New Canaan Nature Center helps others understand nocturnal animals
The next time you hear a blood-curdling scream or a sad whine coming from the woods in your backyard, refrain from calling the police.
There's a good chance what you heard is not something out of a horror movie, but Mother Nature just doing what she's supposed to be doing.
Nocturnal animals are very active in the woods of Fairfield County around this time of year, and local animal experts are trying to help residents understand that they are nothing to be afraid of.
"People tend to be afraid of the dark and scared of the animals who live outside in the dark," said Melanie Pearson, director of animal care at the New Canaan Nature Center. "They just don't know about them."
The Nature Center is home to several rescued animals that spend their waking lives outside at night, including a possum named Linus because of his love for sleeping with a blanket, as well as a skunk named Skippy who is more likely to be snacking on dog food than trying to spray you with stink juice.
There's a screech owl named Putter, since it was found on a golf course, and a playful trio of ferrets Cali, Codo and Podo, who are looking to make friends with anyone that looks their way.
"Many nocturnal animals are misunderstood, and whenever people see them they immediately think they are rabid," Pearson said. "Not all nocturnal animals that you see outside are rabid, especially during baby season. They may just be hungry, and it's hard to keep up with five babies."
Rather than the creepy, toothy creatures portrayed in horror movies, most people would be amazed to know that a skunk or possum are quite docile creatures that could make good pets. Through years of evolution, the animals have developed adaptations that make them more suitable for surviving in the darkness.
Take the possum, for instance. Although it only has a lifespan of about two or three years, the only marsupial (think kangaroos) in North America has about 13 babies at a time. Each of the little ones is about the size of your pinky fingernail and live inside their mother's pouch until they are too big to hold on. The big myth about possums is that they "play dead" when they are scared. They are, in fact, protecting their young, so if you see one "dead" in the road, make sure you double check.
"If it's lying there, really try to drive around it," Pearson said. "It might get up later and walk away."
Most nocturnal animals have evolved to a point where they don't need eyes. Unlike humans, who get most of their information from what they can see, many nighttime creatures rely on their sense of smell and touch to get around. Anyone who has come face-to-face with a star-nosed mole has been intrigued by its lack of eyes and a protruding, hand-like set of tentacles on its face. They spend most of their lives underground, so they don't need eyes, relying instead on sensory information they get from the tentacles.
Those loud screeches and whines you heard in the backyard? It might be a fox, which has a call that sounds more like a child's lonely call for its parent. Raccoons, which tend to be everywhere in the woods this time of year, are the chatty ones, and can get downright loud and screechy when they are in an argument with other raccoons.
Of all the nighttime critters, perhaps the ones that give most people the jitters are the ones that fly above their heads. Connecticut is home to about eight species of bats. They are almost completely blind, and navigate through the night sky using a type of natural radar. Without them, our world would be much buggier. Pearson said bats can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes a night, making them a sort of natural bug zapper in the environment.
Bats in Connecticut are an endangered species. Pearson said a European disease known as White Nose Syndrome was introduced accidentally in 2009 by a spelunker, causing 90 percent of the brown bat population in Connecticut to die out.
She said the disease could cause the extinction of two species of bats nationwide within a few years.
"They are so important, because if we lose these bats, farmers will have to use more insecticides," she said. "It's just another example of man bringing over diseases that animals aren't used to."
Of course, it's important to be careful of animals that might be carrying rabies, which is a brain disease that affects an animal's common sense and can be fatal to humans. The rule of thumb is that if the animal is acting weird, there's a chance it could be sick. Most animals will try to avoid humans any chance it gets, so if a nocturnal animal such as a raccoon or fox is overly friendly or seems disoriented, give it some space and call animal control.
"They just don't know what they are doing, and are not walking around with a purpose," Pearson said.
The Nature Center has sponsored a summer-long series of night hikes geared toward introducing children to the world at night. Last Friday, a hike titled "Constellations" introduced kids to the night sky, treating them to an evening of stargazing, folk tales, and an explanation as to why when you eat peppermint candies in the dark you can see sparks in your teeth.
And yes, they probably got to experience a rustle, screech, or howl from a nocturnal animal doing its thing.
"Kids around here are all about learning how to save the rainforest, but not about what's in their backyard," Pearson said.
"It's really cool for them to get outside and experience nature at night and see that nature really is not so scary at night."