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Who's who of Southern California wildlife (and how to keep them away)

Who's who of Southern California wildlife (and how to keep them away)
Many Southern California homeowners have encountered coyotes. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

For a city slicker or a nature lover, a wildlife encounter can be alarming. Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League (www.savebears.org), a Lake Tahoe-based nonprofit whose name stands for Bear Education, Aversion, Response, fields about 25 calls from panicked tourists and residents for every one call to Fish and Wildlife officials in her area. "People don't know what to do," she said.

Carol Singleton, a marketing specialist for the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife and program coordinator for the Keep Me Wild campaign (www.keepmewild.com), said homeowners can avoid a lot of wildlife problems with a little common sense and education.

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"People don't understand the harm they inflict by feeding wild animals," she said. Moreover, if you're feeding deer and smaller animals (raccoons) on a regular basis, there's a higher chance of a mountain lion entering your property, she added.

To play it safe, put away bird and squirrel feeders nightly. Don't leave pets or pet food outside overnight. Cover compost piles. Remove excess fruit from the trees and the ground. Seal trash cans. Search for and seal any access points before the spring breeding season. Cover or remove open water sources (Jacuzzis, bird baths and fish ponds). Secure farm enclosures. Install perimeter fencing and motion-sensitive exterior lights. Minimize hiding places, trim shrubbery and add deer-resistant landscaping.

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A who's who of Southern California wildlife

What follows is a quick look at some of the wildlife we might encounter in Southern California:

Coyotes

Average life span in the wild: Up to 14 years

Weight: 20 to 50 pounds

Fast facts: Adaptable and smart, coyotes — members of the dog family — travel solo and in groups. From insects and fruit, to deer and small pets (and that feral cat colony your neighbor keeps feeding), coyotes will eat almost anything. What should you do if you see a coyote? Make loud noises. Throw something in the animal's direction. They are not protected and can be killed by exterminators.

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Mountain lions

Average life span in the wild: 12 years

Weight: Males, 110 to 160 pounds; females, 80 to 110 pounds.

Fast facts: Mountain lions are solitary and elusive, which means they typically avoid people (attacks on humans are rare). They can often be identified by the black-tipped tail and ears. (Bobcats have a short tail and are slightly bigger than a house cat.) Their diet includes deer and smaller animals (birds, coyotes, livestock, opossums, porcupines and raccoons). If you encounter a mountain lion that does not run away, make noise, speak loudly, raise and wave your arms or throw something. Don't crouch or turn your back to the animal to run. California mountain lions are a specially protected species.

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Raccoons

Average life span in the wild: Two to three years

Weight: 14 to 23 pounds

Fast facts: These masked bandits are adaptable, dexterous and everywhere. They are nocturnal and omnivorous, eating rats, gophers, mice, rabbits, squirrels, insects, pet food, fruit, plants and almost anything they can find in your trash. Truly opportunistic, a raccoon will live in a fallen log, a tree cavity or your attic. Don't corner them, threaten their young or try to handle them. If you see a raccoon, you can try to frighten them with noises or turning on the lights. If that doesn't work, you might need to call a trapper.

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Skunks

Average life span in the wild: Three years

Weight: 6 to 14 pounds

Fast facts: Skunks are black and white and best known for their horrible-smelling spray, an oily liquid produced by glands under their large tails. But healthy skunks spray only when threatened, and before spraying, a skunk will hiss, stamp its feet and lift its tail. They are primarily solitary animals, nocturnal foragers that eat a variety of insects that can be deadly to man (black widow spiders and scorpions, for instance), along with plants and fruits, rodents, worms and small animals. Skunks will nest in hollow logs, tree cavities and buildings. If you encounter a skunk, speak in a low voice, stamp your feet, shine a light. And good luck.

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Mule deer

Average life span in the wild: Seven to 10 years

Weight: Males, 110 to 300 pounds; females, 95 to 200 pounds

Fast facts: Considered protected game, this herbivore eats a variety of plants, including fruits, fungi, grass, leaves, twigs and nuts. Deer can get their antlers caught in swing sets and fences and damage property. Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (www.spcala.com), came home one night to find a deer banging its head on her son's bedroom window frantically. She called her office and asked for help.

"They said, 'Turn the light off. He's seeing another deer in the reflection.' And as soon as I turned the light off, the deer calmed down," she said.

Mule deer, which are prey for bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes, are mainly nocturnal or crepuscular, venturing out at dusk and dawn. To access a free PDF of the Gardener's Guide to Preventing Deer Damage, visit www.keepmewild.com and select "mule deer."

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Black bears

Average life span in the wild: 20 years

Weight: 200 to 600 pounds

Fast facts: The intelligent, solitary black bear naturally fears people and keeps its distance. But like most bright creatures, bears find it hard to resist a free meal. They aren't fussy.

They occasionally attack. Last month, a Carpinteria woman was attacked by a 300-pound bear while she was walking her dogs in an avocado grove; she survived.

It's illegal to intentionally feed bears (punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine). To prevent problems, never feed bears or any other wildlife. Secure your trash. If you encounter a bear, don't run. Black bears can travel fast over short distances. Face the animal. Make noise. Wave your arms and try to appear as large as possible. For questions about bears, visit www.savebears.org, call the BEAR League at (530) 525-7297 or call Fish and Wildlife at (858) 467-4201.

If you witness a wild animal attack, call 911. To report a coyote or mountain lion, call the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Natural Resource Volunteer Program (www.dfg.ca.gov/volunteer/NRVP) at (858) 467-4201.

Sources: California Department of Fish and Wildlife, nationalgeographic.com, the BEAR League, Urban Wildlife Trapping Experts.

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