Spiders and snakes and coyotes, oh my!

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Facebook has its negatives, but does offer insights. Without running a formal poll complete with statistical analysis, you get a feel for the general population’s reactions to certain things. Some posts go ignored while other posts garner dozens, even hundreds of excited comments, and no, I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about reactions to unpopular creatures in the natural world.
Photos of snakes generate enormous response, and unless you are on a page that is slanted toward wildlife conservation, you get a whole lotta haters. Many comments are assertions of how fast that snake would be chopped into little pieces, or riddled with bullets. Others are panicky statements of pure horror at the very site of the vile creature. Spiders get the same kind of love (not)!
Granted, gardeners are usually the exceptions and I do like to think we are more cognizant of the workings of the natural world, but truly, I’m confused by the reactions of so many. Could it be possible that the majority never learned the simple concept of predator/prey balance in nature? Was my education something truly exceptional? Remember I’m from Mississippi, so that’s unlikely. (Don’t send me hate mail! I love my home state but once again, we are ranked very near the bottom.)
The concept is simple. When a prey population gets plentiful, the predator population that feeds on them prospers. Once numbers are reduced, the predator population ebbs and the prey population surges again. This system of checks and balances worked pretty well until man got in there and started playing favorites. Predators were not favorites.

This was likely justified in pioneer settings when a hawk eating your chickens might mean your family went hungry, and I would still feel entitled to use lethal means if necessary to combat any creature preying on my pets or livestock, but indiscriminately killing those predators minding their own business is just dumb. Gardeners accept the roles of beneficial predator insects, but even some of them seem to have a harder time extending that appreciation to spiders and snakes. These valuable allies help keep in check the populations of plant damaging insects and rodents.

I was lucky and had a mother that loved spiders. She told us that spiders eat lots and lots of flies and mosquitoes that were worse enemies by far. What is the saying? The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Yet a common reaction is to knock the spider to the ground for a quick stomp or make a run for the spray can, but not my mama.

Years ago, as I was working on a piece about spiders, she told me a story that happened before I was born. A big yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) had taken up residence on the porch and she taught her two little boys (my older brothers) to catch grasshoppers and throw them into the web for the spider to eat. She said they spent many happy hours catching bugs to feed their spider friend. One day a man knocked on the door to deliver the cleaning, and told her cheerfully that he “killed that big spider for you, ma’am.” She didn’t have the heart to tell him he had done her no favor. The moving thing to me was that I could still hear the sorrow in her voice for a spider killed half a century ago.

It isn’t the only reason I am truly fond of spiders. Driving leisurely down a deserted country lane years ago, I saw something the size of a small mouse trucking slowly, but purposefully across the road. I stopped the car and walked up to see it was a large wolf spider, carrying dozens of tiny babies on her back. As I bent over her, she reared toward me brandishing her front legs and her babies fled down her back legs and into the grass. How could I not feel a rush of appreciation for this small creature that so bravely threatened me as her children raced to safety? I bowed in respect as I stepped back, and she settled back onto her eight legs. I was astonished to see the baby spiders run back to climb her legs and resume their positions on her back, and on they went. I was mystified on how she was able to summon them back once she felt it was safe to continue, but I know what I saw., so was certain she had. A little research confirms that spiders can and do communicate with one another using smell, touch, sight and sound. Do a search for acoustic signaling in wolf spiders and be amazed!
Besides their touching familial relationships, I return to their usefulness. I wonder what the ratio might be of mosquito bites to spider bites? Sure, a venomous spider bite can be painful, and even occasionally serious, but should one investigate the deadliest creature in the world, mosquitoes rank No. 1. By far. Humans rank second, by the way. If you break it down by country rather than globally, in the United States the biggest category of deadly animal is listed as “farm animals”. Yes, cows and horses, yet you don’t see people virtually shouting on Facebook that “the only good cow is a dead cow!” I’ll give you that it isn’t easy for a cow to be lurking under your potted plants on the deck. Spiders can do that.

Snakes can do that too, but the odds of being bitten by a venomous snake in your lifetime are one in 37,500. Being struck by lightning is one in 15,300. Actually dying from a venomous snakebite is extremely rare. In the United States, only one person in every 50 million will die, according to figures from the US Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. That works out to be about 6 people per year. In that year, more than 37,000 people will die in car and motorcycle wrecks. Car wrecks are sometimes caused by deer, which leads me to defending another predator, the coyote.
Wolves, bears and cougars suffered a bad rap first. The virtual eradication of these large predators in the eastern US contributed to deer populations erupting into such huge numbers that they are now costly and devastating pests in many suburbs.
Coyotes moved in as they were decimated and are filling a needed predatory role, yet many hunters happily brag on their efforts and successes killing coyotes, feeling justified because of their mostly negligible impact on deer populations. Guess what, coyote-hating deer hunters? We need more predators and fewer deer – lots fewer deer.
In the gardening world, we know that the topic of marauding deer dominates many forums, but beyond that world, the negative impacts should not be ignored. In a typical year, deer are struck by motor vehicles more than a million times, killing more than 100 people. That is more than the combined total of deaths caused by sharks, alligators, bears and rattlesnakes. Vehicle damage totals more than a billion dollars, and you can add on another billion for the damage done to farm, forest and landscape. Yet cute pictures of little fawns in the yard don’t seem to inspire comments on how fast it would be chopped up into tiny pieces. Folks might offer to shoot it when it gets past the cute fawn stage, and certainly more deer hunting would be helpful, but hunting isn’t as effective as it could be when the focus is on taking out the trophy bucks. Shooting more does would help. Hunting laws do encourage that practice these days, but the trophy buck mentality still wins out.
By the way, I’m from hunting stock and whole-heartedly condone hunting when done legally and ethically. As a carnivore, I feel better about that free-range locally harvested meat on my plate than I do about the store-bought meat that lived caged until killed for my consumption. I realize this offends those that are vegetarian or vegan and some will lambaste me for my carnivorous ways. If you choose to do so, it is my choice to respond this one time with a thought gleaned from reading Joseph Campbell’s writings. I am paraphrasing here but it went something like…”don’t kid yourself. Life is a process of killing and eating other living things, whether animal or vegetable. It is whether we do it with respect and gratitude.” Period.
I also know that there are people who have lost loved pets to coyote and cannot bring themselves to see any good in the killer. I can only ask you to refrain from condemning the entire coyote clan for that personal tragedy. Darn right I would I kill a coyote that threatened my dear four legged family members, but I would never consider that a reason to shoot a member of the pack that keeps their distance in my valley. So far, my dogs and cats have managed to peacefully co-exist. The only strife has been the howling rivalry at dusk or during moonlit nights.
Look, I get that something in our genes makes us jump when startled by a spider in the tub or a snake suddenly writhing underfoot. I’ve been known to levitate out of a john boat when I discovered a snake under the seat. I’ll admit to the lurch in my adrenalin when I make a turn on a woodland trail and get a glimpse of a coyote’s yellow gaze, but here is what I don’t get. Why is that most people don’t go on to the next logical thought – that these creatures have valuable roles and for the most part, are harmless. Why are so many people that frightfully unenlightened? Do they ignore data because they enjoy killing harmless creatures? If they are of religious persuasion, do they think the Creator made some terrible mistakes along the way? Maybe I’m the one skewed, but it seems to me the more dangerous animals are the human beings that continue to choose ignorance.

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

14 COMMENTS

  1. I am fond of the spiders, but it took time for me to reach that mindset. I have always caught ones found in the house and put them outside in the garden, but with wariness. Now I do so happily. Several times folks have come by our house representing companies that set out “pest control” poison all around the yard- to “get rid of all those spiders”. The man was very surprised when my husband told him no thanks “we like spiders!” There used to be a garden snake but I am disappointed I have not seen it this year. I am very glad to see more toads in my yard now- and to hear them under the windows at night. I even welcome the wasps in my garden, and am learning to identify the unfamiliar insect predators- not just ladybird beetles but also wheel bugs and assassin bugs and others- so that I pass them by when I’m hand-picking insects off. I like to see the foxes pass through my yard, but unfortunately a lot of my neighbors don’t share the sentiment. One person in particular is always warning me that they’ve seen the fox: watch out for your cat! (he goes outside). I don’t think my cat is in danger from the fox, actually. Even if it was a coyote, I would have to let him take his chances (he goes crazy if kept shut inside the house).

    • In my experience, your cat is not in danger from the fox. Coyotes yes, fox no. When I lived in very urban San Diego, CA, looking out the window at night, I saw the fox, the cat, and the skunk, all in my small back garden at the same time, pretending they did not see each other. However, the coyotes will prey on small animals (cats, poodles) but the upside is that they keep the feral cat population down, which if left unchecked wreaks havoc on the birds, lizards, insects, etc. I now live in the south of France, where most predators were killed off 500 years ago. We have foxes, but that’s about it.
      bonnie in the vaucluse

  2. Thanks for a wonderful piece, which echoes my thoughts on predators. I live about an hour’s drive from a newly established wolf pack, and I have to admit to feeling both excited (in a good way) and a little nervous thinking about what it might be like when they are living in my neighborhood. I currently live in close proximity to many predator species, including coyotes, cougar, bear, and so on, but I have a comfort level with their proximity and behaviors; guess I’ll have to bone up on my “wolfology”!

  3. Lucky you. I support all of them, but might not go on moonlight walks. The only spiders I have killed in the past are black widows, as they can kill the elderly and children, and I often had those folks at my house. I live in the south of France, and there are lots of scorpions here, but not the deadly kind. Give you a nasty sting, but not at all dangerous. I would find them in my house and move them outside. There has been reintroduction of wolves and bears here in France, but shepherds are very much opposed, even though they are compensated for any lost sheep.
    bonnie in the vaucluse

  4. Thanks for this important article. As gardeners, we can’t have too many reminders of the complexity of the food web. We forget the delicate balance between predator and prey at our peril. We may not like particular animals, but if we decide to eradicate them we quickly learn they are probably food for an animal we DO like and they are equally likely to be predators of animals that we like even less.

    A knee-jerk reaction to our personal preferences in our gardens often leads to indiscriminate use of pesticides that kill far more insects than we intended. Many are beneficial insects that might control the target insect while doing less damage to the environment.

    I’m glad Carol Reese is contributing to Garden Rant because her articles put gardens into the broader context of the entire environment. Thank you, Carol.

  5. Thank you, Carol, for your ‘wisdoms’! As gardeners we should understand, appreciate and live with an ecologically balanced landscape, whatever our phobias…my own happen to be snakes, but I understand they are part of the food chain. I just want to know where they are so move slowly through my gardens as I tend them! Deer here in Maryland (within heavily populated city limits) are a menace to both road traffic and our landscapes. They seem very fond of many native plants we try to encourage residents to grow here to support our pollinators. Their population is out of control and their only enemy seems to be cars and the managed deer hunts in naturalized areas, which I am not sure are very effective. I am told that coyotes help keep deer populations in check by preying on fawns, as they are not strong nor big enough to take down a full sized deer. Might they prey on our pets? Maybe, but our four- legged friends/ family members should not be wandering about loose anyway… loose cats kill billions of birds in the US each year! Cats are predators, but introduced ones. They hunt and kill. I’m originally from Minnesota where there is an active deer hunting season. Minnesota is about 10 times larger than Maryland, yet Maryland now has almost 10 times more deer than Minnesota. Other than a robust fall deer hunting season maybe the difference might be that Minnesota introduced the almost extinct wolves back into their native habitat some 40 years ago. Wolves or coyotes? I think I would prefer the coyotes! Deer are beautiful animals, but there is little to keep their populations in check. They are decimating our native plant populations which support our pollinators, the base of our food chain! This forum IS called ‘Garden Rant’ right? So that is my ‘rant,’ thanks for reading

    • You needn’t worry that pollinators require native plants. The distinction humans make between native and non-native plants is not of interest to them. Here is an article posted today by the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis about monarchs laying their eggs of non-native milkweed: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=31244 Native plant advocates will advise you against planting non-native milkweed, but monarchs don’t share their prejudice.

      I recently attended the International Pollinator Conference at UC Davis. Academic scientists from 15 different countries made presentations about their research. The word “native” was not uttered. A diverse garden that prolongs the blooming period best serves our pollinators.

  6. Just the other day I was startled to see a large spider in my rain garden. I identified it as a yellow garden spider, the first photo I saw when I opened Garden Rant and saw your post. What an amazing coincidence! I am not a lover of spiders but I had previously made a commitment to myself to leave my rain garden alone for the foreseeable future (possibly until late next spring) to let all the critters in it go about their business. This past summer was the first for my rain garden and it has been full of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds–and now spiders!
    As the years have gone by, I have become more interested in observing the natural history of the plants and creatures in and about my garden. I find that this often involves letting things be–being less focused on neatness and spending more time paying attention to what is going on out there.

  7. I also appreciate the predator/prey relationship in our world. I welcome both spiders and snakes. I am constantly training my dogs to leave snakes alone as I have timber rattlesnakes in my neighborhood and if they pursued them , it would not be good for my dogs. Controlling the rodents they love to eat has reduced considerably the chance of them on my property for any length of time. this year I have had at least a half dozen garter snakes take up residence much to the dismay of mice in the pinkie stage and slugs. I am also a vegetarian and have no problem with hunting or consumption of meat. In fact, my dogs LOVE venison and eat it regularly. Three cheers for the critters that are not cute and furry as their place in the ecosystem is one of great importance.

  8. I have a nest box trail. People put up artificial nest boxes and don’t protect them form predators like snakes. In the natural world a cavity nester would nest high in a tree hole offering much more protection. Now, there are fewer trees since we don’t let dead trees stand. So, we put up boxes 5 feet off the ground without proper guards and we’re actually doing more harm to species. We need to respect the predator prey relationship. I needed to study snakes, their senses, their locomotion. I also needed to study bird reactions to snakes. It was only then, and recently, that it dawned on me how to protect the cavity nesting birds. After a quarter century I finally figured it out. Like you, I overcame my ignorance, but ONLY after I took control of my emotions.

  9. One slithery critter that seldom gets mentioned are Milk snakes. Here in New England they are one of the our best “mousers” and will go into a mouse hole to eat even the baby mice. As the White footed mouse is the vector of the tick borne Lyme disease that is becoming more and more prevalent, just repeat , “more snakes = less Lyme disease”.
    My children used to catch Wolf spiders while raking leaves in the fall and keep them for a short time in a terrarium on the porch before releasing them back in to the yard. They would feed them insects that they caught and were always amazed at how fast the spider could pounce on it’s prey. Same with the beautiful garden spider, though they would feed her in her web like at your mother’s house.
    Thanks for your article and I hope others might step out of their comfort zone to learn more about the predator/prey relationship of all of natures creatures.

  10. I have fire ant nests in my front garden beds. Over the years I have been unable to eradicate them, making gardening very challenging. Anyone looking for a predator relationship, where the very painful and dangerous bites make you the prey, is welcome to them.

  11. A fine article; thank you.
    When I lived in Los Angeles, a couple of guys, brothers, cleaned house for me. In truth, they weren’t great at cleaning or reliability. But both of them always tenderly carried indoor spiders of any size outdoors, usually in their bare hands — including, once, a brown recluse! So they kept their job, at least at my house.

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