Park animals, part I: Know what’s roamin’ around

HANCOCK COUNTY — It’s time to introduce you some of the animals you may come across in the parks or even in your own backyard.

Opossum: Really it’s a Virginia Opossum. This animal is known as the “living fossil” because of its primitive characteristics. Its name comes from the Algonquian word for “white animal.” The one thing that sets it apart from the rest of its species is that it hasn’t lost the pouch.

Normally it is gray with a nearly naked tail. All five toes on the front have claws, while only four toes on the back have claws. The preferred food of the opossum is persimmons, apples, berries, hickory nuts and any small mammals that happen to be dead. Oh, and your garbage can.

While mostly nocturnal, it does get around a bit in the daylight. The opossum does not hibernate but stores up fat to get it through the winter.

They are solitary wonders, seldom staying more than a day in any den. They can hang by their tails and can swim under water for a considerable distance.

Raccoon: This is a rather chunky animal with a mask and a long bushy tail. Its hind legs are longer than the front, so it walks with its rump up in the air. Remarkably adaptable, it has learned to live with man (in other words, keep the lid on your garbage can tight).

The raccoon eats a great variety of food including carrion and your garbage; it will raid a garden and steal a chicken or two. When it has to it will also eat insects.

Raccoons don’t really wash their food before they eat it. What they are doing is softening it up and breaking it apart (especially if they’re eating crawdads).

Like opossums, raccoons don’t hibernate; they just store up the fat for the winter. Raccoons are colorblind but do have excellent night vision.

Squirrel: There are six types within the state, and you might see four of them in our parks. The six are; Fox, Franklin’s Ground, Gray, Red, Flying and Thirteen-lined.

Franklin’s Ground Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel are the two not found in our parks. However, if you do see a Flying Squirrel and he’s hanging around with a moose, let me know.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel: This is a chipmunk- size and short-legged squirrel. It can be recognized by the alternate bands of brownish and buff stripes down its back. This one is often seen on closely cut lawns, such as cemeteries, golf courses and airports. It prefers not to hang out in woods.

As for food, they like clover (the seeds, leaves, flowers) and also caterpillars. This one does hibernate in a burrow that can be up to 2 feet down, 15 to 20 feet long and about 3 inches in diameter.

Gray squirrel: The underside of its tail is silvery, long and bushy. There are black gray squirrels in Indiana. They prefer to vie in mixed woodlands with mature trees for den sits. They will eat a large variety of food depending on the time of year. Depending on food supply the previous year they can have two litters per year, the first being February through March.

Fox squirrel: This is the largest tree squirrel in Indiana. The upper part is a tawny brown, and the under parts a yellowish brown. It likes to live mostly in woodlands with fewer understories (think Riley Park). It eats pretty much like a gray but with more corn. Young can be born anytime February through December, but most are born February to March and June to August.

Red squirrel (also known as Piney): This is the smallest tree squirrel, a rust red above and whitish below. It prefers to live in and around conifer and mixed forests near swamps. It consumes a great variety of seeds and pine cones and stores much of it in the ground. This squirrel spends more time on the ground than the others and will burrow in either the ground or snow and has been known to gnaw through house siding to get into the attic.

We’ll cover more animals in our parks later.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department.