We Discovered a “Wildlife Superhighway” in Our Backyard

A raccoon family on a backyard fence. Credit: Levi Novey and Alicia De la Cruz-Novey

During the spring of 2020, we made an important discovery: the fence of our backyard is frequently used as a thoroughfare by animals in our neighborhood. I describe it as a discovery because it was only through some unique circumstances that we decided to place our camera trap onto our back fence and start filming. It began when we discovered that a fox was burying animals like rabbits and moles in our raised keyhole garden. Its goal seemed to be to come back and eat them later. We put our camera outside and were able to get a few images of it, but wanted to learn more.

One morning, directly following the sunrise, we looked outside our bedroom window. We were shocked and delighted to see a fox walking calmly along our back fence effortlessly. On several impressive previous occasions, we had seen foxes jump over our 8 foot fence with ease, but never had we observed one walking on it before. That gave us the idea to try to record it walking along our back fence.

After the first week of recording, we did not capture the fox, but we did start to see that a few larger animals were using the fence during the night. We initially positioned our camera poorly. We could only make out the vague shapes of mammals scurrying along in the dark. When we finally mounted the camera to a new location on our shed, magic happened. We quickly began to collect plenty of intriguing videos, and decided it might be fun to make a compilation. The resulting film is called “The Fence.” It was created from the best of over 500 clips we took throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

The concept for this film was not new, and I must credit a series of videos I love called “The Log” for giving me the idea. A Pennsylvania nature enthusiast, Robert Bush Sr., sets up a camera trap in front of a log on a stream in Pennsylvania each year. He then compiles the clips of wildlife that cross and use the log throughout the year. It’s a beautiful depiction of the many things that can happen in nature. If you like The Fence, certainly watch “The Log 3: Tranquility Amidst the Chaos.”

Within “The Fence,” there are a few specific things you will see that I would offer some commentary about.

Rainstorms

We were curious to see what would happen during and after big rainstorms (shown at the 1:01 mark). In a very cute way, we would often see soaked animals afterward who seemed fatigued after a long night. One curiosity I have, that I have also noticed with our dog, is that smells seem amplified for animals following a rain. You can see some of this sniffing behavior following rainy nights at the 6:55 mark.

Diversity of Species

At one point I counted and I think we had around 19 species of birds and mammals we filmed over the course of the seasons. There were definitely more that used our fence though. After we turned off our camera during the day (to prevent collecting hundreds of monotonous squirrel videos), we would often observe beautiful moments and species that we wished we had captured: cardinals, ravens, crows, and even hawks with prey. We are still trying to get the elusive fox in daylight videos (and we remain hopeful as our neighbors continue to see them sometimes in the mornings on their own fences).

Wrens and Mobbing

We are lucky because almost every year we have wrens that nest in a box that hangs from our shed. It’s very close to the fence. This year they drew quite a lot of attention and we think they lost their first clutch of eggs to a predator like a crow or raven (we had a lot of nests get depredated this year in our yard). For their second clutch (which was successful), the wrens took a no holds barred approach and preemptively attacked animals that approached their nest box. You can see a lot of this behavior, known as “mobbing,” starting at the 4:54 mark. The chipmunks and squirrels definitely felt the pain.

Babies and Young Animals

While we did not film the flock of baby wrens that fledged (we did see them and they were cute!) we kept hoping throughout the summer that we would see some babies or young animals. It finally happened in late July when we filmed a family of five raccoons passing along together as a group (5:35). We had earlier filmed a group like this, but only the eyes of numerous individuals in the distance of our camera’s view. Soon thereafter, we first saw a tiny, young opossum (5:26). It has an adorably squiggly tail and we enjoyed watching it grow over the following months. It appears numerous times in the film.

Unfortunately, nature can be brutal and unforgiving. I think it’s a fair guess that the family of raccoons shown at the 7:35 mark is the same one shown earlier. You will notice there are now only four raccoons rather than five. I wonder what happened. Days before we captured this video I did actually see a young raccoon that was killed on a nearby road. It’s a harsh reality for urban wildlife: they face a lot of human threats as well as natural ones.

Opossum Injury

Along those lines, it was sad to observe that a specific opossum, one of our frequent fence users, was injured late during the summer (7:19). Fortunately its injury did heal over time. It made us wonder how the opossum got hurt. Was it an injury from jumping off the fence or stepping on something sharp? Or was it a domestic animal attack such as a dog like you can hear at the 3:56 mark. Our dog got into a brief skirmish with a opossum in our yard last year, and the opossum easily won. So they are certainly capable of defending themselves in some cases. But they clearly would rather avoid it. I’m a big opossum lover, and if you are not, you should be! Did you know that they eat more ticks than almost any other animal? Estimates indicate it could be up thousands every year, helping stop the spread of tick-borne illnesses, such as lyme disease.

Housecats

Since I work in wildlife conservation, I can clearly tell you that it’s bad news how frequently we see domesticated cats on our back fence (3:10). There’s an entire wikipedia page devoted to the topic of “cat predation on wildlife.” Here’s a key point from the page: “A 2013 study by Scott R. Loss and others of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that free-ranging domestic cats (mostly unowned) are the top human-caused threat to wildlife in the United States, killing an estimated 1.3 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually.” In Arlington, as well as many other communities, there are reports of small colonies of feral cats. If you are a cat owner, please make sure to supervise your cat if you take it outside.

Raccoons Are Omnivores

Check one eat a moth at the 2:58 mark! I love the raccoons so much too. Is it a surprise that foxes, raccoons, and opossums are all some of my favorite animals? Probably not.

What’s Next?

We plan to continue in our quest to get more fox footage. We also wonder what other kinds of animals we might be able to film on our fence or in our backyard? It has been a fun activity in this pandemic year, and maybe we will make some additional compilations and do “The Fence 2” next year. Please let us know what you think!

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