Thursday, November 10, 2022

Reports of wildlife sightings increase locally this fall

By Abby Wilson

Migratory animals have left for southern destinations, but Maine wildlife that doesn’t migrate are hunkering down for the winter.

When we think about hibernation, one animal that comes to mind is the black bear. While bears can lower their body temperatures and slow down their metabolism, they are not technically true hibernators.

A rash of black bear sightings in Windham over the past
month may be the result of bears foraging for food sources
such as bird feeders before the onset of winter. 
A true hibernator, such as a ground squirrel, will drastically lower all bodily processes such as metabolism and blood pressure. These smaller animals begin hibernation and do not come out until they know there will be adequate resources.

If there is a winter thaw, or a den is flooded by snowmelt, bears may actually wake up, and leave their dens to look for food.

In fact, Scott Lindsay, Regional Biologist at the Gray headquarters for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says it is not unlikely to see bear footprints in the snow.

In preparation for winter sleep, also called torpor, bears must dramatically increase their caloric intake. This can lead to a pulse of wildlife contact reports. In Maine, most of these reports involve black bears, and more often than not, the incident also involves a bird feeder.

Bears need to get the most calories in the most efficient way. They roam uplands and lowlands to forage for food. When a bear finds an introduced food source such as garbage or bird seed, they are going to utilize it because food with high amounts of calories like this are very difficult to find in the wild.

It is best to wait until late November to hang out bird feeders to avoid these incidents. Feeders should then be taken down by April 1, says Lindsay.

Bears are typically in their dens from November to April. In the spring, food resources are once again plentiful, so bears begin to forage on wild foods. They will also use human-introduced resources to supplement their diet.

In fact, Lindsay says that the most wildlife contact in populated areas like Windham and Raymond occur in the spring simply because there are so many animals. Adults are providing resources for babies and there is more consumption of prey as well as more foraging. But once the natural growing season begins there are more wild foods. Wildlife conflict and general wildlife complaints will then drop off.

Lindsay said that when we talk about wildlife populations, we use the term carrying capacity. This is the total number of individuals an ecosystem can handle based on space and resources. There is both a cultural carrying capacity and an ecological carrying capacity. It is important to remember that what you see in your background does not necessarily reflect the number of individuals in the ecosystem as a whole.

Bats are another animal that Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife frequently get reports about. Some of the bats we have in Maine are migratory, while others hibernate. Hibernating bats may decide to overwinter in your attic or barn. Professionals known as animal damage control agents can attempt to relocate these bat colonies.

Fall is the proper season to deal with bat related conflicts. If migratory bats are monopolizing a barn or attic, it is best to wait until they leave in the fall. All entry ways can then be covered so that bats will not find their way back into the structure. Do not shut out bats during the summer months because it is the crucial pupping season.

During these times of conflict, as long as an animal is not showing aggression or injuries, a person should secure all food and domestic animals, and leave the animal alone. Lindsay says it’s important to resist temptation to engage in wildlife physically.

There have been situations where people try to domesticate animals such as raccoons by interacting with them and feeding them. This promotes food habituation and conditioning which will ultimately increase wildlife conflict.

“Enjoy watching them, but you should not be encouraging them to be closer,” Lindsay said.

Climate change has greatly affected migration patterns of animals in Maine. The ‘shoulder’ seasons are getting longer, like fall and spring, which is shortening winter. According to the climate science department at the University of Maine, the state has lost 10 days of winter in the last decade.

However, animals are resilient and able to adapt. For example, opossums used to have a more central range in the United States. Today, they exist in southern/central Maine and are popular to see in the Sebago Lake area.

Lindsay says that what’s potentially even more interesting is the increase in human population in Maine. Many people have moved to Maine from urban areas where wildlife was not as common to see in your background. This leads to more frequent conflicts and complaints. Education is an important tool to teach people about how to enjoy wildlife but also how to stay safe around wild animals. <

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