Rhode Island is home to over 800 native and non-native wildlife species. Coyotes, raccoons, and skunks are among the most common mammals and are often found close to homes due to their opportunistic nature. Rhode Island is also home to deer, opossums, turtles, squirrels, rabbits, and a variety of wide variety of birds. Some of the major wildlife groups are described below.
The class Mammalia represents some of the largest animals in our woodlands. Throughout Rhode Island’s history, various mammals have left the landscape, been introduced, or have returned to the state. Of the 90+ species of mammals that inhabit Rhode Island, the Virginia opossum, coyote, fisher, and beaver have recently established or reestablished breeding populations. Black bear sightings have also increased recently as CT and MA breeding populations grow.
Rhode Island is home to several generalist mammal species, such as the white-tailed deer, that are well suited for living in proximity to humans. Rhode Island’s New England cottontail population has not fared as well over the last century, as the species requires dense regeneration – a stage of forest succession that is no longer abundant. These two mammal species represent the dynamic that human development has created, as a once abundant species diminishes and another overpopulates our landscape.
Foxes, squirrels, raccoons, weasels, and bats are also among the most common Rhode Island mammal species. Statewide monitoring of hunting and trapping of game species provides annual harvest data, which helps the state to calculate population sizes and identify the presence of new species. These estimates are used to prioritize future conservation management activities.
Over 400 bird species are known to occur in Rhode Island, with around 170 nesting species and 150 regular migrants, according to Rhode Island’s 2005 Wildlife Action Plan. Woodlands and shrublands are especially important components of land bird habitat, as they provide opportunities for food, shelter, and nesting.
Shrubland and early successional woodland birds are among the most threatened throughout the state and throughout New England, as these habitat types continue to decrease. The northern bobwhite, American woodcock, willow flycatcher, eastern kingbird, brown thrasher, blue-winged warbler, prairie warbler, eastern towhee, field sparrow, and cerulean warbler are just a few at-risk species that require this kind of habitat in Rhode Island.
Woodpeckers, warblers, and owls can also be seen in our forest canopies while wild turkeys pass through the undergrowth. But these groups represent only a fraction of the Rhode Island bird watcher’s repertoire. For information about birds in Rhode Island and where to view them, click here.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and snakes are common throughout Rhode Island’s woodlands. Several amphibian and reptile populations depend upon vernal pools (where water collects seasonally in low areas of the forest floor) to breed. These habitat features are generally at-risk as land development transforms or eliminates vernal pools. Therefore, organizations aiming to conserve these species often give priority to vernal pool monitoring and identification.
Rhode Island’s wooded uplands provide moist conditions and down woody material to support other stages of reptile and amphibian development. Many species seek protection beneath logs and branches, where they find insects or other food sources. Reptiles and amphibians are also known to eat berries, grasses, flowers, or even small mammals and birds.
Twenty-seven reptiles and amphibians are considered “species of concern” in Rhode Island, meaning that populations are low or habitat is threatened. Among these species are reptiles such as the eastern box turtle, the eastern hognose snake, and the eastern ribbon snake; and amphibians such as the eastern spadefoot toad and the northern leapard frog.
Because marine fisheries are so important in coastal states such as Rhode Island, we tend to forget that freshwater fisheries can be great indicators of habitat quality and can even influence off shore fisheries. Many species of fish are considered anadromous, which means that they live out most of their lives in the ocean, but swim inland when it comes time to spawn. Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s 500+ dams make this transition difficult. The Atlantic sturgeon – an anadromous fish in Rhode Island and one of the oldest species in the world – now holds a place on the Endangered Species list.
Water quality is highly dependent on forest cover. Vegetation can stop erosion and paths of pollution while shade from the canopy keeps water temperatures cool. Therefore, land conversion and urbanization directly influence fish habitat. To boost fish populations and support recreational inland fishing, many Rhode Island waters are stocked with trout, bass, and various anadromous species. Our efforts against land conversion can also have a profound impact on preventing future endangerment and extirpation.
Thousands of species invertebrates are likely to exist in Rhode Island, but only about 400 species have been recorded in Rhode Island’s Natural Heritage Database. Therefore, knowledge of this group is somewhat limited. Foresters and forest ecologists often focus on species that threaten trees, such as the Asian longhorned beetle and the hemlock woolly adelgid, in order to better understand these species’ relationships.
Invertebrates can be great environmental indicators. For example, the presence of mayflies indicates good water quality due to the species’ intolerance of low dissolved oxygen levels. Invertebrates can also be sensitive to changes in temperature, competitors, ground cover, or any number of environmental factors.
Threatened and Endangered Species
Several species are considered threatened or endangered within Rhode Island. This distinction is put in place to help wildlife populations recover. See our Threatened and Endangered Species page for listings and more information. Visit the RIDEM webpage for Wildlife Management and Hunter Education for fact sheets on individual species and wildlife-related information.
Rhode Island woods provide many different habitat features which are required by our wildlife species, including tree age class diversity, dead woody material, natural food sources, and clean water. You can support wildlife on your own property by enhancing the availability of some or all of these features. For example, maintaining a diversity of tree age classes allow species such as American woodcock to find the young forest habitat they need while Scarlet tanagers utilize a nearby mature forest. These habitats are important for mating, foraging, and nesting alike. Dead woody material is important for many species – insects and amphibians, such as the Eastern newt, can be found living under decomposing woody material on the forest floor where the local environmental is cool, moist, and nutrient-rich. Vernal pools, streams, lakes, and ponds are also heavily influenced by forest dynamics, and the quality of the water can determine which species thrive and which make their homes elsewhere.
Tree Size and Age
Rhode Island currently has greater numbers of larger and older trees than we’ve seen for more than a century. According to a 2012 Forest Service Report on the forests of Southern New England, 70 percent of our forests are between 60 and 100 years of age, with the majority in the 60-80 year class. The number of large trees has been steadily increasing, while the smallest size class has decreased from 10 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 2007. The increasing age and size of our forests is beneficial for some wildlife species. However, this trend means that the extent of shrubby young forest habitat is decreasing, and many species which require young forest habitat are now at risk. A recent study of young forest habitat by the University of Rhode Island concluded the extent of this type of habitat in upland non-coastal areas is decreasing by 1.5% per year, and recommended increased forest management on private and public land.
Dead Woody Materials
Standing dead trees, or snags, provide habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, fungi, and bacteria. Softwood species, such as soft maples, white pine, and hemlock, make up the highest presence of snags in our forests today. Small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and bacteria will also make their homes under fallen trees and branches, where they aid in decomposition and nutrient recycling.
Food for Wildlife
Every layer of Rhode Island woodlands has something to offer. Shrubs and other undergrowth provide food, cover, and nesting habitat for many woodland wildlife species. Fruit-bearing and mast-producing trees, such as black gum, cherries, oaks, hickories, and beech, also produce a steady food source that can be stored throughout the year. Even large and/or dead trees are available as feeding sites for species that prefer to eat insects or small mammals.
Forests and Water
Trees and other vegetation improve drinking water and habitat quality by obstructing paths of erosion, sedimentation, and nutrient overloading in water bodies. These natural filters also provide the shade that makes temperatures tolerable for freshwater fish and invertebrates. See Forests and Clean Water for more information.