A Summer Under Siege

| by Ken | in House & Home Add comments

It was a summer under siege by wildlife.  We had all kids of critters causing all kinds of new issues.  And it isn’t like we moved deep into the suburbs.  We are still in our near-urban location with our same density of houses.  (Sorry, but on the blog, no specific places to be named.)  Yet the critters found us this year in great numbers.  Here’s the roundup – as of November.

One evening in early summer as we were getting ready to wrap up outside and the kids had gone in while I was putting stuff away outside, I saw something dark in the shadows dart out of one neighbor’s bushes and run across our back yard to the other neighbor.  I followed it and saw it crawl into the second neighbor’s foundation.  It was a rat.  I’d been reading that the city had a new rat problem but I didn’t know that would be a thing in the fringes of the city – I figured that was an issue where the restaurants and dumpsters were.  The city’s health department was dispatching staff to investigate and make suggestions so I called and asked them to take a look.  A very well-informed animal control person walked around my property finding holes in the lawn we didn’t know we had and pointing to places where the rats would like to hide.  And one of those holes was at my foundation where a critter could theoretically find a path through the loose rocks of my fieldstone foundation.  Apparently, the rats like the less urban setting of yards like mine more than they like the stereotypical cityscape.  Sobering to say the least.

The suggestion made by the animal control person was to ice the rats!  Dump dry ice in the rat holes and cover it up.  The rats can’t burrow past it so they just hide and wait but the dry ice sublimates (my favorite phase change) into CO2 gas which sinks down into the burrow and takes away the oxygen the rats need to breathe, effectively burying them in their own burrow.  Perfect.

I found a dry ice place nearby where I could bring in an empty cooler, they would weigh it empty and full and charge for the dry ice added.  I decided to go with one of those medium sized carry-coolers so I had enough to be sure.  That afternoon, I filled up the 3 holes to the extent the ice would go in and covered them over with dirt – partially to keep the yard from looking like it was on fire and partially so I could see if critters tried to find their way through later.  The next morning, the holes were still covered over.  Perfect, job done.  But then later in the afternoon, I noticed the holes were all open again.  Either the residents of the hole hadn’t perished or weren’t home, or perhaps these were neighbor critters who found a vacancy.  Regardless, the plan was the same.  More dry ice.  And I had some left from the prior day.  While I seem to have succeeded with one hole, I got the same result as the prior day on two of the holes.  What the hell?

For one of the two holes that remained active, the one that had the biggest entrance and furthest away from the house, I discovered 2 other exits.  And they may have been lower than the main so it’s possible gas came out there or at least gave the critters in the hole oxygen and alternative path out.  So later, they just reopened the exit that had closed.  I took a bit of a break from this attack because I didn’t seem to be winning this way.

Also, it was interesting that I hadn’t seen any rats in a while.  I sunk into the ground a couple of sonic spikes.  The idea is that the intermittent buzzing will vibrate the ground and make the burrowing critters uncomfortable and need to leave.  I also got a wildlife camera that I set up aimed at one hole hoping to catch the critter entering or exiting.  The camera only caught the occasional squirrel wandering by or leaves blowing in the wind.  And the hole wasn’t opened up again.  So I think the sonic spikes actually may have helped move the critters out.  Later one of my neighbors spotted a coyote.  And not coincidentally, there were no rat sightings after the coyotes were seen.

It was on one of these days when I was looking for holes that I found wood chips on the ground.  I looked up and discovered that the Japanese Maple tree above me had been nibbled upon.  Whatever critter did the deed “girdled” one of the main branches of this 80+ year-old Japanese maple tree.  Aigh!!!  This tree is an anchor in our landscape and something the whole neighborhood appreciates in the fall.  The fact that a critter just destroyed 20% of the tree and could return to do more damage was horrifying.  I researched what kind of critters do that and the most common answer was a vole.  I didn’t think we had voles, though – at least it is uncommon in this region.  So it could be one of the rats?  At first I tried putting on some mesh netting but that only got the critter to start nibbling on a different branch.  And that’s definitely not what I wanted.

So I went full defense on this one to make sure nothing got the rest of the tree.  I got an electric fence and set that up around the perimeter of the tree.  I used chicken wire that I folded so the top third was doubled over the middle third.  I attached it to the stakes that came with the fence kit and ran the conducting wire above the chicken wire.  The key is to make it so any critter that would try to get through would contact the grounded fence and the charged top wire at the same time.  And the bottom third of the fence was folded at a 90 degree angle to lie on the ground and be covered by mulch so critters wouldn’t know how to burrow under.  I also set up the wildlife camera.  Again, I think the camera was setup after the critter had already moved on so I got only leaves.  And fortunately, either my fence or something prevented the critter from returning to do more damage to the tree.

We’ve always had squirrels and chipmunks but both were worse this summer.  And as I came to learn, at least one of the suspected rat holes was actually a chipmunk hole.  Until now, the chipmunks had been leaving in a stone wall at our neighbor’s house.  But apparently, they had moved into this new hole in the yard adjacent to the driveway.  I finally saw a chipmunk going into the driveway hole and realized it wasn’t a rat problem there.  The chipmunks aren’t usually a problem so it didn’t bother me too much. But at some point, the hole got bigger and more active and it was starting to make a mess of the grass at the edge of the driveway, so it was time for them to go.  I found on YouTube that you could fill up a chipmunk hole with water and the critters would pop out and their hole would be ruined on the inside so they wouldn’t want to return.  Besides, the water would just deep water the lawn.  Again, seemed perfect.

One day I had about 20 minutes before I had to leave for somewhere and figured it was plenty of time to fill up a chipmunk hole and watch them pop out.  So I stuffed the hose in and turned it on.  Nothing in the first minute.  Second minute.  Fifth minute.  Tenth minute.  Boredom set in.  And it occurred to me that I was dumping a lot of precious water into the depths of the yard that the lawn couldn’t possibly drink up.  Time was up so I had to shut it off and go.  I figured out how long it took to fill a bucket and multiplied that by the length of time I had the hose in the hole and came up with an estimate of 40 gallons.  The next day I tried again.  After about 10 minutes I was thinking that this is either the largest chipmunk lair ever or I’m missing something.  It was the latter.  I found the water in my basement.  Not all 40 gallons, but it was rushing in quickly.  As soon as I shut off the hose, the water in the basement stopped accumulating.

So as it turns out, the chipmunks were not living in hole deep in my lawn but were living under my concrete driveway.  And when I thought I was filling their hole with water, I was actually filling the cavities between the rocks under my driveway.  And since the driveway is adjacent to the fieldstone foundation, eventually, the large under-driveway tank of water I had created next to my foundation found its way through the foundation.  This means that the chipmunks’ burrowing can undermine my driveway as well as potentially find their way into my house.  I got a zapper trap and set that up in the basement in case any critters did visit the basement.  And as the winter comes and the outside food becomes scarce, the zapper trap will head outdoors and we’ll thin out the critters there.

Back to the squirrels, they’ve been getting worse and worse for years.  They have lived in a tree over our driveway.  Periodically, they would clean out their burrow and dump the soggy wet decaying leaves on our cars.  This spring, they did it again and it was the last straw for me.  I decided to get a ladder and get up in the tree and stuff in some wire fencing material to make it so the squirrels couldn’t live there.  But I quickly discovered that the squirrel hole was way higher in the tree than I realized.  Even my custom hacked 3-section ladder which can reach my roof line was too short to reach the hole in the tree or a place in the tree where I could climb safely to get to the hole.

So I called the pros.  Not surprisingly, the tree people weren’t keen on dealing with critters.  And I didn’t want to call in pest control people because they don’t have the bucket trucks that would be needed to do this.  I found a tree outfit who was willing to do some pruning and stuff in the fence while they were here.  When they got the bucket up into the truck, they discovered that the squirrel hole was about 4 feet long inside the tree with multiple entrances and exits.  Wire fence went in all the holes and then they stapled more fencing over the outside of the hole to make sure the squirrels couldn’t remove it later.  The tree will simply grow over those metal parts.  We still have squirrels eating acorns in the trees above the driveway dropping all manner of acorn detritus on the cars and covering the driveway.  It looked like a carpet of the acorn bits.  So I still need to figure out a way to keep the squirrels away – without removing the trees.

The squirrels have also been a problem with the small vegetable garden (see below) and believe it or not, digging up the lawn.  Apparently, there are insects in the grass that they are digging for?  Or maybe they are burying acorns there?  Or both?  Either way, lots of damage to the lawn from the squirrels.  (And yes, I know it is the squirrels because I have caught them doing it numerous times.)  I had the lawn treated for grubs and that appears to have helped reduce the interest the squirrels had in digging up the grass.

The zapper trap that I put in the basement to catch any chipmunk that got in the house ended up catching a mouse.  I’m a little surprised since we haven’t had a mouse problem.  But then again, maybe we have had an occasional tourist mouse periodically and now with a trap, we got one?  One mouse, though, is hardly a problem.  And given everything else going on, minor and forgettable.

What next – okay, let’s talk about the rabbits.  Again, not necessarily a new issue, but more plentiful this year than in the past.  And whereas in past years, we’d see a rabbit streak across the yard when it caught sight of us, this summer, there were two just hanging out in the lawn nibbling watching us.  In the past, the main problem with rabbits has been that they eat our modest vegetable garden – one potted tomato plant and one potted pepper plant.  The squirrels were also in cahoots with the rabbits on this one.  But we’d mostly solved that by setting up a fence around the garden.  And this year, I added in a clicker flasher which appears to have really worked.  Nothing nibbled on the garden items, even the ones that were hanging over the fence.  Really impressive result for the clicker flasher.

But the rabbits did gobble up our perennials early on.  And perennials are only perennial because they have leaves to support the root system in the summer.  So when the plant is devoured, the perennial is dead.  I put down repelling pellets and it did seem to help.  But the problem with them is they need to be replenished over time.  And there are so many places I want to keep rabbits away from that if I spread that many pellets, my lawn would stink.  An additional issue with the rabbits is that they would nest in the middle of the lawn.  In the morning, I would find flat spots with rabbit poops and nibbled grass.  Other times in the middle of the day, I’d see them grazing on the lawn.  The thing is that in the heat of the summer, you need to keep the grass long so it doesn’t burn out (longer grass means more shade and more tolerant plant) and apparently the rabbits thought it was a meadow.  At least as close as they could find around here.  (The grass was only an inch or so longer than usual!)  In the end, I couldn’t figure out what to do about the rabbits but I think the coyotes beat me to it.  Rabbits were nearly nonexistent after the coyote sighting.  It’s about this point, I started thinking about getting a pet coyote.

Our new porch finally got a table this summer.  It’s really nice out there now.  Except for when there’s a pile of bird poop in the middle of the table.  It seems as though one bird has discovered a place for it to rest on top of the wires that go to the light fixture above the table.  Leftover from the construction, we have a few rounds of roofing nails that I deployed as bird repellers.  I taped them to the wires with the pointy ends up.  Somehow the bird still managed to find a place to hide so I’ve adjusted the nails and I think I finally have him defeated now.  I haven’t seen this bird so I don’t know what kind it is.

The critter that is making me the craziest still now in the Fall is a woodpecker.  It visited last summer some time and pecked at the decorative trim around the bank of curved windows.  This is trim that would not be easy to replace either physically because of how it is attached to the house or practically because it isn’t made any more.  So every hole will have to be filled with epoxy and sanded smooth.  In other words, this woodpecker has chosen the spot on the house with the most architecturally significant elements to be it’s pecking turf.  And why did it choose it?  I know, you are thinking “because it is making noise to attract mates” but the mating season for the Downy Woodpecker is in the Spring.  Also, I’m pretty sure this is a female since I don’t think it has the red on it.  And then you would think it is searching for bugs.  Nope, no bugs in this wood.  This trim has made it 116 years intact with no insects.  I’m fairly well convinced this woodpecker is doing this for fun.  As a “look at the noise I can make” kind of thing.  I suspect that it is attracted to this spot because of the warm sunlight and echoing in the neighborhood.

Last summer I successfully thwarted the woodpecker with plastic mesh netting.  I draped it from the roof overhang in front of the windows and effectively made it impossible for the bird to get to the house.  That worked but it was super ugly so I took it down before last winter.  I was surprised that the woodpecker returned this year, thinking that it might be a thing where it just happened to be passing through last year.  But with the return, I figured it was time to get it to decide to go peck elsewhere.  I hung some strips of bird tape in front of each of the three windows.  It seems so simple, but amazingly, it works.  The woodpecker things the tape might be the eyes of a predator and gets confused by the shiny movement.  No woodpecker for a month.

I took the strips down and within a week, the woodpecker was back.  At this point, I realized I had a bigger problem.  If the woodpecker returned from year to year, and if the woodpecker was only repelled when the foil tape was there, that meant that stupid bird brain of hers is stuck on this location.  One of these times, the pecking was coming from the side porch instead of the front windows so I stuck my head out the porch over the railing and saw it.  It looked at me and we both stood staring at each other for about 2 seconds – which seems like an eternity in bird time.  It occurred to me that this bird was pretty well convinced I was not a threat.  I decided to use that to my advantage.  Instead of trying to keep it away, I’d catch it and kill it.  I got out a net on a stick that the kids use to catch fish in a tidal marsh and waited for it to return to the windows.  Unfortunately, it kept returning to the middle of the three windows which I can’t reach without a ladder and where it would see me coming from far away.  I tried throwing the net at it and the result was predictable.  My imprecise aim with a net and the slow speed at which it floats through the air only managed to clue in the woodpecker that I was no longer not a threat.

I’ve now moved on to the roof.  I can climb out of a window on the side of the house and work my way out to the front roof where I can kneel down and get the net in front of the windows.  So I have shoes and the net sitting next to that window.  The screen is out and the window is unlatched.  All I need to do when I hear the pecking is put the shoes on, open the window, hop out on the roof and tip toe on the roof over to where the woodpecker is.  Then blam!  Catch the damn thing!  Well, at least so far, I have managed to do all of that including the blam but not the last part of the catching.  I think everything about the plan has gone well except for the fact that the overhang is about a foot out from the wall of the window so when I “blam” the net down over the roof, the woodpecker escapes to one side or the other along the soffit.  I now have the plastic mesh netting ready to go too so I may be able to “blam” down the net on a stick, I may also get the mesh net to push down too which hopefully will be enough to snare it.

Oh, and if anyone reading this thinks I am being cruel to the woodpecker, it has now pecked about 30 holes in the irreplaceable molding.  I don’t have something against woodpeckers in general – just this one.  My wife at first thought this woodpecker was pretty to look at but now realizes it is a pest that must die.  Like a rabid racoon, this woodpecker has slipped a mental gear and needs to be taken down ASAP.

One final issue we’ve had is not so much with critters but with humans.  We’ve had a number of dog poops along our front grass strip between the sidewalk and the street.  There are lots of dogs in the neighborhood and most people are good about picking up after their dog but clearly we have one that is not.  So I got some signs to indicate that the dog owner needed to do a better job picking up.  Subtle small signs that say “please be respectful” – not even saying that the poop can’t go there, but just that it should be picked up.  The result was that the dog poop was still there but now in front of the sign.  Yep, whoever saw the sign realized it was for them and then decided to show me that they didn’t care.  I was still trying to figure out what to do next when the poop stopped being left behind.  I don’t know if they finally got the message or if they realized that I might eventually figure out who it is and didn’t want to be found out.  If you are reading this and are the kind of person who leaves dog poop behind on your neighbors’ lawns or sidewalk strips or wherever, you are an asshole.  You either don’t deserve to own a dog or you should not be the one walking it.

We didn’t have problems with raccoons this year.  In the past they have been a problem for our trash.  But they seemed to take the last couple of years off.  We have read reports about rabid raccoons being caught elsewhere in the city but not here.  Last summer, we had some deer wander through the streets.  None of those this summer.  So there are two critters that we didn’t have problems with this year, thankfully.

Recapping, that’s rats, a mouse, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, potentially a vole, some unknown bird, and one very persistent woodpecker.  I want a critter forcefield – something that just keeps the critters away – at least many of them for much of the time.  It’s nice to be part of nature but geez, when you’ve got so little space and the house is physically being damaged, it’s natural to want to just scream “enough!” at nature and have it go pick on somebody else for a bit.

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