For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Become a better gardener! Discover our new Almanac Garden Planner features for 2024. It’s easy, fun, and free to try!
Every rural, suburban, or urban household runs into various problems with pests and critters—or, to use the broadest possible term: nature. Mice, rats, and squirrels are the “big three” mammals. Here’s a checklist of how to deal with pests before you act.
Creatures running around inside the walls, droppings in the cupboards, tunnels in the sills or foundation beams, bats in the attic, chirping in the chimney …
Unless you’ve met and solved the problem at hand before, your first question is probably, Whoa! What in heck is this?, followed quickly by, What can I do?, then maybe trying the first “solution” that pops into your mind.
For one thing, you can’t ignore rodents and most mammals. they will make themselves right at home, chewing trim, gnawing electric wires, shredding insulation, and tear up your property. In addition, many mammals carry diseases that can harm humans and they will also breed pups very quickly if they make themselves at hope. Female rats can produce as many as 12 pups every 23 days.
While living with nature is usually a wonderful benefit when you live in the country, you do need to keep the wildlife under control inside your own house.
In a former job, I helped train and support volunteers on a toll-free telephone line dedicated to answering all manner of household, home, and garden questions. Among the most memorable, a call I took myself:
(Panicky woman’s voice) Help! The gigantic spider is still coming! It has me trapped in a corner of my kitchen. I’ve sprayed it with everything I could grab along the way: Lysol, Windex, Pam, a flea spray for the dogs. Nothing works.
Setting aside her hyper-exaggerated fear that a single spider was targeting her, the caller represented one common approach people take when confronted by what they perceive as a novel threat—a rapid, scattershot attempt to take some immediate action that will ease their anxiety.
It’s rarely an emergency
Except for disasters such as floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, most “nature-caused” household problems aren’t true emergencies that demand immediate action. However serious, they allow you to take a breath, step back, make some careful observations, and seek safe, effective options.
Before you act, consider that you might not only be “solving” a problem you don’t have, but in the process even creating an entirely new problem.
Pest Checklist Before You Act
Here’s a checklist to consider before you act
Can you actually see the pest you think is causing the damage (to houseplants, garden plants, shrubs, trees, foundation beams, wooden moldings, etc.)? If so, describe it in detail. If it’s tiny, use a magnifying glass.
Take notes or close-up photos of both the alleged pest and the damage.
If you think it’s an insect, but you can’t see it, look on the undersides of leaves, scratch around the soil at the base of the affected plants, or look for droppings.
Before spritzing any sort of pesticide (including fungicides) indoors, check the label! Is it registered for indoor use? Pesticides intended for use outdoors can harm your health if used inside.
Now check to see if the pesticide is registered for use against the specific pest you’ve identified.
Check all the plumbing runs, joints and traps, around air conditioners and utility entryways, and sills for moisture and dripping water. Over time, the drips soften surrounding wood of beams and sills, inviting wood-boring insects and mold growths.
For mammal pests running around inside the walls—rats, mice, chipmunks, squirrels—or inhabiting your attic: raccoons and bats, do a careful examination to determine where and how they’ve gotten in. Your best defense: exclusion strategies that prevent animals from getting in in the first place.
Glue traps are gruesome and inhumane. Rodenticides (poisons) cause long, agonizing deaths of target animals, may poison children who find and ingest them, and can kill wild birds, cats and dogs that eat the dead rodents.
In addition, with many poisons, it’s likely the animal is dying inside your own walls which creates more problems.
A Word on Live-Trapping
To avoid poisons, many folks like the idea of live-trapping rodents or other mammal pests in your home or garden for release “a new home a few miles down the road.”
Sounds like an ideal solution for wildlife lovers. However, consider:
You may trap a non-target species such as a skunk, a porcupine, or the neighbor’s cat.
You may trap a rabid animal. This might include a target animal. Even handling the trap could endanger you.
You might return to find a half-trapped animal that’s chewing off its own body parts trying to escape. (This also happens with the snap-traps used to kill small rodents.)
Even a non-rabid, frightened animal could bite you when you attempt to open the trap.
In the case of mice, you can choose between traps that kill and those that capture them live. For rats, all traps are of the lethal variety.
Squirrels are typically trapped live as it’s more humane, however, you need to monitor daily or they will die slowly of dehydration and/or starvation. Also, keep in mind that some states allow you to trap and release 3 to 5 miles away but other states require you to put the animal to sleep.
Although live traps can be a useful tool when used properly, wildlife biologists note that setting an animal free in an unfamiliar habitat is worse than being shot in the trap; the animal is subjected to slow starvation, exposure, or predation.
Pest Control Help
Once you’ve assembled detailed information about your problem, where can you turn for help? Some suggestions:
Your state or county Cooperative Extension office may host a toll-free telephone line to call, or have experts on hand to answer your questions; they (and Extension operations in neighboring states) also offer a host of online fact sheets and guides to common household, lawn, and garden problems.
You could post your question on the nationwide Cooperative Extension website’s handy Ask an Expert page that will guide you to experts in your own state that can help answer your question.
For wildlife conflicts (beavers, birds, bats, etc.) call your state office of Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Your state department of Fish and Wildlife may also have fact sheets or personnel to help you solve your particular problem.
Armed with your information, ask your favorite search engine. Describe the problem, its location, and (if possible) the pest in your query. (You may need to refine your terms until you get the results you’re expecting.) Avoid the obvious commercial sites that may be pitching their own product or services. Check out three or four sites offering science-based factual information to get a well-rounded understanding of ways you might manage your pest problem.
Of course, it’s better to guard against these home breakers in the first place. One expert says to think about pests as you would burglars; they’re just smaller. They can slip through any crevice in the roof, basement, garage, or wall. Don’t make your house the easy one to access so that the pests go elsewhere.
Before the autumn, as a local pest control firm to simply inspect your house and troubleshoot any issues. Most will help you troubleshoot. Then you can either hire the company to plug the holes or do it yourself. If you’re willing and able, you can do much of the work of plugging holes yourself using items commonly found in the hardware store.
Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles