Critters in Residence

Raccoon on a house roofIn a town like Sharon with an abundance of natural open space, the line between the natural world and the domestic front is often crossed. We have a veritable Noah’s Ark of fauna that believe what’s good for people is good for them, and they arrive in our yards and houses, suitcases in hand — or paw.

Often they come as invited guests. Human homeowners have unwittingly laid out the welcome mat. Debris in yards can provide shelter, as can anything edible left outside. Bugs, birds, and multitudinous mammals find the comforts of human habitations appealing. But, as with Las Vegas vacationers, a fun vacation can lead to lamentation. Homeowners need to encourage their wild tenants to go back to their woodland worlds.

We often are not entirely rational when wildlife wanders in, and problems escalate. The movie “Mouse Hunt” is a case in point. To deal successfully with critters in the crawl spaces is not merely a matter of removing them. It is important to consider the needs and behavior of the animals and their relationship to the environment. In short, a well-planned holistic approach works best.

Rats are probably the most prolific pest in buildings and homes. Before going after them, it is reasonable to ask how they got into the house in the first place. Three elements are necessary: food, water, and access. Simply removing the rats will vacate space for more to move in. An intensive examination of the house will reveal the rats’ access points. Look for holes, tracks, and tunnels. Look low but also high. Rats may climb trees or bushes to gain access to the roof. They may enter through sewer pipes. Yes, rats can hold their breath and travel underwater. Rats can fit through amazingly small holes; close up any opening larger than a quarter, or about 5/8 inch. For more information about rats and mice, see

Squirrels are a very common problem. As with rats, it may take effort and time to locate their entry points. These expert climbers enter over the roof via soffits, vent holes, and roof ridges. Once inside, squirrels are likely to use your attic as a maternity ward. Usually they don’t encroach in such numbers as rats, and small (humane) traps can deal with them. The HavAHart company makes excellent traps.

Traps for squirrels, like those for any animal, should be checked frequently, at least twice a day. It is inhumane to leave an animal languishing in a trap. Make sure that removal does not orphan any litters. Closing entry points is tricky. If squirrels are sealed in, they may do more damage trying to gnaw their way out, not to mention creating new entry holes you don’t know about.

Woodpecker on a suet feederWoodpeckers come a-tap-tap-tapping, seemingly pleased with their hollow sounds on the wall of a house. Perhaps they think it’s a dead tree harboring insect treats, or a drum to tap out a call to others. Sometimes they will persist for a few days and then go away. Some shiny Mylar ribbons or aluminum foil hung near the affected places may prove helpful because woodpeckers seem to dislike shiny things. A garden hose, applied without too much force, may discourage them. But remember, woodpeckers are protected under federal law, and it is illegal to harm them. For more on woodpeckers, see the UMass Center for Agriculture website at

one-way doorIt is easier to locate the access points of larger animals because they are more obvious. However, care must be taken not to seal these up and trap the animal in the house or exclude mothers who may have young. If there are no young, then you can find out whether the animal is home or has gone out. Before sealing its access point, a swath of flour or talcum powder across it will reveal the direction of footprints. The footprints may also reveal the species. Once you know the critter is outside, you can make a quick fix to close the access and improve the closure later on. A clever ruse is to fashion one-way doors at the access points. That way the animal can exit but is barred from returning. Do this only if you are sure you won’t separate the animal from its young.

It is probably well worth the expense to hire a wildlife expert. If you do trap an animal, it is in most cases illegal to transport it to another area. The animal has a poor chance of survival far from its familiar home territory. Relocation may also spread disease. If you think you have sealed the house to prevent further visits, you may release the animal onto your own property. There’s a wealth of advice at MassWildlife.

Skunks are a special case. They may dig small holes in yards to find grubs and earthworms, but this will not cause large-scale damage to plants or yards. It may be beneficial in the long run. In the early morning, you may detect some scent, which will quickly dissipate. This, I think, is the result of mini-sprays made in response to perceived threats as skunks make their nocturnal rounds. This faint scent can actually grow on you as an acquired taste, like coffee. In fact, skunk secretions have been used as the base for perfumes. If you are near a skunk, it gives early warning before it sprays: it will stamp its front feet. While it is a chancy thing to handle a skunk, some have done it. If a trap is small enough so it can’t raise its tail, it won’t spray. Again, if the trap is covered by a cloth and handled very carefully, the skunk might be moved without incident. I once rescued a skunk that had a plastic ring stuck and cutting into its neck. See the story on the SFOC website.

Nothing provokes all-out chemical warfare like the appearance of insects in the yard or home. The average homeowner has a wide arsenal of chemical weapons under the kitchen sink. But often insecticides do more harm than good. In the garden they not only kill the bad bugs but wipe out the good ones. Inside the house, pets, children, and beneficial insects like spiders may be exposed to the toxins. (Our home has a variety of arachnids. We have very few other bugs. The spiders are very quiet and unobtrusive tenants.) Insecticides are also expensive. There are numerous websites that sell or tell you how to mix your own safe insect-battling brews, such as the Guide to Organic Pesticides at Mother Earth News and

The best tools we have to deal with home-invading wildlife are knowledge, diplomacy, and tactful persuasion.