6 Varmints That We Should Embrace

Raccoon next to a trashcan on its side
Photo: LexnGer/flickr

After a skunk sprays your dog, a fox kills half the chickens in your coop, or a raccoon tosses the contents of a trash can all over the driveway, you may wonder how these pests are of any benefit. But every animal has its role to play in an ecosystem. Here's why these varmints are so important.

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Photo: Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock

Of the many animals we consider varmints, the skunk is a species that stands out for its stink. This common small mammal thrives in part because of its ability to ward off potential predators with a raise of the tail, and in part because it has a very broad diet that can cause drama at our doorsteps. They dig under buildings, get into garbage cans, tear up lawns in their search for grubs, and even destroy beehives as they gather dinner. However, as much as we might love to hate these smelly critters, we have to admit that they are not only pretty cute but also helpful and important to ecosystems.

First, skunks do an amazing job at helping to keep insect populations in check, insects like grasshoppers, beetles, crickets and wasps. Skunks dine on these insects and help keep their numbers under control. They also eat vegetation like fruits and berries, which assists with the spread of seeds as well as the cleanup of piles of rotting fruits. Skunks are one of the best examples of how an animal we really want to avoid is actually one we want to keep around.

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Photo: Lorri Carter/Shutterstock

Ah, raccoons. They steal the seeds out of bird feeders and eat the fish out of backyard ponds, they knock over trash cans and scatter the contents, they move into our attics and garages and make stinky messes, they ransack food sources from crops to campsites. And let's not forget they spread diseases like rabies and parvovirus. Raccoons can cause a good deal of trouble for rural, urban and suburban residents, but however pesky they may seem, they play an important and often thankless role in keeping ecosystems clean and healthy.

Raccoons are scavengers and therefore are an important part of cleaning up carrion. They also dine on many other species we consider pests when numbers get out of control, including snakes, frogs, lizards and rats. Raccoons don't stick just to meat — these omnivores also feast on berries and nuts, which in turn helps plants spread seeds. No matter how much of a mess these characters create, they also do a great job cleaning things up elsewhere.

The only thing is, there's not a lot that raccoons won't eat, and their voracious appetite of all things edible can pose a problem, which makes our next varmint all the more important.

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Photo: BGSmith/Shutterstock

Now we've talked about the virtues of so-called pests like raccoons and skunks. But who keeps these omnivores in check when their numbers get out of control? Turns out it is one of the most reviled yet successful predators in the nation, the coyote. Humans have altered once-flourishing ecosystems, creating farms, cities and suburban sprawl, which has been a boon for rodents like rats, mice, and larger animals like raccoons and skunks. The consequences include an increase in disease and the downfall of other species like songbirds. Enter the coyote: Researchers have found that in areas where coyotes exist, there is a better balance of biodiversity and healthier populations of songbirds. Coyotes can be a problem animal for ranchers and urban cat and dog owners. Nevertheless, there are many ways that everyone can minimize the conflict they have with these "varmints."

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Photo: devra/flickr

Humans have an odd relationship with vultures. While some cultures have elevated vultures' significance to a spiritual level, for others they have been placed in the varmint category. This is for a few reasons, none of which have to do with their unnerving presence, signaling death. Vultures can be messy, causing major and costly damage to buildings. These high-altitude fliers also pose a problem for airplanes and can do significant damage in a collision, even causing crashes — although rarely.

However, for all their messiness, they are vital as cleanup crews, feeding primarily on carrion. In fact, a recent article in LiveScience notes that in the 1980s, more than 40 million vultures populated India, eating around 12 million tons of carrion every year. However, medication given to cattle that is toxic to the birds has caused a dramatic decline in the species. Wild dogs have dined on cattle carcasses instead; since then, rabid dogs have been responsible for the deaths of 50,000 people over the last few decades. Instead of vultures providing billions of dollars' worth of cleanup, wild dogs are causing billions of dollars' worth of losses.

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Red fox

Photo: Georgia Carini/Shutterstock

Ask anyone with a chicken coop what they think of the red fox and you'll probably get a range of responses, none of them very positive. The wily fox is well known — and well hated — for its ability to ravage chickens, rabbits or ducks. And they have earned their reputation for smarts as it seems there are few fenced areas that succeed at keeping a tenacious fox away from food housed within.

However, these varmints have a helpful side for farmers and ranchers. Like their larger canid cousin the coyote, red foxes are wonderful at keeping rodent populations down. They hunt chipmunks, rats, mice, voles and all sorts of other small rodents that can become more of a pest to humans than the foxes themselves. They also eat carrion and like other supposed varmints on this list, are part of an important cleanup crew for their ecosystem.

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Photo: Mr.TinDC/flickr

There's a reason farmers invented the scarecrow, and it wasn't because they wanted to provide a companion for these black birds. Crows are the bane of a farmer's existence because they are fond of newly planted crops. For example, crows are known for ruining corn crops by pulling up sprouts to eat the softened corn kernels. They are obnoxiously loud and harass anything they see as a threat including people and their pets. But despite the trouble these smart birds can cause, they are important insect eaters. Farmers may hate them, but one crow family can eat tens of thousands of caterpillars, grubs and other destructive insects.

They also are scavengers of carrion — in fact, they can even help lead a predator like a coyote to prey and will go in for their share when the coyote is done feasting. Sounds incredible, but it's true. That's how smart these birds are. What is most amazing about crows is that they are such brilliant birds that there is the potential to train them to help us humans out, even as spies. Think about that the next time you call them pests!