ecology is the study of the components and functions of a forest ecosystem
-- community of organisms interacting with each other and with their
physical environment. Forest ecosystems, which consist of bacteria,
plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, soil, water and air, differ
from other ecosystems in that they are dominated by trees and other woody
vegetation. Each of these components plays an important role in the
function and health of the forest.
North Carolina has a variety of forest types that provide habitat for many different creatures. Each animal has its own unique requirements for food, water, shelter and space so there is no perfect habitat for all wildlife species. Some animals prefer the dense undergrowth of young forests while others live on the edge of older forests and feed in the open fields. Still others need to be in areas where there is plenty of water or tall trees to build their nests. The following are lists of some of the creatures you will find in North Carolina's forests.
Carolina’s woodlands are home to an abundance of mammalian species.
Mammals’ bodies are covered, to varying degrees, with hair, and they
typically have four well-developed legs with toes that have nails, claws
or hoofs. Females give birth to live young and nourish their young with
milk from mammary glands. Unlike reptiles, mammals are able to regulate
their body temperature internally. They also have four types of
well-developed teeth -- incisors, canines, premolars and molars.
white-tailed deer, the only deer native to North Carolina, is at home in
a variety of habitats including coastal marshes and high mountain
forests. In summer months, deer are found wherever there is sufficient
food, water, cool shade and seclusion, usually in creek bottoms. In
winter months, deer look for evergreen thickets, dense young timber
stands, thick hardwood swamps, and broom sedge fields where they can
find cover. Deer eat a variety of fruits and nuts, including
blackberries, blueberries, apples and acorns. They also eat herbs,
grasses, and the twigs and leaves of woody plants. Deer usually thrive
following fires, timber harvests, storms or other events that produce
new vegetative growth for cover and food.
gray squirrel is one of the most familiar and visible tree-dwelling
mammals. It thrives in mature oak, beech, hickory and walnut trees found
in both rural and urban settings. These trees provide the squirrel with
nuts for food, escape from danger, and den cavities and strong branches in
which to build their nests. Squirrels get their water from dew, succulent
plants or from open water such as lakes and streams.
Cottontails thrive in
recently disturbed areas such as fields or young forests where there are
plenty of low-growing shrubs and grasses that they can use for food and
cover. Cottontails eat a variety of plants including bark, fruit, seeds,
clover, alfalfa, soybeans, dandelions, grasses and grains, and get most
of their water from succulent plants and dew. Cottontails are an
important food source for larger predatory animals such as foxes, hawks
black bear is the only bear native to Eastern North America. In North
Carolina, it lives in mature mixed hardwood forests in the mountains and
in coastal bays, swamps and pocosins in the coastal plain region. During
the winter, most bears den up in hollow trees or dense evergreen cover.
They have keen senses of smell and hearing, but their vision is not as
good. Black bears eat a varied diet including nuts, berries, sassafras,
insects and animals.
are the only marsupial -- animals that carry their young in a pouch on
the female’s abdomen -- native to North America. The opossum prefers
living in moist, deciduous woodlands but also is found in prairies,
marshes and farmlands. Opossums build their dens in hollow trees and
logs, and in burrows dug by other animals. They are shy, secretive,
nocturnal animals that eat rodents, insects, birds, lizards, snakes,
decaying animals, fruits and grains.
which are rarely found far from water, live in a wide variety of habitats
including mature hardwood forests, fields, tidal marshes and forested
swamps. They eat a range of foods including nuts, berries, grains and
corn, as well as grasshoppers, birds, crabs, frogs, fish eggs, snakes,
earthworms and snails. They have highly mobile and sensitive fingers that
they use for a wide variety of tasks such as eating and opening garbage
can lids. Raccoons use hollow trees for shelter, escape and raising their
young. They also live in rock crevices, downed trees and brush piles, and
in ground dens made by woodchucks or foxes.
Birds are vertebrates that are able to regulate their body temperature internally and whose bodies are covered almost entirely with feathers. Instead of having four legs, like mammals do, birds forelimbs are modified as wings, enabling most of them to fly. North Carolina has more types of birds than almost any other region of the United States. In fact almost 80
percent of all species of birds found in Eastern North America have been
officially recorded in North Carolina. Part of the reason for this is that
North Carolina is located along migratory routes for many species of birds
that spend the winter in the warmer climates of the South.
Wood ducks depend on
wooded swamps, ponds and rivers for food and cover. They usually nest in
brushy areas or in natural cavities of trees that are near or in the
water. At night, wood ducks roost in swampy areas with cypress and gum
trees. A wood duck’s diet includes berries, nuts, acorns, insects,
mollusks, snails and aquatic plants.
sapsucker is found in North Carolina from late September to early May in
mature deciduous trees near openings in the forest. They especially like
forested areas that have recently been burned. Sapsuckers bore holes in
the inner bark of trees, causing sap to ooze and run down the trees. They
get their name from their habit of sucking the sap with their tongues.
Unfortunately, sapsuckers can harm or kill otherwise healthy trees because
the holes they make attract insects and provide access points for fungi
and other diseases. In addition to sap, sapsuckers eat flying insects and
screech owl, which is only 8 to 10 inches tall and has prominent ear tufts,
is a fairly common bird throughout woodland areas of the Eastern United
States. During the day, screech owls nest in natural cavities of trees or in
old woodpecker holes at heights of as much as 50 feet above the ground. At
night, screech owls hunt for large insects, rodents and other small animals,
including reptiles, amphibians, snails, earthworms and bats. They have
extremely sensitive ears and heads that can rotate 180 degrees.
The cardinal, which was
named after the bright red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, is the
state bird of North Carolina. It lives in every type of wooded habitat
throughout the state but prefers woodland edges, thickets, brushy swamps
and gardens. The cardinal’s diet consists mainly of seeds but also
includes insects during the breeding season. The male cardinal is a bright
red, while the female is a brownish color. Both male and female cardinals
are known for singing all year instead of just in the spring as many other
woodpecker, which has a large white patch on its wings, is the only
woodpecker with a solid red head. It prefers to live in open areas with dead
or dying trees where it builds its nest. The red-headed woodpecker eats
mostly plant material and some flying insects.
Wild turkeys require
many different types of forestland to survive, including mature stands of
mixed hardwoods, relatively open understories and scattered clearings with
several sources of permanent, open water. Turkeys eat almost anything they
can swallow, including acorns, grass seeds, weeds, blackberries, grapes,
cherries, grasshoppers, millipedes, snails and worms. They use clearings
in the forest as a source of food as well as for breeding, nesting and
brood rearing. At night small flocks roost in trees.
ruffed grouse, a very secretive but permanent resident of deciduous
forests of North Carolina’s mountains and western piedmont, gets its
name from the tuft of black feathers on the neck of the male. The male
also is known for the drumming noise he makes with his wings when he tries
to attract a mate and ward off other males. The drumming noise can be
heard as far as a mile away. Ruffed grouse eat leaves, buds, seeds, nuts,
berries, grasshoppers and crickets. Their nests are usually hidden under
logs, stumps, brush or shrubs, and are built out of leaves, twigs and
Carolina has 79 species of amphibians, which is more than any other state
in the country. Most amphibians have four legs and smooth, moist skin
without scales. They lay shell-less eggs in wet areas, live in water
during early development, and live both in water and on land as live in
water during early development, and live both in water and on land as
They use lungs, gills and their skin for breathing. Amphibians include frogs,
toads and salamanders.
Although there are more than 6,000 reptile species worldwide, North Carolina only
has 30, primarily because most reptiles live in tropical or subtropical
regions. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals that have dry, glandless skin
covered with scales. They breathe through lungs, and most lay large eggs
that develop on land. Reptiles include turtles, crocodiles, alligators,
lizards and snakes.
The slimy salamander is
an amphibian that gets its name from a sticky slime that it excretes from
glands in its skin. This salamander lives in wooded areas throughout North
Carolina except in bottomlands that flood frequently and in the higher
elevations of the mountains. During the day, slimy salamanders burrow under
rocks and fallen logs and leaves. At night they forage for crayfish,
earthworms, snails, insects and algae.
Gray tree frogs are
amphibians that live in wooded wetlands throughout North Carolina in the
coastal plain, upper piedmont and into the mountains. Even though they are
called "gray," these frogs can be gray, brown, green or white
depending on where they are sitting. They range in size from 1 to 1-3/4
inches long, and the females grow larger than the males. Gray tree frogs eat
moths, earthworms, waxworms and small grasshoppers.
Eastern box turtles are
reptiles that live in forested areas at elevations of up to 4,000 feet.
They usually live on land but are also good swimmers that can be found in
shallow ponds on dry, hot days. Eastern box turtles eat worms, snails,
insects, spiders, snakes, lizards, frogs, other small animals and plants,
including some poisonous mushrooms. They sleep under rocks or logs, or in
burrows where they are safe from predators and may spend their entire
lives in an area no bigger than a football field.
snakes, which can grow as long as 6 feet, are highly poisonous snakes that
live in a variety of watery habitats in eastern North Carolina, including
swamp forests, marshes, ponds and lakes. The cottonmouth gets its name
from the white color of its mouth, which can be seen when the snake
assumes a defensive position with its mouth wide open. Cottonmouths eat
small mammals, birds, fish, turtles and frogs, and can bite under water.