Wild Animals on the Outer Banks

Foxes and Otters and Deer, Oh My!

In the movie the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow are walking through the forest chanting, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That doesn’t quite fit the Outer Banks—there are no lions or tigers here, and the nearest bears are across the sound in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

However, wildlife on the Outer Banks is vibrant and thriving. There are the birds of course—but in this case we’re taking a look at the mammals that are unique to the OBX ecosystem.

Even though the populations of the various species are healthy, it’s rare to see most of these mammals—fox, possum and raccoon really have no interest in interacting with humans.

The most likely to be seen are deer, which are seemingly everywhere on the Outer Banks—just ask anyone who has a backyard garden. They are edge feeders, meaning they like to have forest and trees close by when they’re feeding so they can quickly disappear.

Interestingly, there are two species of fox on the Outer Banks. The gray fox is native to North Carolina. When the British settled the state, they found the gray fox was an unsuitable partner in the sport of fox hunting for its ability to quickly climb trees. They imported the red fox from England to continue the sport. The red fox is larger than gray fox.

There is another unsuspecting canid on the Outer Banks. Coyotes are now present in every state of the Continental US, and North Carolina is no exception. An intelligent and very adaptable member of the dog family, they are leery of human interaction and are rarely seen.

An intriguing side note to the arrival of the coyote: according the North Carolina Game Commission, red fox populations have been in decline since the arrival of the coyotes. Gray fox populations, however, have not been effected. The most likely reason for that is the British conundrum—gray fox can climb trees; coyotes can’t.

There are a plethora of raccoons on the Outer Banks, most likely because there’s no local predator to keep populations in check. According to studies of their breeding behavior, however, they do not reproduce as often as raccoons in areas with lower populations.

Often though of as cute because of their furry bodies and striped faces, it good to remember they are very intelligent and tend to be aggressive if they feel they are being cornered—meaning yes, they do bite.  The best way to avoid raccoon interaction is to let it go about its business. It is always recommended to keep your distance from any wild species.

The most common time to see an opossum is at night. Mostly nocturnal, there are good numbers on the Outer Banks, but they really prefer wooded areas and marsh.

If cornered, they will turn, bare their teeth and growl—which is a pretty scary thing to see. However, as soon as their opponent takes a step back in surprise, they’re off and waddling away as fast as they can. Opossum are not fighters.

Muskrat also inhabit the Outer Banks, but it is a rare sight to see one.  Muskrat habitat is marsh and swampland—not the best places to build homes. It is possible that on a kayak tour some may be seen, but it’s rare.

There is one invasive species that has taken up residence locally in the last century. Nutria is an incredibly invasive species that has proliferated throughout the Southeast. Native to South America, it was brought to the US for the fur trade. When the market went bust in the 1940s, ranchers released their stock into the wild because they could not care for them.

About two feet long with a stout, almost fat body and long tail, they are primarily vegetarians, but do huge damage to marsh grasses and trees.

Otter also live on the Outer Banks. However, they are rare and a sighting is very uncommon. These playful creatures can be viewed in their enclosure at the Outer Banks Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

Finally—the Wild Mustangs of Corolla. There is an argument that they are an invasive species, since the evidence indicates they came ashore in the 16th century from Spanish ships. They were either left here by the Spaniards, or swam ashore folloing a shipwreck. They have become such an integral part of the cycle of life on the Outer Banks, though, that it would be difficult to call them a truly invasive species.

The law requires staying 50 feet away from these beautiful creatures. They are truly wild animals, and should be respected as such.