Monday, March 4, 2024
Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Welcome Wildlife for the Winter

A raccoon, right where Mimi and I had just been walking in our yard!
MAINTAINING A BACKYARD wildlife habitat means you welcome wildlife, and this may sometimes mean that critters visit with whom who you may not care to, or feel safe to, share your yard, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you should call for removal—in autumn many critters are just passing through looking for an extra meal to fatten up before winter and your habitat has what it takes.

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black cat in yard
Mimi in the yard near the garden…

One warm morning just last week Mimi and I spent some time playing around in the garden, I photographing wildflowers and she exploring the vegetable garden and observing the back yard from atop the picnic table. We had no sooner come in from the garden than through the basement door we saw a raccoon walk out of the garden from the brick path, nuzzle around at the grass, then walk out into the yard where we had just been!

The time was about 8:30 a.m. and the sun was fully up, which I consider daytime and not a time to see raccoons poking around in my back yard. I know raccoons have been around all the years I’ve lived here and my back yard is a popular hangout and cut-through. I hear them squealing at each other at night sounding as if they are in a death match, but that’s just the way they talk to each other. The mom raccoon and her babies also visit my maple trees in the front yard, which are hollow and full of exciting and tasty insects. But in all these years I’d never seen one any earlier than deep dusk or just before first light.

Of course, the first thing I thought was rabies, though the raccoon was moving and acting normally. Raccoons are the most frequent carriers for rabies across the United States and the frequency in some areas is considered epidemic. Seeing one in the daytime is something to note. I’ve seen rabid raccoons, and this raccoon was acting nothing like it, so my second thought was that there was another reason for it to be out and about in full sun.

The raccoon walked around my garden and disappeared. I could tell it was young because it was on the small side and not fully rounded as I know adult raccoons to be. We watched out the basement door and it didn’t reappear. We were safe, and they aren’t likely to do anything unless they feel threatened, but we might accidentally stumble on it just exploring the yard or working in the garden. I knew Mimi would be highly unlikely to go after a raccoon, but I was more concerned for her than for me. Mimi and I have the same routine nearly each morning as Cookie and many other cats before did—we go out on the deck to fill the feeders and water the plants, then I start down the steps and Mimi runs out before me at top speed, headed across the yard for the picnic table. I certainly wouldn’t want her streaking across the yard and possibly startling an unexpecting raccoon. Parts of my garden are fairly overgrown intentionally, but if I were to step into that area or do my once-yearly cutting of that area and a raccoon was settled in it for cover, well, neither of us should consider tangling with a raccoon.

raccoon in yard
The raccoon walks the same path around the garden Mimi had just walked.

First was to check the possibility of rabies, and then to call the proper authorities if that was necessary. I considered my list of resources and sent a quick email to Emilie Cooper Rzotkiewicz, Stewardship Director of Allegheny Land Trust, an organization which has been one of my commercial art customers since 2006. With degrees in biology and forest management Emilie has often answered my questions about wildflowers I can’t identify and what bird species an empty nest belongs to.

While I awaited her answer I noticed it was 9:00 a.m. and called the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Center and spoke with director Jill Argall.

three black cats at door
It was about where that watering can is when I first saw it.

“It’s not that late in the day that you need to worry,” she said. “If he wasn’t acting as if he was sick, then he was just looking for something to eat—if he or she is young, they are still growing and they need to put some fat on for winter.” She told me to just be careful if I encounter it again and look for any of the symptoms of rabies.

Then Emilie called as well and filled me in with some more details.

“That’s still technically early morning, especially in autumn, a pretty normal time for them to be out,” she said, “and at this time of the year they forage a little later to make sure they build up that extra layer of fat for winter.”

She told me about a recent surprising encounter she had had with a raccoon in her own yard, that had shown up under the hammock where she was reclining and she didn’t even know until her dog went after the raccoon and actually killed it. Emilie’s dog had a current rabies vaccine so she didn’t need to worry about him possibly contracting rabies, if the raccoon was rabid.

“But it was daytime, and the raccoon had apparently been under my hammock when I was in it,” she said. “We called a few places to see if we should bring it in for testing but no one was interested so we’ll never know for sure, but that is certainly odd activity for a raccoon.”

She also advised me to warn my immediate neighbors that I’d seen a raccoon out in daylight and pass along the information that it was fairly normal, but to keep watch in case they saw it later in the day and share the information about rabies. Keeping your immediate neighbors in mind when you maintain a backyard wildlife habitat is always a good idea, especially in a situation like this where there may be some danger.

Raccoons are a little bolder than other wild creatures who may visit your yard—many are there all along but you never see them. Most of the time they just want to go about their business and continue looking for food and water—after all, you’ve invited them—but you may also have encounters with less social creatures. At this time of the year they may also be looking for a safe place to winter over, especially the ones who tend to hibernate, and through most of the year they are just looking for food, but in the spring they often have young ones hidden somewhere and parents tend to fiercely defend their young.

Unless you are trained in dealing with wildlife it’s best to be cautious, and unless you feel threatened take the opportunity to learn about the animal and why it’s visiting your yard. Identify the species and research its habits and needs in books and on the internet, and also consult a local wildlife specialist. If a situation does arise, next spring perhaps when babies arrive, you’ll know more about what the animal needs and what you might need to do, and you’ll have contacts for who to call in a hurry.

Remember that wildlife is protected by state and federal laws and it’s actually illegal to trap and keep, or trap and remove, a wild animal unless you have a license to do so. Be aware that when you call animal control in most communities, wild animals are usually not relocated to a new area, instead they are killed. Check with your local animal control and animal shelters for their policies, and also find a resource for a wildlife professional who can help you with the situation.

And always keep your pets safe in these situations as well as yourself and your neighbors. Most wild animals will avoid an encounter, preferring to go about their daily activities. The places we life now were once their habitat as well.

And while you’re creeping around and literally focusing deeply on your wildflower trying to get the best angle, make sure you stop and look around now and then!

many-flowerd asters
Many-flowered asters in my garden, one of the species of asters that’s been around since I moved here.

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, and nearly all the birds, animals, flowers and insects are from my own backyard. I originally planned this yard as my own convenient subject matter for painting and photography and so for years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site.

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including any image, check the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, and my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

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Links for wildlife rehabilitation centers

Pittsburgh area:

The Animal Rescue League (ARL) Wildlife Center
6000 Verona Road – Verona, Pennsylvania 15147
Phone: 412-345-7300 x500

Skye’s Spirit Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
889 Farren Surrena Road
[email protected]

Wildlife Works
P.O Box 113, Youngwood, PA 15697
(724) 925-6862

Wildbird Recovery
120 Forsythe Rd, Valencia, PA 16059
(724) 898-1788

The Pennsylvania Wildlife Center
Call (412)793-6900 or E-mail [email protected].

The Flying Mammal Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Small mammals. Call (412)343-3819 or E-mail [email protected].

Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, Inc.
Specialties: success with rehabilitating nighthawks, raptor neck injuries, turtle shell repair; experienced in waterfowl rescue.
Call (814)763-2574
E-mail [email protected]

Steve Pope, Wildlife Center
Wildlife Species: mammals, songbirds, and raptors
Specialty: emphasis on infant mammals
Comments: we offer 24 hour on-call emergency care

Pennsylvania Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators

Wildlife Rehab State by State


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Read other topics about managing your backyard wildlife habitat.

Read the four-part series on developing your backyard wildlife habitat.

Browse some rescued cats and kittens!


All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

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© 2013 | | Published by Bernadette E. Kazmarski



From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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