Outdoors in Austin
How to prepare for surprise encounters with Austin's creepiest critters, from bees to snakes
This time of year, Austinites love to spend time in the city’s many parks. Other creatures enjoy the parks this time of year, too. But before you smash that spider or scream at a snake, remember that most of these critters are relatively harmless and play important roles in maintaining a healthy, natural landscape. Read on to learn why you should show those creepy crawlies some love.
Bees and other stinging insects may be small, but they can invoke big panic. Many of them provide a crucial service — pollination — so if you like flowers and enjoy eating, take a deep breath. Expect to encounter bees and other flying insects around wildflowers and flowering trees, just doing their jobs. Beehives are not all that common, but being near one can make it more likely to get stung. Usually, you can hear a beehive and thus avoid it. Stay on trails and on open lawns (and away from patches of flowers), pay attention, and, most importantly, leave the bees alone.
Coyotes are smart and adaptable and do very well in urban settings. It would be impossible to get rid of them — kill or trap one and another moves in to take its place — nor would we want to. “Coyotes eat rats and mice, which carry diseases that people can catch, and also squirrels, which can do a lot of damage to your home,” says Austin Parks and Recreation Department park ranger supervisor David Papke.
These canines naturally fear and avoid people, but can grow bolder if they come to associate humans with food. Avoid creating this association by:
- Keeping pet food and water inside and garbage securely stored
- Securely covering compost piles and not composting animal matter like bones or fat
- Keep pets inside, in a securely fenced yard, or in your close presence, and walk pets on a leash, especially at night
- Do not feed wildlife on the ground
- Hang bird feeders above ground and clean up spilled seed as it can attract rodents and thus coyotes
Hazing coyotes keeps them from habituating to humans and the city encourages it. When you see one, make a lot of noise (banging together pot lids, portable air horns, or car horns are options), wave your arms, and throw small rocks or dirt clods toward (not at!) the animal.
Scorpions live throughout the Austin area. They can be particularly threatening to those who are allergic and a sting is extremely painful. Keep an eye out where you’re walking and don’t walk around barefoot at night when they are most active. Shake out picnic blankets when you pick them up off the ground. Scorpions are important food for birds and amphibians, such as toads.
Of the 33 species of snakes found in Austin, only four are venomous: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths or water moccasins, and coral snakes. “It is possible to see each of these in an Austin park but extremely unlikely,” says Papke, and avoiding them is relatively easy — and your best protection. Snakes like to hide in brush or culverts and under logs, so don’t stick your hand anywhere you can’t see. Stay on trails and avoid walking through tall grass and brush. If you encounter a snake on the trail (they do like to sun themselves), alert everyone in your group, back away and give it a wide berth. Snakes tend to be most active in the early morning and evening. And yes, they really are more afraid of you than you are of them.
Also, keep the risk in perspective: snakebites cause an average of only five deaths per year in the entire United States (one per 65 million people), compared to 20 deaths from dog attacks. In addition, many people bitten by snakes were intentionally interacting with the snake.
“Snakes eat rats and mice,” says Papke, which helps protect us from diseases those animals can carry. “An ecological benefit is that snakes serve as a great food source for hawks, owls, coyotes, and roadrunners. They have a pretty key role in the food chain.”
Austin has only two types of venomous spiders, the black widow and brown recluse. Be careful where you put your hands and stay away from culverts and heavy brush. “Most people get bitten when they put their hands in dark, damp places,” says Papke. “Spiders don’t wander around looking for someone to bite. They only use their venom, which they need for subduing prey, if they have to defend themselves.”
Spiders are an important food source for many types of birds, and they also eat insects, including mosquitoes and flies.
In general, call 311 if you feel threatened by any type of critter in the park. The state documents coyote encounters and asks people to call anytime they see one with the date, time, and circumstances.
Papke points out that one of the Leave No Trace principles is to respect wildlife. “That can take many forms, including avoiding animals and not encouraging them to habituate to people,” he says. “Stay on trails or on open lawns in the parks, and pay attention to your surroundings. A little common sense goes a long way.”
Wildlife belongs in our park. Wild animals contribute to a healthier ecosystem and spotting one can make for a richer outdoor experience. Even the creepy, crawly ones.