- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Several kinds of mammals adapted to Pennsylvania farmland, giving each species more area to live and reproduce in, which increases their numbers.
Farmland is a tough, human-made habitat to inhabit, however, because it is constantly being cultivated to harvest crops.
But streams, roadside shoulders, woodland edges, and hedgerows break up croplands, giving adaptable mammals places to live and raise young, relatively undisturbed by farming activities.
Raccoons, muskrats, and mink live along the overgrown borders of waterways and ponds in farmland. Raccoons use sensitive fingers to feel crayfish under submerged stones.
Those masked creatures also ingest frogs, mice, birds’ eggs, berries, and other edibles in thickets along waterways. And female raccoons give birth to about four young in tree hollows and holes in the ground each spring.
Muskrats resemble large field mice, with laterally flat swimming tails. These rodents dig holes in streambanks at the usual water level and slant them up to a living chamber at the grassroots level, where they also raise young.
Or they chew off grass and cattails around ponds, stack them in the water, and live in that pile of vegetation. Muskrats also eat cattail roots and grass the year around.
Mink, which belong to the weasel family, live along water, where they prey on mice, frogs, crayfish, muskrats, and other land and aquatic critters. Some female mink move into the burrows of the muskrats they ate. There, each mink raises four or five babies.
I’ve seen two broods of mink in my lifetime. One was down a woodchuck burrow, where their busy mother took white-footed mice every 15 minutes for their meals. And I saw a mother mink ferry five babies, one at a time, across the Conestoga River, presumably to safer quarters.
Field mice, brown rats, and woodchucks live and reproduce in visible burrows they dig in the shoulders of rural roads. The mice and rats eat weed and grass seeds, as well as grain from neighboring fields. Chucks consume green plants along the roadside.
White-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and little brown bats live along woodland edges and get some food from neighboring fields. I always have to stop and watch deer eating alfalfa, clover, soybean, and corn leaves.
Squirrels enter cornfields to ingest corn kernels, and bats sweep over fields after flying insects.
However, hedgerows between fields are the best refuges for farmland mammals, including some of the above-discussed ones and opossums, striped skunks, cottontail rabbits, red foxes, and coyotes.
Some mammals inhabit abandoned chuck holes, and all of them get food from the hedgerow and surrounding fields. It’s thrilling to see foxes or coyotes trotting effortlessly across fields in their search for food and/or mates.
Watch for mammals when riding through local farmland. They add more beauty and interest to human-made habitats through the year.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.