The Master Gardeners

Defending the Home Front
against Night Raiders

Bill Meredith

"From Ghoulies and Ghosties and long-leggity Beasties and Things that go Bump in the Night, Good Lord deliver us." The Book of Common Prayer

Observing wildlife can be a rewarding pastime even in a suburban area. In the past few summers, the patch of ecosystem I call my yard has produced rabbits, field mice, bumblebees and foxes for my entertainment and reflection. This year it came through again.

It started innocently enough one day back in April when I put a new cake of suet in the bird feeder. The next morning the wire lid of the feeder was open and the suet was gone. Assuming I had been careless about closing the lid, I thought nothing of it and put in another cake; but this time I twisted the wire latch so it couldn't come open. The next day the feeder was gone. I found it later that week in a flower bed on the other side of the house; the lid was still wired shut but the latch was twisted, and it was empty.

It was pretty obvious what was going on; of the night raiders known to be in our area, only a raccoon has that kind of dexterity, strength and persistence. Unable to get the door open, he had torn the feeder loose from the tree and taken it to a place where he could wedge it against a solid object and work on it until the latch gave enough to allow him to force his nose in. I decided not to fight him; I knew who would win. The bird feeding season was nearly over anyway, so I put the feeder away and prepared to forget about it.

The raccoon, however, did not accept my concession. It might have been that the suet was addictive, or maybe the feeder was a puzzle to be solved and he enjoyed the challenge. More likely, though, he was simply responding to the behavior patterns that have made his kind such successful survivors for the past ten million years. Every raccoon is born with three Commandments engraved in its brain: Thou shalt follow thy nose to the source of any new odor; Thou shalt remember where good things were found; and Thou shalt be persistent, and if the former food is no longer there, poke thy nose into every available nook and cranny in case something new might turn up.

Being April, it was raining frequently, and the next morning our car, which was parked under the tree where the feeder had been, was covered with little muddy footprints. The raccoon probably just was following the Persistence Commandment, but I suspect he was enjoying himself as well. The footprints indicated that he climbed up on top of the car and slid down the windshield and hood several times. He returned every night for the next week; once he tried climbing on the truck too, but apparently that wasn't as much fun because the hood didn't slope enough to slide off of. Occasionally, while reading or working late at the computer, I would hear him bumping about around midnight, but he heard me too, and was always gone by the time I got out the door. As my wife observed, this was just as well; I'm not sure what I would have done about it if he had still been there.

Judging from the size of the footprints and what happened next, I suspect the raccoon must have been a youngster who survived the winter and was starting his first full year of independence. Like the usual teenager, he was growing up physically but was still short on common sense. While mowing the lawn one day early in May, I found shreds of stiff gray paper scattered under a tree in my wife's herb garden. I knew that kind of paper has only one source, and a caution sign flashed immediately in my mind. Looking up, on a branch just a few feet above my head I saw the remains of a hornet's nest. Its outer wall had been ripped off but the inner nest with its chambers full of hornet larvae was still intact, and the whole thing was covered with adult hornets who were in a decidedly testy frame of mind. The leaves and twigs on the branch between the nest and the tree trunk were broken and bent backward, evidence that whoever had visited the nest had left in some haste.

It was not hard to figure out what had happened. The raccoon had come by on his nightly rounds to see if the suet had come back. Since it hadn't, he wandered around the area to see what else there might be. He smelled the young hornet grubs in the nest and, having never encountered hornets but knowing insect larvae in general are tasty morsels, climbed up to investigate. Finding the opening of the nest too small for his nose, he inserted his fingers and tore it open, andů well, your imagination can picture the rest of the story. It would have been fun to be there and watch, from a distance.

Luckily for the raccoon, the nest did not belong to the big bald-faced hornets, those black and white behemoths that build the basketball-sized nests we commonly see in trees after the leaves drop in the fall. These were the smaller, brown and yellow-striped hornets; their nest is irregularly shaped, generally following the contours of whatever it is attached to. Their sting is not as potent as that of their larger cousins, but they defend their home with enthusiasm and I am sure the raccoon learned a lesson that will not need to be repeated. It's all part of growing up.

Knowing the hornets are aggressive only when provoked, I warned my wife and grandchildren to stay away from the tree and left them alone. Within a week they had rebuilt the outer wall of their nest, and it is still there. Except for their sting, they are beneficial to have around; they eat other insects, including flies, and thus contribute to the balance of nature. All of them are females, an old queen who survived last winter, and her daughters, who built and repaired the present nest and fed their developing younger sisters. Soon the old queen will start laying unfertilized eggs which will hatch into males, and before long she will die. The males will mate with young females they encounter in the area; those females which survive the coming winter will produce next year's population.

The raccoon is still in the area; I haven't actually seen it, but there are new tracks around the edge of the yard whenever it rains. Its main enemies are dogs, cars and diseases such as rabies and distemper; if it can avoid them, it will be here when the time comes to put the suet feeder up again. The hornets have a larger list of enemies, including insecticides; but they have been around even longer than the raccoons, so they too have a chance to return. Although I hold a legal deed to the property, the truth is that it is theirs as well as mine. So I hope we are all back next spring.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith