabilitator, and then released in the spring.

Many people pick up box turtles and bring them home when they meet them, but if you happen upon a box turtle in the wild, reconsider the temptation to make him a pet! Box turtles can live up to forty years in the wild, and some have been believed to reach over 100 years of age! Besides their exceptional lifespan, box turtles should never be kept as pets because they are vanishing from the wild. Unfortunately, their adaptations to living close to humans has brought the box turtle some trouble as well. Many box turtles are killed as they cross highways. Dogs sometimes catch and chew on box turtles, which, despite the shell, can cause serious injury. Many are also hit by lawnmowers as they hide in the grass. Many rehabilitated box turtles require shell repair from road, dog, or lawnmower damage. Like all turtles, box turtles cannot survive without their shell, an extension of their spine. If the shell of a turtle is damaged, he becomes prone to disease and predators.

So if you meet the gentle box turtle, be sure to take a moment to appreciate him—his beautiful coloration, his fascinating adaptations, and his celebrity status as our state reptile. But leave him be—like all wild animals, he’ll be much happier left where he belongs! If you’d like to meet some box turtles up close, come visit the WNC Nature Center, where unreleasable box turtles are kept in two enclosures—one outdoor, around the turtle pond, and one indoor where you can see them all year round.

Also take a moment to visit the box turtle sculpture in the turtle pond. This artwork was dedicated to Charlie Green for his countless hours of devotion to the box turtle and all their reptilian relatives.

All of our animals have a story. Many of them are rehabilitated from serious injury, and are no longer able to survive on their own. Others were born in captivity and, because they were raised by humans, do not have the skills needed to live in the wild. A few were rescued as orphans. All their stories are different, but one part of each story is the same—none of our animals could be safely released into the wild, which is why they live here with us as ambassadors for the animal kingdom.

Balsam is just such an emissary. Well dressed in black and white pinstripes, a charming sparkle in his dark eyes and a swagger in his step, Balsam has an easy way with people. They just can’t resist that adorable little mug! But Balsam and his extended family don’t always have such an easy time making friends. Striped skunks—like Balsam—and the smaller spotted skunks are both native to this area, but they aren’t always counted among our wildlife gems. Equipped with potent scent glands that can be sprayed at an aggressor, skunks are better known by the aroma they leave behind than by their striking faces. Balsam, however, is doing a fine job at introducing the public to the other side of the skunk!

Balsam came to the WNC Nature Center when he was nine months old. He grew up in the Virginia Living Museum, which had a surplus of striped skunks. The Nature Center has exchanged animals with the Virginia Living Museum in the past, sending one of our coyotes there several years ago when our pack needed thinning. In the same tradition, the Virginia Living Museum donated Balsam to the WNC Nature Center, where he became an education animal.

The education animals have a very special role. Unlike the animals you see in the habitats, the education animals are brought out to meet the public face to face. Creatures like Nibbles the groundhog, who annually predicts when spring will come, and Artemis the barred owl are among Balsam’s coworkers. Balsam and his friends have the important job of bridging the gap between people who may not have an opportunity to see wildlife up close and the animals that share this region with them. Balsam has ‘spoken’ to school groups, volunteers and guests on the grounds. When presenting to the public, Balsam is always accompanied by a handler, and should you ever have the opportunity to meet him, remember to pay close attention to the instructions Balsam’s human partner gives you. Balsam has been descented and is accustomed to human interaction, but he is still a wild animal.

Right now, Balsam, like all the education animals, lives behind the scenes. If you’ve visited us recently, however, you may have noticed some construction happening inside the education barn. That’s the initial stages of Balsam’s Bunk, the new striped skunk habitat! Balsam will have his very own glass fronted enclosure, complete with everything to make a skunk happy. Skunks are crepuscular omnivores—but what does that mean? Crepuscular animals are most active in the dawn and at dusk, which means you are less likely to see them during the day. Skunks hunt for food on the forest floor, using their long claws to dig through the leaf litter. And there isn’t much a skunk won’t eat! Omnivores are animals that will eat both plant and animal matter, including insects. In fact, one of the striped skunk’s favorite snacks is a yellow jacket! Like all striped skunks, Balsam has 36 teeth, and his keepers report that he has a “voracious appetite” appropriate to any growing young omnivore. His new digs will be complete with a well balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables and omnivore pellets.

When you tally up the amazing wildlife that makes Western North Carolina unique, don’t forget one unassuming little gentleman. The striped skunk may be shy, and his reputation for an unpleasant greeting may precede him, but this fascinating little mammal is extraordinary in his adaption. Balsam, like all our native wildlife, is an integral part of what makes Southeast Appalachia one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world—and one part of what makes the WNC Nature such a cool place to visit!

 

Cristina Garcia is right to compare the coyote to the jackal of Africa and Eurasia.  In fact, the two species are so alike that the coyote is often called the American Jackal.  Both coyotes and jackals are mid-size canines, live in small family units, eat an omnivorous diet and possess very expressive faces and voices.  Visitors are often treated to that later characteristic when the Nature Center's local coyotes, Bea and Barney, use their high-pitched barks, howls and yelps to "reply" to emergency vehicles as they drive by on Swannanoa River Road.  Their voices can sometimes be heard from the parking lots and beyond.

Coyotes are quite prolific throughout North and Central America and are well adapted to, well… adapting.  As we humans change the environment and push out larger predators like wolves and cougars, coyotes have smoothly moved in as hunters and scavengers.  Coyotes prefer to eat fresh meat by hunting rabbits, squirrels and other small mammals but will also work in groups to take down deer, scavenge dead carcasses or even sort through human trash for a good meal.  Despite this wide diet, and contrary to the Looney Tunes' Wile E. Coyote, coyotes are not known to chase greater roadrunners.
 
Also unlike Wile E. Coyote, most coyotes aren't solitary animals.  Instead coyotes tend to hunt in pairs and live in packs of three to seven related adults.  Like wolves, coyotes form a kind of social structure within their packs, with the "alpha" male and female at the top of the hierarchy.  Coyotes who are lower on the social ladder display more submissive behavior towards those on top.  Here at the Nature Center, visitors can see this behavior in how Bea will usually keep her head low to the ground as a show of difference to Barney, the alpha coyote of their little pack.
 
For the most part coyotes aren't afraid of humans, which can be seen in how Barney and Bea will curiously approach families as they pay the two a visit.  This is great for those two, who were raised by humans and rely on people for food and shelter, but in the wild this causes trouble as coyotes have no problem approaching livestock, trash cans, gardens or even domestic pets for food.  In fact, there's even been reports of coyotes in Central Park, right in the heart of New York City!
 
That doesn't mean that coyotes are evil.  They fill an important niche in our environment by hunting a variety of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles that in turn can spread disease or eat human crops.  They are also, in the words of Cristina, quite cute.  I happen to agree as each time I visit Barney and Bea I am reminded of Molly, my own dog from when I was a child.  In fact Molly used to "sing" at sirens the same as Bea and Barney do today!
 
If you want to meet these two curious canines, and perhaps listen to their musical performance for yourself, than come for a visit to the WNC Nature Center!  The two coyote can be found in their new habitat up the hill, just past their canine cousins the gray & red foxes.  Afterwards, if you find yourself pining for the cute coyotes, you can choose to make them a part of your own pack through the Friends' Adopt-An-Animal program!  Unfortunately you can't take them home, but you will be able to take a plush coyote toy, animal guide and an invitation to our Wild Parents Day.  We look forward to seeing you on your next visit!
 
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