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In Our Back Yard
A black bear in Bethesda? A cougar in McLean? Wildlife biologist Earl Hodnett says wild animals live a lot closer to us than you might think. By Cindy Rich
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009
Earl Hodnett, holding the skull of a black bear, has investigated local sightings of coyotes, bears, foxes, even a cougar. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

When Earl Hodnett got a call about a black bear in McLean, the wildlife biologist wasn’t surprised. It was summertime, when young male black bears, banished from their mothers’ dens, are out looking for new territory and a few find their way to the Washington suburbs by way of the Potomac River. Young black bears, usually 90 to 100 pounds, might travel 20 miles in a day. And they’re good swimmers.

The bear in McLean was spotted in a neighborhood of brick Colonials, so Hodnett asked residents to bring in their bird feeders and keep garbage cans inside. One family was scared and didn’t want to leave the house. Another family refused to bring in anything from the yard; they wanted the bear to come back.

“They were from England,” says Hodnett, who handled animal sightings for the Fairfax County police. “They thought this was the coolest thing.”

The bear moved on, as Hodnett knew it would. “Unless you have the only bird feeder in town or you live next to a landfill, you will probably never see that bear again,” he says. “There’s plenty of food out there. From the bear’s point of view, it’s a huge buffet.”

In the past several years, black bears have been spotted everywhere from Arlington to Germantown. A bear destroyed a trampoline in Great Falls while trying to reach a cherry tree; another hid in a tree near Leesburg. Nurses at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville saw a bear run through a parking lot.

“Having a bear in an urban area is not a threat to the public—it’s a threat to the bear,” says Hodnett. “That bear’s going to get hit by a car if he stays here long enough.”

Coyotes, the area’s top mammalian predator, have made appearances in Rock Creek Park and nearby neighborhoods. Red foxes, once nocturnal, are getting comfortable in the suburbs. “You can drive through probably anywhere around the Beltway and see a red fox lying in somebody’s yard like it’s the family collie,” says Hodnett.

Before joining the United States Department of Agriculture in February—where he works on firearms-and-explosives safety issues for Wildlife Services—Hodnett spent more than a decade fielding calls from area residents who’d spotted something or thought they had. A cougar in Tysons Corner. Deer dining on garden plants. A snake by a pool.

The 61-year-old Alexandria native started his career as a park ranger before becoming chief naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority in 1973.

“My house was in the middle of 95 acres in Arlington,” says Hodnett, who now lives in Clifton. “The public still has this concept that wild animals live somewhere else—that’s why it’s such a shock to them when something’s in their yard. They don’t realize those animals are around us every day and every night.”

When did you become interested in wildlife?

My family had a motel on Route 1, south of Alexandria. The motel was close to the highway, but the back end was all natural fields. My dad raised game birds as a hobby—pheasants, quail, domestic and wild turkeys, Canada geese, mallard ducks, homing pigeons. I had a room that was always full of aquariums. I would catch snakes, turtles, and frogs and keep them for a while. When I got a little older, I used Fort Belvoir, the army base, as my extended playground—it had streams and ponds.

You were allowed on Fort Belvoir?

That’s the difference between today and then. When I was growing up, I would leave in the morning and go play down at the creek or wander through the woods and be back at suppertime. Nobody worried about you. I knew every square inch of our property. I’d climbed every tree.

Kids today rarely climb trees—and I don’t mean just the first couple of limbs; I mean up there at the top competing with the squirrels. People are almost totally removed from the natural world—what they know of wildlife and nature is what they see on TV. If they do get out, they’re walking a trail. They don’t go off the trail.

People don’t look up. There’s all kinds of stuff flying over us. I see bald eagles every two or three days. The other day, I was driving and saw something I’ve never seen—a pileated woodpecker, which is about the size of a crow, being pursued by a ruby-throated hummingbird.

What else has changed about wildlife since you were a kid?

Back then, rabbits were everywhere. If there was a brush pile in the woods, you could bet someone $20 that if you stomped on it, a rabbit was going to run out. I remember sitting on the porch with my dad, and he could whistle like a quail—he would call and we’d see them come flying toward us. I don’t remember the last time I saw a quail around here.

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 07/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles