Forest 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.
North 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.
The 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.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
The 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 and owls.
The 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.
Opossums 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.
Raccoons, 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.
The yellow-bellied 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 fruits.
The 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 birds do.
The red-headed 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.
The 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 feathers.
North 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 adults.
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 Frog
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 Turtle
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.
Cottonmouth 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.