Meet Your Wild Neighbors


That’s what Spanish explorers reportedly named Hilton Head Island—Isla de los Osos—when they sojourned the Port Royal Sound in the 1520s. And so began the legend that the Island and the Lowcountry were a primordial paradise populated by swamp dragons, stilt-legged prehistoric looking birds, and huge bigheaded fish that rose to the surface to breathe air. As late as the 1960s, wild turkeys roamed the pinelands and wild boar reaped havoc on lawns and fairways. And in the past 20 years new species of wildlife have arrived. Learning to coexist with residential critters is an everyday activity for coastal folk. But the interface of people and wildlife, sometimes inspiring, sometimes aggravating, challenges our role as stewards of natural resources here.


The American alligator is prima facie proof that this semitropical clime is exotic and wild. The gator is kin to crocodiles and lives in freshwater wetlands. But since development began in the 60’s, alligators have settled in manmade storm-water storage basins locally called “lagoons.” Locals report that a gator moved into the first pond in Sun City Hilton Head just one day after it was excavated. On Hilton Head Island, the alligator population likely exceeds 1,000 (counting annual hatchlings). So it’s very likely that you will see and alligator soon. What you need to know: Alligators are not tame. Don’t approach, tease or feed gators. In gator country, watch these wild animals from a distance, and avoid feeding them.


White-tailed deer have lived on the coast for at least 10,000 years, according to fossil finds. A documented subspecies, Odocoileus virginianus hiltonensis, (notice the last name!) is one of 30 varieties in the U.S. It is smaller than the deer on the mainland. Island soils and vegetation are not as nutritious, causing a lower rate of growth. This is the key to why deer eat your prized landscape flora. These plants are lovingly irrigated and fertilized, and thus offer more nutrients for ever-browsing deer. What you need to know: Deer are active between dawn and dusk, so drivers: watch for them near neighborhood streets. Plant native vegetation instead of exotics. Local nurseries can help you choose deer-resistant varieties. And repellants? I give them a C+ for effectiveness.


After sundown, you’ll hear all manner of clatter, croaks, and calls, from nocturnal wildlife. Raccoons, also smaller on Hilton Head Island, are omnivores (means “I will eat anything”) that tip garbage cans in search of ripe morsels. Opossums, recognized by their thin snout and naked, scaly tail, prefer to nest under decking. What you need to know: firmly secure garbage can lids at all times, and don’t leave pet food outdoors at any time of day. Install a barrier under decking to keep away ‘possums.


Nature is a long drama of migration, invasion, adaptation, and survival. In the last 15 years these rare or new species have moved into the Lowcountry: American beaver, nine-banded armadillo, black bear, eastern cougar and coyote. And with changing weather patterns, new species of birds, butterflies, bees, and less friendly insects have moved into the neighborhood.  Add to this the growing population of people, and it’s guaranteed: expect even more meet-ups with our wild neighbors.

For more information abut Lowcountry wildlife, contact the Coastal Discovery Museum (689-3033).