White-tailed Deer Northern River Otter Woodchuck Eastern Gray Squirrel

What is a mammal?

To most people, the words 'mammal' and 'animal' are interchangeable; they mean the same thing. This is, in fact, not true however, as the word 'animal' actually also includes birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates - pretty much anything living that isn't a plant or a fungus (or some weird microscopic thing - and some of them are animals too!) With a few quirky exceptions, mammals can largely be defined as bearing live young - which are initially suckled by the mother - and having body hair. This is a very diverse group that includes tiny animals such as mice, shrews and bats, all the way up through rabbits, dogs, cats, sheep, cows and horses, to elephants and whales.

Though many people find mammals interesting and fascinating to watch, the large majority of species are nocturnal, making them difficult to see, let alone study. Being nocturnal is useful for smaller species as it affords them more protection from daytime predators such as birds, while larger mammals benefit by avoiding people. Since seeing them can be so hard, a better way to detect the presence of many species is to be aware of the tracks and signs that they leave behind so, where possible, these are also included in this identification guide.

(For a list of all mammal species on the site, click here)

Virginia Opossum      Didelphis virginiana

A common and widespread species throughout the county and sadly one of the three species most likely to be seen as a road kill (along with skunk and raccoon). This is an interesting species as it is the only marsupial that reaches so far up into the northern temperate zone from the tropics. Marsupials give birth to their young 'prematurely' and tend them in a pouch that the female has until they are big enough to venture further afield. Virginia Opossums are cat-sized, mostly grizzled gray with white heads and with a peculiar, pink-tipped tail that is prehensile - that is, it can be used as a fifth limb to hang on to tree banches.
Virginia Opossum Virginia Opossum Virginia Opossum
Road casualty
Road casualty

Eastern Cottontail      Sylvilagus floridanus

A widespread and common species which is largely found in scrubby areas or very light woodland. Our only rabbit in Cape May County and thus identifiable without too much problem. Color varies a little from grizzled grayish to warm brown, but animals tend to look more grizzled in late summer when they are molting.
Eastern Cottontail Eastern Cottontail Eastern Cottontail Eastern Cottontail
Grizzled look
in late summer
Young animals
have shorter ears

Woodchuck      Marmota monax

Widespread but local, generally avoiding heavily wooded or swampy areas. Woodchucks (also known as Groundhogs) are actually a species of marmot, a group of animals that are most common in mountainous areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Woodchucks live in burrows dug into the ground and are most often seen on grassy road verges in the northern half of the county. They are short-legged and rather chunky in appearance, with fur that is a mixture of chocolate-brown and grayish.
Woodchuck Woodchuck Woodchuck

Eastern Chipmunk      Tamias striatus

Uncommon in Cape May County and largely confined to the larger woodland tracts in the northern third of the county. Chipmunks are endearing rodents that can be popular as pets and are most closely related to the squirrels. Unfortunately populations suffer greatly from being targeted by domestic cats and this is probably at least one of the reasons for their limited distribution in our area. Eastern Chipmunks are small, very active and very agile and are often first detected by their high-pitched, bird-like alarm whistles. Though they spend a lot of time on the forest floor, they are also good climbers.
Eastern Chipmunk Eastern Chipmunk Eastern Chipmunk Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Gray Squirrel      Sciurus carolinensis

Very common and found throughout the county in forests and other well-wooded areas. A common backyard species and one which has had a long-running battle with the owners of backyard bird feeders! Most animals are gray with a white belly and usually have varying amounts of reddish brown on the head and body. In natural woodland, squirrels have well-marked territories, but in built-up areas, concentrations at good feeding areas can be quite high with some backyard feeders attracting up to 20 individuals at times.
Eastern Gray Squirrel Eastern Gray Squirrel Eastern Gray Squirrel

Southern Flying Squirrel      Glaucomys volans

A rather shy, nocturnal species so doubtless under-recorded, though flying squirrels can often be found coming to bird feeders at night. Perhaps best detected by looking for acorns with a distinct small hole chewed in one end. Much smaller than the familiar Eastern Gray Squirrel and unlikely to be seen out and about during the day.
Southern Flying Squirrel

White-footed Mouse      Peromyscus leucopus

A common small rodent throughout the county, being found in a wide range of both wooded and open habitats. This species generally spends the summer out of doors, but will enter houses during the winter months and can be a problem in such situations. Differs from the House Mouse by having a relatively longer tail and being browner above and clean white below.
White-footed Mouse White-footed Mouse White-footed Mouse

House Mouse      Mus musculus

Introduced from Europe. A common small rodent throughout the county, but generally confined to inhabited areas where it can be a real problem in factories, stores and private homes, wherever food items are stored. Can be told from White-footed Mouse by its overall grayish-brown coloration, being only slightly paler below than above.
House Mouse House Mouse House Mouse

Brown Rat      Rattus norvegicus

(Norway Rat) Originally from Asia, this species is now more or less cosmopolitan. Largely nocturnal, the species is not often seen but is likely to be widespread in our area. Larger and chunkier than a mouse with a noticeably thicker-based, blunt-tipped tail.
Brown Rat Brown Rat Brown Rat

Meadow Vole      Microtus pennsylvanicus

A widespread and abundant species, found in all kinds of grassy places, including saltmarsh. Despite its abundance, this species is rarely seen and its presence is most easily detected by the grass-lined burrows and trails that it makes through dense vegetation. This can be most noticeable after snow, when trails laid at ground level become apparent after the snow thaws. Voles are heavier-headed, blunter-nosed and have relatively smaller ears than mice.
Meadow Vole Meadow Vole Meadow Vole

Common Muskrat      Ondatra zibethicus

A widespread and common species which is found in fresh and slightly saline wetland habitats. A chunky, brown rodent which in many ways resembles a small beaver, but can be told from that species by its much narrower tail. This species is most often observed in late summer and fall, when they are feeding young or ferrying back and forth across open water channels with food items. Their presence is easily detected by their large homes, called 'lodges' which are large mounds of sticks and other vegetation and can easily be seen in the winter when the stands of Common Reed die down.
Common Muskrat Common Muskrat Common Muskrat

Common Muskrat Common Muskrat
winter lodge

Domestic Cat      Felis 'domesticus'

Stray or feral cats are a common sight in the Cape May environment and evoke much emotion and polarized discussions as to their effects on the ecosystem. Cats come in many colors and forms; black, black-and-white, tortoiseshell and tabby and with long or short hair - among many other combinations. Included here is an example of an individual that closely resembles the ancestral European Wild Cat (Felis sylvestris) and which could perhaps be mistaken for a Bobcat in some circumstances - but note the long tail and more extensive striping.
Domestic Cat Domestic Cat Domestic Cat Domestic Cat

Striped Skunk      Mephitis mephitis

A common and widespread species that may be found in most types of habitats. Like squirrels and raccoons, skunks have adapted well to life among people but are certainly not popular due to a certain reputation they have when it comes to smells! Striped Skunks are rather variable in color and the back and tail can be nearly all white or nearly all black, with much variation in between.
Striped Skunk Striped Skunk Striped Skunk

Striped Skunk Striped Skunk

American Mink      Mustela vison

An elusive species of wetlands that is occasionally reported from the northern end of the County. Most often seen running swiftly along the edge of waterways, or swimming in narrow creeks. Could be mistaken for an otter but minks are much smaller with a more pointed snout. If seen well, the chin is white, contrasting with the darker color of the rest of the fur.
American Mink American Mink

Northern River Otter      Lontra canadensis

An uncommon and elusive species which is widespread in all kinds of wetland habitats, but difficult to observe. Family groups need large home territories where they hunt mostly fish but will also eat other animals on occasion, such as small mammals and birds. When not persecuted, otters feed readily during the day and can become accustomed to low levels of human disturbance. Northern River Otters can grow to some four and a half feet in length and are most often confused with Muskrats, but are clearly much larger. Males are mostly solitary but family groups of a female with up to four young may be seen at times.
Northern River Otter Northern River Otter Northern River Otter

Northern River Otter
Droppings (Spraint) usually
full of fish scales

Northern Raccoon      Procyon lotor

A very common and highly adaptive species that has learned to cope well with life in our world. Raccoons are well-known and are well-loved or hated, depending on personal experience! Though nocturnal, they can be seen with more regularity than other nocturnal animals as they spend much of their time in urban and suburban environments.
Northern Raccoon Northern Raccoon Northern Raccoon Northern Raccoon
In tree hole
Feasting on mulberries

Eastern Mole      Scalopus aquaticus

A very common and widespread species, though its subterranean habits make it hard to study. Often considered a nuisance when they tunnel across prized lawns, moles favor damper, loamy soils that offer the best tunneling conditions and highest concentrations of earthworms, their favored prey. In this species, note the short tail and pointed nose.
Eastern Mole Eastern Mole Eastern Mole
Forelimbs developed for digging
Tail fairly short

Northern Short-tailed Shrew      Blarina brevicauda

Shrews are tiny but very hyperactive mammals. This species is widespread in North America and almost certainly very common and widespread in Cape May County, but such small mammals are very hard to survey. Unless specifically searched for using live mammal traps, this species is most likely to only be seen if picked up dead as a road kill. Shrews resemble mice but are generally smaller, shorter-tailed and with more pointed snouts. Many species have red tips to their teeth.
Northern Short-tailed Shrew Northern Short-tailed Shrew Northern Short-tailed Shrew
Teeth are tipped dark red

Silver-haired Bat      Lasionycteris noctivagans

A widespread species, being found throughout most of North America. Migrates south for the winter so may occasionally be seen in spring or fall as a migrant. Dark, blackish-brown overall with a pale frosting to the tips of the body fur. A good identification feature if seen up close is the pale base to the ears. Quite distinctive in flight as the species has a slow flight with shallow, measured wingbeats.
Silver-haired Bat Silver-haired Bat Silver-haired Bat Silver-haired Bat
Note pale base to ears

Eastern Red Bat      Lasiurus borealis

A widespread species, being found throughout most of Eastern North America. Migrates south for the winter and is the species most often seen in fall as a migrant at Cape May Point. When not breeding, individuals often roost during the day in bushes or trees, hanging in a location where they can easily drop down and away from the roost site if disturbed. Easily told locally by its bright orange-red coloration and the contrasting white shoulder patch. This is the bat species most likely to be seen on the wing during daylight.
Eastern Red Bat Eastern Red Bat Eastern Red Bat

White-tailed Deer      Odocoileus virginianus

A very common and widespread species which may be found in wooded areas or more open areas if there is good cover nearby. Generally not a herding species and usually seen solitarily or in small groups of up to six or so individuals. White-tailed Deer is our only deer species, so is easily recognized. Interest in hunting deer seems to have waned in recent years and, with the persecution of other mammal species that would otherwise help to control their numbers, they have become a problem in some areas and can cause much damage to the environment when they overgraze certain plant species. The high numbers of deer are almost certainly at least a contributing factor to the decline in many wildflower species, particularly orchids. Adults have reddish summer coats and duller, browner winter ones, while youngsters are spotted.
White-tailed Deer White-tailed Deer White-tailed Deer White-tailed Deer
Female in summer
Male in winter

Common Bottlenose Dolphin      Tursiops truncatus

A common species around the coastal waters of Cape May and often easily seen from shore. Most often seen in the waters at the mouth of the Delaware Bay around Cape May Point and present from late March in late fall. The local population retreats southward during the winter months.
Common Bottlenose Dolphin Common Bottlenose Dolphin Common Bottlenose Dolphin