Depending on where you live, mammals in your garden can range in size from the tiniest shrew to a moose weighing over a thousand pounds. Most, especially the smaller ones, are welcome most of the time.
Mammals are endlessly amusing to watch. Raccoons, with their black bandit’s mask, are guileless entertainers. The acrobatics of squirrels can captivate for hours. The gamboling antics of young white-tailed deer playing in a meadow delight people of all ages. And the flight ballet of bats can keep audiences spellbound while the bats are visible at dusk.
Mammals plan an important role in keeping nature’s balance in the garden. A few bats zig-zagging overhead consume thousands of mosquitoes and other flying insects each evening. Not always seen but equally important are moles, voles and shrews. Eastern moles forage on grubs and bugs that live underground. Shrews eat insects that inhabit the surface of the ground: in fact shrews are ferocious and will eat small rodents such as mice and infant rats.
Foxes, coyotes, and house cats keep small rodents in check. Skunks eat grubs, beetles, and rodents and sometimes share outdoor milk bowls with house cats.
Small rodents, such as voles and shrews, are the most numerous mammals in the garden, but due to their diminutive size and shyness, they are not frequently seen. The most visible mammals in North American gardens are squirrels, of which the most common is the gray squirrel. There are more per acre in urban areas than in rural settings. These animals prefer large-canopy trees but are also at home in small woodland.
Nest boxes, similar to large birdhouses, will attract squirrels into small-canopy trees, particularly if food is provided. Squirrel feeders are commercially available. Some of them are cleverly designed to require squirrels to perform for their dinner.
Raccoons nest almost anywhere that offers shelter. A hollow log or box with a waterproof top in the crotch of a tree will provide a home. Because well-fed raccoons eventually grow quite large, make sure that the box is solidly supported and securely attached to the tree. An alternative is to affix the box to a post in the ground, so that the height of the box matches that of a substantial tree limb.
Make a simple raccoon nesting box from plywood. Make it 16 inches square and 4 feet tall. A simple sloping shed roof keeps out the rain. The entrance is a 6-inch diameter hold near the top of one side. Hinge one of the sides to allow the box to be opened for cleaning. One sheet of plywood (use 5/8 inch exterior grade) will make a nesting box with enough wood left over for a birdhouse.
Mammals are finicky about where they nest. A box you provide may be occupied immediately by the animal you meant it for, or it may stay empty for years or attract other tenants altogether.
Planting shrubs and trees that produce berries, fruit and nuts will attract mammals to the garden. So will feeders. A simple, sturdy tray with a roof to help keep the food supply dry will serve as a squirrel feeder. Squirrels are fond of corn, which is less expensive than most birdseed and may keep them out of the bird feeder, where they tend to eat voraciously.
Raccoons are fond of table scraps such as meat, vegetable, and fruit trimmings. Put out the food in the same place and at the same time in the evening: raccoons will be waiting nearby. A simple flat stone in the garden or a flat board attached to a fence top will do for a feeding platform. Provide fresh water nearby; if water is available, raccoons will wash their food before eating it. Resist the temptation to feed raccoons, or any wild animal, by hand. Raccoons are unpredictable and exceptionally strong for their size, and they have very sharp teeth and claws. Locate raccoon feeding platforms in plain view, away from the house.