At times, it may seem as if all creatures great and small have been conspiring to damage your carefully tended yard. The dubiously comforting reality is that only handful of wild animals commonly threaten lawns and gardens. More than half of them weigh less than 1 pound, and all leave obvious clues to their identities.
Because many of these animals are active only at night, the best chance of identifying them is from the tracks they leave behind. Increase the chances of finding readable tracks by wetting the soil in early evening near the yard's areas that animals target.
Avoid wetting plants that animals target. Plants that are wet at night have an increased risk for fungal disease.
When raccoons walk, the front and hind paws on opposite sides of their bodies strike the soil simultaneously. This gait results in easily identifiable tracks, with a wider, shorter front paw print next to a longer, narrower rear one. As omnivores, raccoons eat both plants and animals.
Like raccoons, skunks often root through mulch and dig in lawns in search of grubs, pillbugs or millipedes. They walk with their five-toed feet flat on the ground, and their front and rear paw prints sometimes overlap. Skunk tracks resemble miniature bear tracks.
Armadillos' four-toed front paws and five-toed back ones leave tracks similar to birds' footprints. The anteater relatives dig through loose soil and mulch with their long, narrow snouts to find insects, snails and grubs.
White-footed and deer mice dig up freshly planted seeds. Their tracks usually measure less than 1/2 inch long and wide, and their five-toed hind paws strike the ground in front of their four-toed front ones.
Mice sometimes trail their tails behind them. leaving a drag mark between each set of tracks.
Rabbits usually visit yards at dusk and dawn to feed on grass and vegetables. In winter, they chew the bark and young branch tips of shrubs and trees. Their front and rear tracks are nearly identical, with four of the five toes on each paw visible. One toe extends ahead of the other three, like the point of a steam iron.
Plants with their leaves, stems or fruits sheared off at a precise 45-degree angle are the victims of rabbit damage.
Narrow trails suddenly appearing in lawns or flowerbeds indicate one of two tiny rodents has moved in:
- Voles, also known as meadow mice, create networks of relatively straight above-ground runways. Each leads to a 1 1/2- to 2-inch-wide burrow entrance. Dense grass or ground cover often disguises the runways.
- Short-tailed shrews (Blarina spp.) -- weighing between 1/2 and 1 ounce -- build meandering runways beneath leaves or snow and dig one-half dollar-size holes leading to below-ground tunnels.
Voles are far more likely to damage plants than shrews, which devour up to three times their weight in insects and earthworms each day. Voles gnaw on underground roots and tubers, raid vegetable gardens and strip bark from trees.
- Excavates more than 2 tons of soil per year from underground burrows, tunnels and nesting chambers.
- Makes from one to three soil mounds every day, with each mound measuring 4 to 6 inches high and 12 to 18 inches across.
- Eats the subsoil roots, bulbs and tubers it finds while digging, as well as the vegetation surrounding its tunnel entrances.
- Can tunnel 15 feet in one hour; if the soil is loose and moist, it can dig 12 inches in one minute.
- Tunnels most deeply -- up to 40 inches -- in hot, dry weather, when the earthworms making up 70 to 90 percent of its diet migrate downward to cooler soil.
Gopher mounds are crescent- or horseshoe-shaped; mole mounds resemble miniature volcanoes.
Ridges in lawns or mulched beds are the tops of moles' surface tunnels, which usually lie 1 to 4 inches underground.
When fall arrives, squirrels and chipmunks line up to feast on newly planted, spring-flowering bulbs. When whatever they don't devour sprouts tender green foliage in spring, white-tailed deer arrive to nip it off.
Signs of an autumn heist include holes riddling the planting bed, along with torn bulb "paper" and half-chewed bulbs if they didn't like what you planted. Spring-feeding deer chew the leaves and stalks to rags and often trample surrounding plants to reach the bulbs.