8 Varmints That We Should Embrace

Raccoon in front of a fence

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After a skunk sprays your dog, a fox attacks half the chickens in your coop, or a raccoon tosses the contents of a trash can all over the driveway, you'll understandably be frustrated by these creatures. However, while you may see them as varmints, they — like every animal — have important roles to play in an ecosystem.

Here are some of the ways these so-called pests actually benefit you.

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black and white striped skunk walks path in wooded area at sunset

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Of the many animals we consider varmints, the skunk stands out for its stink. We know that one of the reasons this small mammal thrives is its ability to ward off potential predators with a raise of the tail. Another is its broad diet, but that can cause trouble at our doorsteps.

Skunks tend to dig under buildings, get into garbage cans, and tear up lawns in their search for food. They've even been known to destroy beehives. However, as much as we might love to hate these smelly creatures, they make positive contributions that shouldn't be ignored.

First, skunks work to keep insect populations under control by dining on critters like grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and wasps. Second, they eat vegetation like fruits and berries, which assists with both the spread of seeds and in the cleanup of piles of rotting fruit. For these reasons, skunks are a great example of an animal we think we want to avoid but actually should keep around.

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raccoon perched on garbage can eats food taken from trash

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Raccoons often mean trouble for rural, urban, and suburban residents alike. 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 attics and garages; they ransack food sources from crops to campsites. Not to mention, they spread diseases like rabies and parvovirus. And yet, they help keep ecosystems clean.

Because raccoons are scavengers, they play an important role in cleaning up carrion. They also dine on other species we consider pests, including snakes, frogs, lizards, and rats. Raccoons don't exclusively eat meat, either. Like skunks, raccoons are omnivores that also feast on berries and nuts, which in turn helps plants spread seeds. They may be known for making messes, but they do a good job of cleaning things up elsewhere.

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gray and tan coyote walks along gravel path at dusk

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When humans altered once-flourishing ecosystems by creating farms, cities, and suburban areas, there was a subsequent boom in both vermin and larger animals like skunks and raccoons. This led to an increase in disease and the downfall of other species, like songbirds. So, even though we've outlined the merits of skunks and raccoons, they do still need to be kept in check.

Enter the coyote. Researchers have found that in areas where coyotes exist, there is a better balance of biodiversity, which includes healthier populations of songbirds. So while they may bring grief to ranchers and urban cat and dog owners, the coyote's impressive predatorial skills actually help its ecosystems.

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vulture rests on wooden post with large black wings opened upward

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Humans have an odd relationship with vultures. While some cultures, such as that of Ancient Egypt, have elevated the vulture to the point of sanctity, others have labeled it as a nuisance.

This is for a few reasons, none of which have to do with their unnerving presence that often signals death. Vultures can be messy, causing major and costly damage to buildings. These high-altitude fliers also pose a problem for airplanes — they can do significant damage in a collision, even causing crashes.

However, for all their messiness, they are vital as cleanup crews, feeding primarily on carrion. In the early 1990s, more than 40 million vultures populated India, eating around 12 million tons of carrion every year.

The importance of vultures has only been magnified since then. As vulture populations decline to the brink of extinction (greatly due to toxic medication given to the cattle that the birds feed on), the resulting excess of carrion has led to an increase in the population of feral dogs, which are dangerous — even deadly — to humans.

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Red Foxes

red fox stands in backyard next to thick tree trunk and wooden fence

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Ask anyone with a chicken coop what they think of the red fox, and you'll probably get a range of less than favorable responses. The wily fox is well known — and well disliked — for its ability to ravage chickens, rabbits, and ducks. And, they have earned their reputation for smarts as there are few fenced areas that can successfully keep a tenacious fox away from the food housed within.

However, these varmints are helpful for farmers and ranchers. Like their larger cousin the coyote, red foxes are excellent at keeping rodent populations down. They hunt chipmunks, rats, mice, and voles that would otherwise become more of a pest to humans than the foxes themselves. They also eat carrion and, like other varmints on this list, are part of an important cleanup effort for their ecosystem.

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Jet black crow perches on wooden post and looks down toward ground

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There's a reason farmers invented the scarecrow. Crows are the bane of farmers' existence because they are fond of newly planted crops. For example, the birds are known for ruining corn crops by pulling up sprouts to eat the softened corn kernels. They are also 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 insects that are destructive to crops.

Crows also are scavengers of carrion. In fact, they can even help lead a predator like a coyote to prey and then go in for their share when the coyote is done feasting.

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opossum with long tail scales wooden fence near brick wall and house

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Opossums have a bad reputation, especially around homeowners. These creatures typically shelter in dens made by other animals, but it's not uncommon for them to lodge in homes; you can find them denning in attics, crawl spaces, basements, porches, and sheds. Additionally, opossums are well-despised for their ability to carry diseases including leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, and spotted fever.

While carrying diseases is not a mark in favor of the opossum, transmission to humans can be avoided with common-sense practices when dealing with the marsupial. What is a mark in its favor is the way it can help prevent the spread of other diseases — particularly Lyme disease.

A single opossum can consume 5,000 ticks each year, and collectively, opossums kill over 90 percent of ticks that could otherwise easily spread dangerous illness. Despite the frustration over their denning habits, opossums actually protect us.

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groundhog lifts head out from tunnel dug into dry ground

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As animals that burrow, groundhogs can be a farmer's worst nightmare. The digging devils create tunnels that can be hazardous to both livestock and farm equipment. Plus, their taste for vegetation such as corn, peas, beans, and carrots lead them to wreak havoc on crops. In more residential areas, they turn to gardens to get this food, much to the chagrin of those of us with green thumbs.

Despite this trouble, groundhogs do important work for their ecosystem (beyond predicting the length of winter). The tunnels they create are essential for soil aeration, which helps nutrients make their way to various plant roots and support growth. Additionally, their burrows are reused by foxes, rabbits, and other wildlife to protect from the cold when temperatures drop.