Small Jekyll Island animals like squirrels, marsh rabbits and raccoons are very much a part of the Jekyll Island experience. They're abundant on the island, and fill important niches within this thriving island ecosystem.
I've mentioned our love affair with Jekyll Island squirrels before, and it's still going strong. This particular squirrel is Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.
But as much as we hate to say it, squirrels are…rodents. That's right, they're kin to rats. Some folks call them tree-dwelling rats, or rats with fuzzy tails. I think they're too cute to be rat-related, but, hey, they belong to the order Rodentia, so, scientifically, they're rat cousins.
Still not convinced? Just take a look at their teeth (but not too close a look; they've been known to bite!). Just like rats and mice, these Jekyll Island animals have four incisor teeth that resemble chisels, perfect for gnawing. Their feet tell the tale, too, with four toes on the front feet, five on the back - just like most other rodents.
I guess I'm biased, though. Squirrels are
cute, friendly and outgoing. Rats are ugly, mean and slink around in the shadows, intent on nefarious
At least that's my perception. I mean, come on. I've hand-fed Jekyll Island squirrels peanuts. I'd never hand-feed a rat. Squirrels also spend a lot of time grooming. They're the cleanest of the rodent family.
We love to eat lunch at The Pantry, (formally Club Cafe), underneath their shaded veranda. One day we were enjoying their great sandwiches when a plump grey squirrel hopped up on the table across from us. The cute little rodent padded up to Martha's plate and stood on its hind legs with this beseeching look on its face.
Wasn't long til Martha had fallen for its wiles and fed it some fruit from her salad. Next thing we knew, the squirrel had jumped the plate and was in Martha's lap, now demanding food.
So much for kindness. We dubbed him Hungry Jack, the pirate squirrel, and everyday we ate at the Pantry, Hungry Jack would be there, ready to pounce!
By the way, squirrels are wild animals, and it's not a good idea to feed them. We no longer do so. It teaches them to be dependent on man for their food, and that's never a good thing for Jekyll Island animals.
Okay. Back to squirrels. In the Rodentia order, you'll find over 365 species of squirrel, including chipmunks, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, marmots, and woodchucks. The Jekyll Island squirrel is the Eastern Grey (though they may not all look grey), and lives mostly in trees.
Unlike that nasty, slinky, untrustworthy rat, the grey squirrel is gregarious, loves to do their squirrelly thing in the daylight (they're diurnal), and can commonly be found not only in the wild but in busy public places like parks, campgrounds, and resort areas like Jekyll Island. In these areas they may tend to lose, or suspend, their fear of humans. At times you'll walk within a few feet of a squirrel intent on foraging, and it'll ignore you. I guess squirrels figure there's no way a clumsy human can catch them before they scurry back to the safety of their tree!
But squirrels are small, and vulnerable to attack by predators like hawks, snakes or patient domestic house cats - and maybe from foxes in the early morning hours. And since they're so active in the daytime, many wind up in the stew pot, victims of country boys with .22 rifles or .410 shotguns (my mother-in-law could cook up some fine squirrel dumplings!). The biggest danger to these Jekyll Island animals, though, is the automobile.
Squirrels sometimes become prey animals because they can't spend all their time in the trees. They have to come down to the ground to forage for food, mostly nuts and seeds, and sometimes mushrooms.
Who hasn't observed squirrels burying acorns? They may cache thousands of nuts and seeds (like pine nuts) in a season. I've also watched squirrels trying to find these caches of food in the winter months and coming up empty (can squirrels show frustration? I think they can). They'll locate enough to keep them fed in the colder months, but a lot go undiscovered. And that's where the squirrel fills an important niche in the ecosystem. They (unknowingly) plant trees!
Jekyll Island squirrels nest in the live oaks, either in hollow trees or nests constructed of leaves and placed high in the crotch of a tree. Adults usually live alone until it's time to mate. Male and female squirrels enjoy elaborate mating rituals, with jealous males trying their best to run off other suitors for their fair maiden's hand (or paw, as the case may be).
This is when you may see squirrels seemingly acting crazy, chasing each other around and around tree trunks, through leafy canopies, and even falling from limbs to the ground, where they'll jump up, race up the tree, and do it all over again.
A mating pair may raise several litters of young in a season. Babies will be born in early spring and mid-summer.
Squirrels communicate using both voice and mannerisms. Vocal sounds include chirps and barks. Intricate tail waving and body twitches complete their squirrelly vocabulary.
Want to find these Jekyll Island animals? You don't have to look far. They're everywhere. Some of the best places to see them in abundance are South Dunes Picnic Area and the Historic District, with their giant live oaks. Most times, however, squirrels are so abundant that they start to fade into the background - until they jump on your table at an outside eatery, demanding to share your lunch!
When the boys were young, we'd usually visit Jekyll Island in June, after school was out. For Scott, my youngest son, arriving at the island wasn't indicated by the presence of coastal rivers, marsh grass, or wading birds. Coming "home" to Jekyll Island was, to Scott, the first glimpse of what he called the "Mars" rabbit.
Marsh rabbits (or "Mars" rabbits), Sylvilagus palustris, like to forage along the edges of forest and grassland in spring and fall. They're abundant in early June, and we'd spot their small forms by the dozen as we drove the causeway on to the island. They're generally found along the coast of the Eastern United States, living fat and free in the marsh lands.
Smaller than an eastern cottontail, marsh rabbits have distinctive reddish-brown fur, sometimes appearing brownish-black, and their tails are not as pronounced as their eastern cottontail cousins.
You'll spot them feeding at the edges of roads and within open areas close to the cover of marsh or woods because they are herbivores, usually eating grasses of one type or another. They compliment their diet with marsh plants like centella, vines like the greenbrier, and marsh pennywort. Water hyacinths, wild potatoes, and amaryllis also make tasty additions.
Marsh rabbits, like cottontail rabbits, will sometimes eat their poop. Why? Often what they eat is not digested properly, so this practice of "re-ingestion" allows them a second chance to extract needed nutrients from their former meal.
I know, it still sounds yucky. Glad we're not marsh rabbits!
Unlike the squirrels above, marsh rabbits are Jekyll Island animals that are mostly nocturnal, coming out at night. They take cover in dense brush, grass, or marsh during the daytime, using "runway trails" to travel back and forth between their cover and their feeding grounds.
Marsh rabbits are prey animals, and serve an important niche in the ecosystem by serving as meals for predator species. Who eats marsh rabbits? Snakes. Hawks. Owls. Gators. Foxes. Bobcats. Just about anything with teeth and claws.
Marsh rabbits have adapted to heavy predation by breeding throughout the year. They'll usually give birth to about 6 litters of three or four young rabbits per year. Their nests are constructed of grasses and reeds lined with rabbit fur, tucked back in brush thickets surrounded by water.
Marsh rabbits regularly take to water when threatened, and can swim like a fish. They've been known to lie in shallow water, completely submerged but for their eyes, to evade predators. They can live up to four years in the wild, but usually wind up as lunch for some other animal within a year of their birth.
Raccoons (Procyon lotor) are cute, cuddly - bandits. That's why they wear the mask!
Visitors to Jekyll Island can usually spot raccoons in the evenings, sometimes roaming through the grass under the live oaks in the Historic District, alongside roads, along the bike paths adjacent to the marsh, or within the marsh itself. We've seen them at all times of the day, however. They're opportunistic.
I've always thought these Jekyll Island animals moved with an uncommon grace. I love to watch them walk. It's almost as if they were weightless as they glide across the ground.
If you lease a cottage for your vacation, make sure to keep all garbage cans covered. Raccoons love to feast from open containers.
They'll take food from your hand, too, but don't feed them - they'll be panhandling the rest of your vacation! More seriously, they can harbor rabies, and, unlike dogs, don't exhibit aggressive behavior and may not even look sick. It's best to keep them away from your family and enjoy them from a distance.
Raccoon females have litters of four to five "kits" in the spring. At times you'll spot whole families of raccoons consisting of Mom and three to five kids (other males sometimes threaten small kits, so the females will remove the temptation by isolating her brood). Usually, however, you'll see at most one or two of these Jekyll Island animals moseying around together.
We were having supper on the deck at an island restaurant, chowing down on low country boil, when I caught movement from the corner of my eye. Slowly emerging from one of the joints between the deck planks was a small, black hand, attached to a furry arm.
The hand hesitated for a second, then started to grope around on the floorboards like a man feeling his way along the wall in a darkened hallway.
Then the little fingers brushed a piece of food - part of a roll or potato or something - someone had dropped. It latched on tight, and quickly withdrew with the treasure, disappearing back under the deck.
We had a good laugh at the antics of the masked thief, who we saw later on prowling around on the ground next to the deck, more than likely hoping for other morsels to fall into its waiting hands!
times, related females hang out, sharing ranges and meeting at common
places to feed or socialize. Unrelated males sometimes band together as
protection or for strength in numbers when chasing off invading males during
Raccoons are omnivores, meaning they'll eat just about anything. Usually their diet consists of insects, worms, small animals, birds, eggs, fish, fruits and nuts. They're also very intelligent animals, and can learn and remember tasks. This, coupled with their highly dexterous front paws and that built-in mask, make them excellent thieves! They've been known to raid campsites and steal any edible thing they can get their paws on.
These Jekyll Island animals, as a species, have shown they can adapt to just about any habitat, from high mountain forests to coastal marshlands to urban environments. Their home ranges vary in size depending on their habitat, with raccoons living in urban areas having smaller ranges.
One unusual fact about raccoons is that, unlike other animals that mostly rely on sight, hearing or scent, a raccoons most sensitive sense is that of touch. Some experts think that raccoons "wash" their food because water softens the hard pads on their forepaws, thus facilitating tactile sensation and enabling raccoons to better understand what they're handling.
I think they've developed a highly sensitive sense of touch to better pick your pocket. After all - they're thieves!
On your Jekyll Island Family Adventure this year, keep a weather eye out for these three Jekyll Island animals. They may be relatively common, but having the chance to observe them can be an enlightening experience - and loads of fun.