Spring 2010

Volume 19 No. 1

Ask the Steward

by Dan Ernst

Question: The raccoons in my area are making very loud noises at night. What’s their problem?

Answer: Very simple - February and March is prime mating season for raccoons and the males are on the prowl. They are hungry, eager and on the move. Squabbles over territory and females are common and can be very boisterous. The females are more social during this time at least for a while. She’ll mate with only one male. The male’s loyalty will last about a week and then he’s on the prowl again.

After mating season the males and females do not associate with each other. In fact, not long after mating the females will get testy, and will drive the males off. These can also be noisy sessions. Three to seven kits (usually 4) are born 60 to 65 days later and after another 20 weeks, the young regularly forage with their mother during the evening and night. They’ll stay with mom through the first winter and then become independent. The cycle then begins anew.

Question: An area of my Northern Indiana woods ponds water in the spring. What is best way to fill it to extend my woods road?

Answer: What you have is likely a vernal pool - a very unique, and somewhat uncommon, natural feature in Indiana woodlands. Vernal pools are more common in Northern Indiana, but can be found in other areas of the state - particularly in broad river bottom woods and areas of poorly drained soils. Vernal pools occur in shallow, depressional areas with no natural outlet. Pools are usually not more than a couple feet deep, and some may only hold a few inches of water during the spring when water tables are high and the ground saturated from snow melt and spring rains. As the seasons progress, water tables drop and the water ponding disappears. Some will never notice their vernal pool in the dryness of summer and fall, but it will return next year. Vernal pools support a unique group of animals that have evolved to use these temporary (seasonal) wetlands, where they are not threatened by fish. This includes mole salamanders, wood frogs, crayfish, and fairy shrimp. The pool really comes to life on a few rainy spring night(s), after the ground has thawed, when the salamanders and wood frogs migrate from their high ground to vernal pools to breed. After mating, they make a night trip, again in the rain, back to the upland areas of the woods. These ‘big nights’, as commonly called, are well worth a springtime trip to the woods with a good flashlight. Step carefully - salamanders don’t move out of the way very well. So, for your answer on how to put a woods road through that wet area? Go around it - and enjoy woodland wonders at your very own vernal pool. For more information on this important natural resource visit www.vernalpools.org.

Dan Ernst is an Assistant State Forester with Indiana Division of Forestry. He oversees the State Forests in Indiana and has authored the “Ask the Steward” column for years. Have a question for the column? Email Dan at dernst@dnr.in.gov.