Wild Ideas: Opening the door to wildlife

Interesting things happen when I open the door to wildlife. I’m not speaking metaphorically; I mean literally leaving the door to my house open.

My old dog is often restless and wanders around a lot, probably because she’s having age-related physical problems, mixed in with a touch of dementia. In any case, having gotten tired of her circling the coffee table when I’m in the living room, I often prop open the screen door that leads out onto the deck, just a few feet away from the couch. With the door open, she sometimes wanders out onto the deck, getting a bit more exercise and mental stimulation and also driving me a bit less crazy.

This large black rat snake was one of many visitors to the writer's deck this year, thanks to her open-door policy. Photo by Pam Owen.
This large black rat snake was one of many visitors to the writer’s deck this year, thanks to her open-door policy. Photo by Pam Owen.

The danger of this practice is that wildlife are likely to come through the open door, a thought that has occurred to me since I started the practice this spring. Sure enough, I’ve had some interesting visitors — hummingbirds prime among them. The feeder hangs under the eaves just a few feet away. While the hummers are probably just curious when they appear in the doorway most times, I notice they show up and linger more often when the feeder is empty. They’re pushy little beasts.

Another visitor I had arriving at the door threshold pretty regularly for a while was a tufted titmouse. I could hear its distinctive scolding out on the deck and often saw it near the door. It started collecting some of the copious hair from my always-shedding dog that had stuck to the doormat. Eventually, the titmouse, which already had its beak full of hair and other assorted nest-lining material, decided there were better pickings from the mat inside the door, so came on in to collect it.

Surprisingly not finding enough there, it began to work on the weather stripping, which has a brushy edge that collects a lot of the dog’s hair when she rubs against it on the way out and in. That filled the bill, so to speak, so the titmouse took off with its bill overstuffed with nesting material.

In checking AllAboutBirds.org, I found that, similar to chickadees, a closely related species that will flock with them in winter, titmice will use raccoon, opossum, dog, fox squirrel, red squirrel, rabbit, horse, cow, cat, mouse, woodchuck and even human hair, “sometimes plucking hairs directly from living mammals.” Other soft materials, such as wool and cotton, even snakeskin, are also used. In the southern part of their range, titmice can have two broods, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch Resource Center, so this one was likely working on its second.

My most interesting visitor at the door, which showed up on July 4, startled me at first. I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye and, looking toward the door, saw a large black rat snake peeking in. I love snakes, but I think the oldest part of the human brain just doesn’t like things that can sneak up on us, especially when they can do us harm, as some snakes can, so I blurted out something unwelcoming before I realized what species it was. If only it had shown up during my mouse infestation last winter, but sadly it was likely hibernating then. In any case, I really didn’t want it in the house now.

I’ve had lots of encounters with black rat snakes over the course of my life, occasionally picking them up — occasionally getting bitten in the process. Though not venomous, they tend to be very aggressive when you mess with them, which is their right. I figure anything that will take on rats and copperheads has to have a bit of chutzpah.

One time, when I was about 14, I was walking with friends in Prince William Forest and made the mistake of accidentally stepping on a very large black rat snake. It reared up to almost my eye level and, without thinking, I grabbed it and threw it before I really knew what was happening.

Then there was the time one insisted on trying to get into my house. I took the hose out and sprayed it, which would have discouraged most snakes. But true to this feisty species, it instead reared up, practically standing on the tip of its tail, ready to fight. If these guys had toes, they’d be on them to do battle.

When the snake showed up in my doorway on July 4, I decided I’d rather not test my snake-catching skills, which are pretty rusty, and instead deter the herp from entering. I slowly got up and closed the inner door, then went out the kitchen door, around to the deck, up the stairs and slowly closed the screen door, giving the snake the opportunity to withdraw first, which it did. It slowly slithered under the stairs and into the frame of a window to the crawl space, looking for a way in, but the window was sealed.

The snake then curled up its four feet or so of length and sat there staring at me while I took some photos. Once I’d gotten the shots I wanted, I left it alone so it could make its withdrawal in peace. After an hour or so, I checked under the deck again, and it was gone.

I still leave my deck door open occasionally but monitor the situation pretty carefully. Who knows what will show up next? The anticipation adds a certain edge to my day.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 283 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”