When wildlife and nocturnal animals come up to your back porch, you usually want to do whatever you can to get them going in the opposite direction.
Your first idea might be to yell and startle the animal, but this would require you to be on the lookout for animals pretty often.
Instead, there’s another option.
Motion sensor lights will deter animals such as deer, raccoons, skunks, and possums upon first interaction.
Over time these animals may learn that lights will not bring them harm, making the lights less effective long term.
In other words, motion sensor lights will most definitely startle any animal that sneaks up next to it for the first time.
However, the more that the animal comes back to revisit your property, the more likely they are to learn that the light is simply only a light.
All in all, there is a good theory and principle behind why motion sensor lights can be hit or miss in the long run.
Why Motion Sensor Lights Startle Animals in the First Place
The purpose of this article is to help you understand how and why you can use these motion sensor lights to keep unwanted wildlife away from your property.
To help you, I want to make sure you know where I’m coming from.
I’m going to be referencing motion sensor lights (and motion sensor water sprinklers in some cases) throughout this article that do well to deter pests and wildlife from your property.
The motion sensor light and water sprinkler I recommend are pretty darn good.
If you’re interested in keeping pests off your property by using lights and maybe a sprinkler, then check out this page here and go back to reference it while you’re reading the article.
This way, you’ll be able to understand what I’m talking about and why they work effectively.
Over the years, my father and I have used motion sensor lights quite successfully at our home.
Our property includes over 52 acres of land, with a vast majority of that being woodland area.
Naturally, having a lot of woodland areas on our property has led to a lot of uninvited guests coming close to our home.
We’ve had deer, raccoons, skunks, and possums all come up to our home at various points.
There have been other animals, but the main ones we’ve been worried about are skunks because we have a wonderful dog name Vito that we don’t want getting sprayed.
While Vito might not get sprayed by a skunk, the animals could easily spray something under the house or, worse; they could spray Vito (who hates baths).
Come to think of it, our older dog Bluto, a bulk Routwieler breed, got sprayed by a skunk when he was still around.
That was a great time.
Ever since we concluded that keeping these uninvited guests away from our home was a huge priority, we decided that installing motion sensor lights across all of the buildings on our property would be a good idea.
We put motion sensor lights on our garage, back porch, shed, and outbuilding in several different spots.
As a result, we haven’t seen many animals (although the light does go off at times during the night) or had any significant incidents ever since.
While we do have some coyotes as well, they seem to react to motion sensor lights slightly differently. You can read more about that topic by visiting here.
Generally, simply installing motion sensor lights to your home will not do the trick. There are a few things you need to do along with installing motion sensor lights that I’ll touch on in a bit.
In short, motion sensors can be hit or miss, in the long run. At first, they do work and can definitely help YOU in your situation.
In the long run, however, things are a little different – which I’ll address that later.
Here’s how motion sensor lights theoretically work against animals.
If you place a motion sensor light outside of your home, you’ll interrupt the survival goal of whatever creature is sneaking up in your back yard.
This rings true, especially for deer, possums, raccoons, or skunks.
These animals are incredibly skittish in general.
In my experience, possums tend to be the least startled out of the bunch.
Still, they respond well to unnatural light and noise, depending on the setting.
Here’s where motion sensor lights play a HUGE role with these skittish animals.
Motion sensor lights are designed to work during the nighttime when most of these animals are active. During the night, these animals are expecting it to stay DARK outside.
A sudden blast of blinding light will seem extremely unnatural to these animals – as it should.
Many nocturnal animals are nocturnal because they are prey and need to stay hidden to survive.
Predators can’t see their prey as well at night, so it’s natural why night time is a good place for them to stay hidden.
With a sudden blast of light, you’re evoking their biggest fear:
This is why motion sensor lights work so well.
Suddenly, the animal is exposed to the world and is very clearly visible.
They’ll want to get away from that area and QUICKLY find cover in the darkness.
The only downside is that motion sensor lights become less effective with repeated visits by the animal to your property.
That’s IF the animal comes back.
Why Motion Sensor Lights Do Not Always Work Long Term
So, motion sensor lights do work extremely well if that’s the animal’s first time visiting your property.
They also work well if that’s the animal’s first time interacting with a motion sensor light.
However, if the animal comes back to your property repeatedly during the nighttime, they’re more likely to learn that the motion sensor you are using is just simply… a light.
Yes, the light DOES evoke their natural fear of getting caught or discovered by another predator.
However, part of why the light works is because the animals have no idea just what the light is.
If the animal actually learns what the light is, then they’ll be less likely to be afraid of it as a result.
For larger predators, such as grizzly bears, lights do not and should not startle them too much because they are close to the top of the animal food chain.
If you’re interested in learning more, I wrote an article about using bright lights to deter bears that you can read here.
When we’re talking about nocturnal animals that are mostly prey (with coyotes in a group or pack being the exception), then lights should work when the animals first approach them.
Long term, if these animals keep visiting your property, then they main learn that the lights are simply lights.
By association, if nothing bad happens to them when the light shines on them, then they may learn that the light isn’t bad at all.
This will lead the animals to continue to search for food on your property.
However, there is STILL a use for motion sensor lights.
If used correctly, they can be extremely beneficial to you in both the short and long term.
For instance, flashing motion sensor lights seem to work well at deterring animals for a few months at a time.
If you get the right kind of motion sensor light (one with a strobe light) and clean up your property so that there is virtually nothing that will attract an animal to it or near it, then a motion sensor light can work well in the long run.
In these next sections, I’m going to explain how you can use motion sensor lights to deter animals in both the short term and long term if used correctly.
I’m going to go over using them for EACH specific animal I referenced earlier in the same order they were listed (deer, raccoons, skunks, possums).
So if you have a preference for one over the other, you can skip to that section accordingly.
Otherwise, I would recommend reading through all of the sections to make your property pest proof.
Why You Should Use Motion Sensor Lights to Deter Deer
Motion sensor lights and bright lights in general work wonders on deer.
In these next sections, all of the animals I’m going to talk about startle differently than others. Still, in my opinion, lights work the best on deer.
Thankfully, deer startle EXTREMELY easy to begin with.
If you haven’t checked out my about page yet, I used to work on several orchards during high school and college, where deer were extremely prevalent.
An orchard is not too different than a garden you would keep at your home. Farmers want to keep anything and everything away from their crops to protect them.
Deer are a huge farm pest because they view apples (and other crops) as a quick snack and will quickly indulge in as many as they can.
This is why farmers put up long and tall metal fencing to keep deer out.
Unfortunately for farmers, the deer sometimes make it through anyways.
Back during the summer, while I was still in college, I remember being with one of my friends on his orchard late at night looking for deer that were sneaking through the fence and eating the apples.
We went through each row with a truck and one by one, we shined an extremely bright high beam light on each row.
A few rows in, we spotted a doe (a female deer) grazing through the orchard.
Then, we were very quiet and shined the high beam on her.
Suddenly, the doe looked up, stared at us, and BOLTED in the other direction like she was part of a track and field event.
In total, we ended up getting her and another calf (a baby deer) out of the orchard that night by simply shining a light on them and watching them take off through the same way they came in.
The fence was fixed shortly after, and the problems stopped for a bit.
This is where I learned that lights specifically CAN and will startle deer, rather easily. Simply put, this is because deer startle very easily to any human activity.
Using that knowledge, to keep deer off our property, we’ve installed a motion sensor light on our back deck.
Deer specifically, we don’t want them eating anything out of our flowerbed. They aren’t our main targets with the motion sensor, but it’s nice not to have our plants eaten.
Next to our flowerbed, we have an apple tree planted next to our back deck.
The tree is in the range of our motion sensor light, and we haven’t had a single bite mark on any of the apples.
We never sprayed the apples or treated them in any way, but we live on a large woodland land where I see deer each week during the Fall. They’d be sure to come and eat the apples if given the opportunity.
The apples were somewhat eaten by insects, but not by deer in the slightest (there were no bite marks), which is reassuring since the motion sensor light tends to go off late at night for no apparent reason.
Using motion sensor lights to deter skittish animals like deer will generally work out rather well.
How to Use Motion Sensor Lights to Deter Deer
Remember, you’re going to want a battery operated motion sensor light. I’m going to mention it multiple times, so you make sure to remember it.
Here’s how we deter deer using a motion sensor light.
If you want to keep deer away from your HOME using motion sensor lights, you’ll first need to try and limit the excess amount of food growing near your house.
You then need to place motion sensor lights in areas where you do not want the deer to be.
This means possibly placing multiple motion sensor lights around your home so that NO area is uncovered.
If deer are coming up to your deck at night, set the motion sensor lights there.
If they’re going near your flowerbed, place the lights slightly above the bed.
IMPORTANT: You need to invest in a battery-operated motion sensor light in order to place it anywhere you want, such as on a tree near your garden.
If there is no food near your home and your desired area is covered with motion sensor lights, you should be good to go.
If you’re trying to keep deer away from your GARDEN, set up a motion sensor light by placing it on a nearby tree or on the side of your house.
Whether it’s your house or your garden, the steps are relatively the same.
Place the battery operated motion sensor light on your home or a tree where the deer are coming and point it in the direction you want the deer to avoid.
This next step is optional, but it will definitely enhance the effectiveness of the motion sensor light.
If you’re up for it, you’ll want to use a motion sensor water sprinkler and place it next to your motion sensor light.
This will spray the deer with a thick blast of water and make them extremely aversive to both the light and sprinkler (it will also water your plants).
Here’s a shortlist to keep deer away from your property using a motion sensor light:
- Determine where deer are entering your property
- Look for markings near or around your porch and plants that have been eaten in your garden
- Obtain a motion sensor light (one that flashes is better)
- Install your motion sensor light where the deer are entering your property
- Install a motion sensor water sprinkler to strengthen the effectiveness of the light
Basically, find where they’re coming into your property, get a motion sensor light (ones that flash can confuse the animal more), put the light up, and install a motion sensor water sprinkler as an extremely effective extra deterrent.
The deer will end up associating getting sprayed with water by the sight of the light, making the sprinkler and light combination rather effective.
Don’t get me wrong. For deer, you can simply use a motion sensor light and deter them. Deer are definitely skittish enough for it
This will possibly work for a while. However, you’ll have a slam dunk if you pair the light with a sprinkler.
The sprinkler really ads to how effective the light is, and I can’t stress that enough.
For deer, they startle easy at human activity, so there’s a chance they may even BOLT away from your garden at the sound of the sprinkler gearing up.
Also, the sprinkler adds a crucial variable of something ACTUALLY physical touching the animal.
No animal wants to get sprayed by something while it’s just trying to search for the food.
Of course, you’ll need to place this sprinkler in the range of your water hose, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Feel free to set this sprinkler up under your deck, porch, or steps as well if that’s where deer are coming up to.
Deer most commonly visit gardens for free food, so that would be a great spot as well.
Just MAKE SURE that the motion sensor light and motion sensor water sprinkler cover the same area.
Doing this will make the animal learn to associate the light with getting sprayed by water, making them extra likely not to come back.
Out of all of the animals that I’m going to talk about, the light by itself should work in the long run to deter deer.
However, if you pair it with the motion sensor water sprinkler, you’ll be in fantastic shape to deter deer for the long haul.
Why You Should Use Motion Sensor Lights to Keep Raccoons Away
So the next method here is going to be pretty similar to the method we’re using to deter deer – except with some extra emphasis on using a motion sensor water sprinkler.
Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with a TON of raccoons.
Normally, I’ve seen them while I’m driving or they’re just passing by many yards away from my house.
Growing up, we kept our garbage out at the end of our 400ft driveway in nicely sealed containers, so we didn’t have a ton of issues there.
Driving by raccoons in my driveway, I’ve noticed that they tend to stop and stare at the headlights of the car. They seem to be more curious than fearful.
While the majority of raccoons are probably skittish, all of them are most definitely curious.
When I’ve seen raccoons, they’ve mostly been yards away from our house, trotting near our garden or in our driveway like I was talking about.
In my opinion and from some basic interactions, raccoons don’t seem to be extremely skittish.
They tend to stay close to wooded areas, parks and residential areas. Mostly, these are the areas that have available food for them with little disturbance.
When raccoons go into these areas, they most likely do so because they don’t expect there to be a lot of disturbance trying to get to their food.
They stay in wooded areas because they can easily find cover from predators.
There’s also a lot of cover near your home as well, which makes them more likely to venture near your garden.
Raccoons actually tend to stay away from open fields for the most part. In theory, this COULD be due to a lack of cover for the raccoon while searching for food.
It could easily get snatched up by another predator while in an open field.
If you use a motion sensor light to deter a raccoon, you’ll be exposing them to other predators making them less likely to stay on your property.
Additionally, if you remove your property of cover spots where Raccoons may hide, you’ll make them even less likely to want to step foot onto your property in the first place.
How to Use Motion Sensor Light to Deter Raccoons
So far, we’ve established that raccoons aren’t incredibly skittish, but they do not prefer to go to open areas.
Before you install a motion sensor light, the FIRST thing you should do to keep raccoons away from your property is to eliminate as many objects and brush on your property as you can (this will help when using a motion sensor light).
Look into cutting down unnecessary bushes, removing objects in your yard, and making sure there is as little cover as possible for raccoons to hide.
It’s essential that you get rid of these hiding spots before installing a motion sensor light to deter raccoons.
This will ensure that once the raccoons get light shined on them, they won’t have cover to get behind.
Also, the lack of debris in your yard will deter raccoons in the first place, leading them to avoid your yard altogether hopefully.
Once you’ve removed as many cover spots from your yard as you can, you’ll then want to determine where the raccoons are entering your property from.
Are they going to your garden? Or maybe they’re looking to go through your trash cans? Look for signs of disruption around these areas and bites or digging near your plants.
These are two very likely places that raccoons like to go after. Additionally, check under your porch or deck as they may be taking up residence there.
Once you’ve determined just where the raccoons are coming from, then go ahead and install the motion sensor in the area that the raccoons are visiting the most.
Remember, you want a BATTERY OPERATED motion sensor light so you can put it anywhere you want.
Getting a battery operated motion sensor light will allow you to place it just about anywhere you want.
Look to put the motion sensor light on the side of your home or on a tree, just like we did to deter deer in the last section.
Here are the steps to use a motion sensor light to deter raccoons:
- Clear your property of any debris where the raccoons may hide
- Determine where raccoons are on your property
- Look for markings near your trash cans and garden
- Get a motion sensor light, preferably a flashing one
- Install the motion sensor light on the side of your house
- To maximize effectiveness, install a motion sensor water sprinkler in the same path as the motion sensor light (Optional)
Installing the motion sensor water sprinkler will make the motion sensor light much more effective in deterring raccoons.
When you pair the motion sensor water sprinkler with a motion sensor light, you are essentially adding a second defense mechanism that will deter the raccoons naturally.
The raccoon may think that the motion sensor water sprinkler is coming from the light itself, and will learn that seeing that light means getting sprayed with water.
If you leave the light by itself, over time, the animals may learn that the light is simply a light and that it won’t actually bring them any harm.
It’s not a guarantee that this will happen, but by pairing the light with a motion sensor water sprinkler, it will be highly likely that the animal will not want to come back.
Remember, get a battery-operated motion sensor light that also has a strobe light feature.
The battery option will make the light mobile, and the strobe light will daze and confuse the raccoon. This will help more since they are a bit skittish.
Why Using a Motion Sensor Light Will Deter Skunks
The good news is, skunks truly prefer to be near man-made structures. Yes, I’m serious, this is actually good news.
Skunks love to be near man-made structures because they aren’t truly great at defending themselves from predators. They have their spray, and that’s about it.
Even then, their spray takes quite some time to regenerate. If you want to read more about that, read this article here.
Case in point, skunks, aren’t really that great at defending themselves against predators. Much like raccoons, they need to be in a covered area so they can duck and hide quickly if needed.
In my personal experience, we’ve had skunks under our deck before. This is an extremely likely place for them to be.
They prefer man-made structures and seemingly dislike open fields due to the lack of cover they have surrounding them.
In order to get a motion sensor light to deter a skunk on your property, you first must make your property look more like an open field.
No, you don’t need to tear down all of your landscaping – but rather, get rid of all of the necessary items in your yard that skunks can hide in. Extra bushes and tall grass are key here.
Obviously, you can’t take down everything, but skunks aren’t really detrimental to your garden, so you shouldn’t have to worry about them being near it.
You are cleaning your yard and using a motion sensor light so that the skunks do NOT spray near your property. This is more about the spray than anything else.
The light, combined with the open areas of your yard will make the skunk quickly look for cover. If there is no other cover on your property, then the skunk will have to retreat back to where it came from so that it can once again get undercover.
How to Keep Skunks Away With Motion Sensor Lights
The steps we’re going to take here will be similar to the ones we used to deter raccoons.
Essentially with skunks, we want to clear your property of ANYTHING unnecessary that might provide cover for a skunk.
Remember, skunks like to be covered to avoid being drawn out by predators.
You need to make sure to do this to all areas of your property in order to make sure your home is totally covered. Do this BEFORE putting up the motion sensor light.
Here are all of the steps to keep skunks off of your property using a motion sensor light:
- Clean your property and get rid of areas where skunks may hide
- Check different areas of your property for signs of skunks
- Look under your porch and in wooded areas for common places
- Get a flashing motion sensor light
- Put the motion sensor light on your deck or side of your home
- Install a motion sensor water sprinkler in the area that skunks visit the most (Optional)
Cleaning your property will not only allow you to get rid of skunk hiding spots, but you’ll also be able to see signs of skunks, such as tracks or holes in the lawn.
After cleaning your property, the area that you’ll first want to check is underneath your deck since this is an easy, nice, man-made shelter for the skunks to take up home in.
If they are not there, see if you have any wooded areas on your property. We have a very large woodpile for our wood furnace where many critters take shelter on occasion.
I’ve mentioned it throughout, but make sure you invest in a battery-operated, flashing motion sensor light.
The one I recommend has both (link at the beginning of the article).
The flashing strobe light of the motion sensor will daze and confuse the skunk so that it has trouble seeing, and in turn, the skunk will turn away.
Since we aren’t trying to protect your garden so much here, you’re definitely going to want to put the motion sensor light on the side of your home and preferably in front of your deck, as this is a likely spot for skunks to visit.
It’s very important to keep skunks away from your deck as you or a pet could walk outside and accidentally get sprayed.
This is where I REALLY recommend getting a motion sensor water sprinkler.
The one I recommend is top quality, but just getting any motion sensor sprinkler is a great first step.
The sprinkler will naturally spray the skunk with water every time it approaches the area.
If you place the sprinkler underneath your deck or in front of your porch, you’ll be able to blast the skunk with water before it gets too close.
When you pair this with the motion sensor light, the animal will most likely start to learn that seeing the light means getting sprayed by the sprinkler, which means that it will stay far away in order not to get sprayed by an unknown force.
If you leave the light by itself, the animal may return and get blasted by the light again only to find out that the light does not actually bring it harm.
Pairing the light with the motion sensor water sprinkler will do wonders in making a stronger deterrent.
Why Using Motion Sensor Lights Will Deter Opossums
This is the last animal that I’m going to cover. Possums are very similar to raccoons in the sense that they are very curious creatures.
Notably, they are skittish as well due to the fact they do not have a great defense against prey.
The main defense of a possum comes from “playing dead” where the animals literally lie on the ground and act like they are dead.
It’s an odd defense mechanism but seems to work for the possums.
The reason that I say possums are similar to raccoons is that they also dislike being in exposed positions where predators can get them.
Motion sensor lights will work by exposing possums to predators, which in turn, will deter the possums away from your property.
If you use a motion sensor light along with cleaning your property thoroughly, you should be in pretty great shape.
As long as you don’t leave a lot of places for possums to hide, they won’t want to be on your property very long.
Especially if you have a motion sensor light installed, they possums won’t have a ton of areas to hide.
How to Deter Possums Using Motion Sensor Lights
The first step in using motion sensor lights to deter possums is similar to how we keep raccoons and skunks off of your property.
We need to get rid of any potential hiding spaces on your property in order to deter possums in the first place.
While it may seem like we should determine where the possums are coming from BEFORE getting rid of hiding spaces, this actually is not the best course of action.
By cleaning the property and getting rid of hiding spaces, you’ll most likely be able to find signs of possums in the process.
Additionally, by cleaning your property before installing the motion sensor light, you’ll be able to prevent possums from just simply moving to another area on your property – which is something they’d easily be able to do if your property is filled with clutter.
Here are the steps to using a motion sensor light to deter possums:
- Make sure your property is clear of clutter
- Clean your property and check for signs of possums
- Check for possums in wet areas, trees and under porches
- Install a battery-operated, flashing motion sensor light or lights on your property where possums are entering
- Place this motion sensor on a tree or on the siding of your home
- To add effectiveness, install a motion sensor water sprinkler along with the same range as the motion sensor light (Optional)
The flashing motion sensor light will daze the possums and make them confused – most likely frightening them and having them take off in the other direction.
Again, make sure your motion sensor light is battery operated.
If you can’t find a battery operated motion sensor light that does not have a flashing setting, then that’s okay (although the one I recommend has both).
The versatility of the battery-powered light is the most important thing.
This way, you’ll be able to stick the motion sensor light ANYWHERE – such as a tree or the side of your house or maybe even under your deck if that is where you’re finding possums.
I’ve touched on this a lot, but if you add a motion sensor water sprinkler and put it in the same range as the motion sensor light, you will really increase the effectiveness of the deterrent.
Not only will the possum get exposed by the light, but it will also get blasted by a sudden spray of water, possibly making it think that it’s in danger.
This will either get one of two reactions from the possum:
It will run away, or it will play dead.
My money is on the idea that it will play dead, which will definitely make the animal never want to come back to your property.
For animals that are likely to go under your deck or in your garden, I do recommend using the motion sensor water sprinkler because the light by itself might not work over the long term in those areas.
While it should definitely work at first, if the animal comes back, there IS an opportunity for it to learn that the light is simply a light.
For an animal like a possum, pairing it with the sprinkler is a backup way to make sure it doesn’t want to come back to your property.
Rosatte R. C Power M. J. MacInnes C. D.. 1991. Ecology of urban skunks, raccoons, and foxes in metropolitan Toronto. Pp. 31–38 in Wildlife conservation in metropolitan environments (Adams L. W. Leedy D. L., eds.). National Institute for Urban Wildlife, Columbia, Maryland.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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