At least half of Florida's 62 terrestrial mammal species might pass through a well-rounded backyard habitat. If you live in an urban or suburban area, mammalian neighbors may include the animals described below.

Don't count on attracting larger animals like foxes, bobcats and deer unless extensive areas of suitable habitat adjoin your neighborhood. Mammals cannot fly over poor habitat like birds can, so if your property is surrounded by unsuitable habitat, it may be difficult to attract them to your yard. Also, most mammals are nocturnal and secretive, and they are very dependent upon the cover you provide to protect them from predators. Although most mammals will not be seen as often as birds, they can be just as interesting and beneficial in your backyard habitat.

Raccoons and opossums live in all but the most urban Florida habitats as long as they have access to food, water and daytime cover. Sleeping sites and dens include hollow trees, underground burrows, brush piles and even garages or abandoned buildings. These nighttime foragers are opportunists and will eat fleshy fruits, nuts, corn and other grains, small animals and human garbage.

Succulent green plants, woody blackberries and tree bark are the primary food items of cottontail rabbits. Rabbits prefer to live in fields of herbaceous plants and grasses punctuated with dense, thorny low-growing hedges for cover. There's no quicker way to increase cottontails than by building protective brush piles.

Flying squirrels and gray squirrels are especially abundant in wooded suburbs having mature oaks and hickories, dense understories and a supply of cavity trees. Nuts, seeds, berries, mushrooms and insects make up a squirrel's diet, and they often nest in an abandoned woodpecker hole or a bird nest box. If you notice Spanish moss protruding from your bluebird or chickadee house, you probably have a flying squirrel in residence. Gray squirrels are active during the day, but flying squirrels are nocturnal animals. Both species, if present, are readily attracted by peanut butter spread on a feeding stand.

Florida has a number of native rodents that might visit your backyard. The handsome cotton mouse and old-field mouse are likely residents, or you may even provide a home for the eastern woodrat. No matter which species inhabit your land, you will seldom see them, and will even have to look closely just to see their tunnels, nests and droppings. Nevertheless, they are important members of a backyard food chain, eating large quantities of insects and weed seeds, and in turn, serving as a meal for owls and hawks. Although they occasionally enter old buildings, these native rodents are not disease-carrying nuisances like the introduced house mouse, black rat and Norway rat.

The streamlined mole is well-outfitted for life in the meandering underground runways it digs in constant search for food. Moles are primarily insect eaters; damage to bulbs and crop plants usually results from drying of roots as the animal tunnels after earthworms and garden pests. Their contributions to a healthy garden outweigh any incidental damage they create. Shrews are tiny voracious predators that consume up to half or more of their weight in insects and invertebrates each day. They patrol small flattened "runs" in the leaves and organic matter that cover the ground. They are an asset to any garden.

You may be lucky enough to have the insect-eating services of a bat or two, particularly if your backyard habitat is near a pond or stream. About ten species of bats frequent Florida's nighttime skies. Most occur in the northern half of the state. All are gentle, harmless and very beneficial insectivores. Some sleep alone in trees or Spanish moss, while others seek an attic or abandoned building for colonial roosting. You might be able to attract them by providing artificial roost boxes.

Managing for Mammals in Your Yard

  • Give special protection to cavity trees on your land. If you have few or none, nest boxes can substitute for natural cavities.
  • Plant native trees with edible fruits and nuts, such as mulberry, wild cherry, beech, pine and oak.
  • Protect nearby streams, swamps and marshes from destruction and water pollution.
  • Create maximum habitat diversity and edges in your backyard habitat.
  • Provide ample low cover to supply protective shelter from predators (including dogs and cats) and the elements.
  • If vegetative cover is scarce, build a brush pile.

Brush Pile Construction

Bottom half of brush pile construction

To build your own brush pile, first lay four logs (6 feet long and 4 to 8 inches in diameter) parallel to one another about 8 to 12 inches apart on the ground. Then place four more logs of the same size across and perpendicular to the first four poles. These will keep "tunnels" open under the pile. Next add brush: larger limbs first, then smaller branches, until you've created a structure 4 to 6 feet in height and diameter. Sticks and branches can then be continually added to the top as the pile rots at the bottom, providing food for an abundance of earthworms and other insects, enriching the soil and reducing the need for trash collection. If you want to slow down the decomposition process, pile the brush up off the ground on cement blocks.

Top half of brush pile construction

FWC Facts:
The crested caracara is a resident of the prairies and range lands of south-central Fla. This boldly patterned raptor has a crest, naked face, heavy bill and longish neck and legs.

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