The Most Popular Animal in Georgia

This award for the Most Popular Animal in Georgia is based on an admittedly random and thin sample of landowners who have donated conservation easements to the Georgia Land Trust. The fact that these folks like their land and the critters that dwell there enough to donate a conservation easement adds a bit more weight to the result and anyway, I don’t see how anyone will disagree with it.

Before we announce the Most Popular Animal in Georgia, let’s talk critters generally. One of the great things about working for a land trust is that most of the properties we protect have a bunch of critters.

Not the most popular animal in Georgia; a face only a mother could love. Photo source: Imou<3's photo stream

Not the most popular animal in Georgia; a face only a mother could love. Photo source: Imou<3's photo stream

Not all of them are good or well-loved. You hear some downright disparaging remarks directed at wild pigs, for instance. They have qualities that we admire in humans—they are resourceful, tough, smart and they’re pretty good parents. But, as anyone who’s ever seen the sheer devastation they can wreak on land can attest, they are not an amenity on a property. And, they can be almost mythically scary, hence the numerous “hogzilla” stories that make the rounds.

Coyotes are making downright scary inroads in the state and similar negative commentary. An article in Georgia Outdoor News reports that in 1969 coyotes were only reported in 23 counties. Now they have been reported in all of Georgia’s 159 counties. (Interesting fact about Georgia—2nd largest number of counties after Texas, which has a lot more room to put them in.)  Interestingly, part of the coyotes’ introduction to our state was by fox hunters who thought they would be good subjects for their dogs to pursue. The article forgivingly notes “they were headed this way,” but as is the case with so many exotic invasives, this seems another of those instances of “be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.”

Nice buck; photo source: USFWS

Nice buck; photo source: USFWS

There are other animals that may be loved or less than loved depending on how plentiful they are on a property. Everyone loves sighting deer in the woods and many enjoy venison, “the sustainable meat.” Once subject to unregulated taking, including commercial hunting, the U.S. white tail deer population in the 1930s declined to as low as 300,000 animals. With regulations in place, the population has now rebounded by a couple of orders of magnitude and is estimated at around 30 million animals. And as many a landowner will animatedly aver, that many of anything can occasionally eat themselves out of a home. Still, most of the landowner/donors we work with love them enough that they make sure that supplemental forage plots are in place to ensure that the animals on their land are adequately fed and that they and their guests can enjoy the animals’ grace and maybe a chance to help thin the herd a little.

Other game animals are the subject of admiration and active management to maintain or restore their numbers. The Bobwhite Quail—Georgia’s State Game Bird—uniquely suited to thrive in the great expanses of longleaf pine that greeted settlers to these parts (and across parts of 37 other states, as well) seriously declined as agricultural and silvicultural uses eroded their natural range and habitat.  With more and more landowners reintroducing management aimed at longleaf restoration with native grass understory, the birds are rebounding nicely in many areas, although most hunts still require releasing birds raised off property for the hunt.

Three toms and two hens--somebody will be going home sad. Photo source: jrophoto stream

Three toms and two hens--somebody will be going home sad. Photo source: jrophoto stream

The Wild Turkey (reputedly Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the national bird—Franklin also had other suggestions for the national critter, citing the rattlesnake “as an appropriate example of the temper and conduct of Americans”) is another comeback species, with its numbers rising nationally from under 2 million in the early 1970s to more than 7 million at present. These big birds are much beloved for their speed across the ground while running, the fact that something that darn big can fly as fast as it does, and for their wariness, which makes them a favorite of hunters. The hunters no doubt are fans of their various vocalizations, listed in Wikipedia as: “gobbles,” “clucks,” “putts,” “purrs,” “yelps,” “cutts,” “whines,” “cackles,” and “kee-kees.”

Wildlife lovers also have long lists of non-game animals they glowingly praise and rapturously describe sighting. We’ve all heard folks lovingly describing bald eagle sightings, which is yet another comeback species story, as the birds are now officially no longer listed on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. (They continue to be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.) Wandering Liberty County near Fort Stewart, I’ve more than once seen the incredibly elegant swallow-tailed kite and even saw a red-cockaded woodpecker on a piece of land our land trust owns near the fort.

Lovers of more terrestrial species, mention sightings of bobcats, bears (reputedly achieving near nuisance status as both their numbers and human population continue to grow in mountainous areas) and I’ve even been told of florida panther sightings in Camden County. (A forester ascribes these sightings to western cougars reintroduced to Florida to try to put something back into the niche once occupied by the Florida Panther, whose numbers now are as low as a hundred animals. Evidently the western cougars were given transmitting collars and one animal roved from near the Evergladesto as far north as Macon, Georgia, before turning around and establishing a temporary base some 175 miles to the south on Georgia’s coast in McIntosh County.)

indigo_snake

The elegant indigo snake. Photo source: Summit to the Sea, http://coastgis.marsci.uga.edu/summit/images/logo.jpg

And, of course, there are non-furry terrestrial creatures that draw a good deal of praise. The herpetophiles will rhapsodize on the stalwart gopher tortoise and the elegant indigo snakes that make their homes on some of our sandhills. Poke around in most any little depressional wetland or ephemeral stream and you’ll find all manner of interesting salamanders, including the three-toed salamander, another rare species that finds a special place of refuge near Fort Stewart.

But, we promised you that this article would announce the Most Popular Animal in Georgia so, drum roll, please: the most universally beloved critter is the Fox Squirrel. This conclusion, as noted above is derived from a short, thin sample but that sample featured 66% participation by pecan growers. If there is a group of people one would assume would be the natural enemy of any form of squirrel, that would seem to be pecan growers. Yet when asked about critters on their property, they unhesitatingly offer up the fact that nothing brings them more happiness than just watching the antics of fox squirrels. They also noted that while they’ll allow hunting of most any game animal on their property (including gray squirrels), anyone foolish enough to take a shot at a Fox Squirrel would most assuredly be rapidly asked off the property, never to return.

The Most Popular Animal in Georgia, the Fox Squirrel. This one is the particularly fashionable black cap variety. Photo source: Skipbro's photostream

The Most Popular Animal in Georgia, the Fox Squirrel. This one is the particularly fashionable black cap variety. Photo source: Skipbro's photostream

Part of the squirrels’ charm is that they come in so many varieties of markings. There are black caps, there are silver tufts, there are beautiful reddish brown models. And, of course, there is the fact that they are big—well for squirrels—and their prodigious tails, which makes up about half the critters’ overall length which can reach nearly two feet. (Nobody could claim to mistake a fox squirrel for a gray squirrel either—it would be sort of like mixing up an Airedale with a Jack Russell.)

And, like most squirrels, some of their time seems to be spent in just having fun and appearing cleverer than they are. My favorite sighting of the State’s favorite animal was in a field in Morgan County. Several fox squirrels were seated a short distance from several wild turkey, as if commenting on the birds furious scratching. (The turkey’s comeback has evidently been strong enough that I’ve heard folks say that “they’re getting to be like pigs around here—they can tear a place up.”)

When the birds got done with their digging, the reason for the squirrels’ intent interest became evident—they quickly bounded over to the freshly turned earth just created by the turkeys and set about looking around for treats. You’ve got to admire an animal that is smart enough to let a turkey do the heavy lifting for them. And cute enough to melt a pecan grower’s heart.

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