The Epic Battle Continues

The rodents are winning, episode 2

Know Your Enemy

I walked down the basement stairs and saw a big fluffy tail disappear around the corner. "Holy shit!" I said. It was a particularly cold December 26th and we had just come home from a long day of trying to return and exchange gifts. I was going down the basement to put away some boxes, which I quickly dropped as I ran around the corner to try to see the offending creature. "Holy shit!" I repeated, possibly attempting to scare it. "How the hell did a bigass squirrel get into our basement?" I yelled in its general direction as it lumbered past my drafting table and disappeared in the space under a set of wooden shelves.

I have grown accustomed to animals living in my houses. I've experienced mouse problems in three of my homes, including this one. With mice, there's no question but to set out a series of traps, and in our new house I managed to kill four of them before the bait stopped disappearing. This thing, unlike the mice, was the time I thought it was the biggest squirrel I'd ever seen, though now I realize that in the context of our crowded basement, it just looked huge. I didn't want to hurt it, possibly because I subscribe to the "squirrels are cute and mice must die" mentality...I think it's all about the tails.

They are, after all, greedy little bastards who can get away with a lot because they have that cute tail.

Not that I particularly like squirrels. They are, after all, greedy little bastards who can get away with a lot because they have that cute tail.

Capturing this animal would require special equipment, I reasoned, so I found a broomstick and set about fashioning a squirrel snare. I drilled two holes at the end and ran a long piece of telephone wire through them, much like the device I had seen dog catchers use.

While poking around the basement looking for my quarry, I discovered the unpleasant traces of our uninvited guest...raisin-sized pieces of squirrel dung were everywhere, as were small urine puddles...apparently our visitor had been in the basement for several days. A number of things had been moved around, pulled apart, and knocked over. Most interesting of all, a shallow cardboard box full of newspaper had been converted into a sort of nest. Here the squirrel had gathered together some items of baby clothing from the other side of the room and a couple of plastic toys from a nearby box. It had found a nice warm place to stay for the winter.

Now that I was playing great hunter and looking for it, the squirrel was nowhere to be found. I rattled the boxes and poked under everything, but there was not a sound. I looked around for possible entrances for such an animal, and found two.

One place was where a vent pipe went from the plumbing system into the wall. I had noticed some light coming around the edges of the pipe soon after we moved into the house. On the outside of the house, this area was hidden under the deck so there wasn't much I could do to investigate it from there. From the inside it seemed to be well sealed up with plastic, but I was sure that there could be a hole somewhere. The second possible entry point was an open part of the chimney hood in our furnace, plenty large enough for a squirrel to fit through. A few months before, we had watched from our bedroom window as a squirrel was repeatedly climbing our chimney holding branches in its mouth as though building something on our roof. Perhaps it was a simple step down the chimney into the warm house.

Now as I looked at the opening, I thought I heard rattling inside the pipe. I banged on it a few times, hoping to scare the animal back out the way it had come in, but there was only silence. Hoping perhaps that the rodent menace was gone for good, I gave up the hunt and went back up the stairs.

About an hour later, I went back down the stairs and saw the same fluffy tail disappear around the same corner. This time I grabbed my makeshift snare and gave chase. Once again there was silence after the squirrel disappeared under the shelves. I started pulling out the boxes from the shelves and eventually found the creature trembling behind a cardboard box. Slowly I readied the snare, but as soon as I got anywhere near the animal, it would saunter away and hide somewhere else. Eventually, it vanished again, and I went back upstairs. The squirrel had won this round. And it wasn't the first time I had been shown up by the wily creatures.

The War

From the dawn of mankind an epic war has been raging. The first battle in this war likely took place thousands of years ago when a simple caveman tossed some of his spare grain out of his dwelling to watch birds eat it. A squirrel, being the clever mammal that it was, scared off the birds and ate all of the grain for himself. The caveman threw heavy rocks as the animal dodged them and ran off snickering with a full stomach. Unfortunately for us, the squirrels are quicker and much smarter.

As anyone who has attempted to feed birds with a feeder knows, squirrels will find a way into your feeder to eat all of the bird food once they become aware that there is food inside. Not only are they excellent climbers and acrobats, but they are highly intelligent creatures who can find weaknesses in any system that attempts to keep them from running off with every last sunflower seed.

I witnessed this firsthand when Mary and I set up our feeder. Once the squirrels found it, it would be empty in a manner of hours. The wily rodents found a way to actually crawl inside of the feeder and stuff themselves without having to hang onto the outside. One would act as a lookout while the other was gorging himself, and after a few minutes they would switch.

I set out to find a solution, and discovered that there was a whole "squirrel prevention" section in my local Agway store. Apparently a whole industry has grown around keeping squirrels from eating birdseed. There are feeders with spring-loaded perches that will hold a bird but drop a squirrel, ground-level "squirrel feeders" (to stuff the squirrels with cheaper food like dried corn so they will leave the bird food alone), feeders with tiny holes that the squirrel cannot fit its head or hands into, and finally metal skirts for feeder poles called "squirrel guards," which prevent squirrels from climbing the pole to get to the food. There are even expensive kinds of bird food that are "squirrel-proof" because they're tainted with hot pepper powder (birds can't taste it, squirrels hate it). I elected to try the squirrel guard.

I put that 2-foot diameter metal skirt on the pole that holds our bird feeder, and at first the squirrels would try to climb around it with no success. Then they would take running leaps to go over it, and did manage to get past it. I raised the guard higher, and the squirrels started leaping from our deck railing, jumping 6 feet across our yard, or they would try to drop onto the feeder from nearby trees.

I finally kept them at bay by moving the feeder into a big open area that was far from any jumping platforms, and this seemed to be the solution. Unfortunately some birds don't like to be in the open very much, so we don't get certain birds on the feeder, but at least the food doesn't disappear overnight. The only time squirrels can get the food now is when we get a foot or more of snow. With this extra lift, they have little trouble leaping up and gorging themselves on the food. I figure that if there's snow on the ground, they need the food anyway.

Our neighbor once hung his feeder with a 30-foot rope from a very tall tree, only to find suicidal squirrels dropping like deranged paratroopers onto the top of it. Eventually he used the squirrel-guard-and-open-area approach.

One man I know--we'll call him "Carlos"--has a yard that is filled with trees, rendering any type of squirrel guard useless. Out of desperation, Carlos has taken matters into his own hands, actually trapping the squirrels and releasing them miles away. I can only imagine the great frustration and desperation that led to this radical approach. And despite all of his efforts, every time I visit his house there are a couple of squirrels enjoying castoff seeds under his feeders.

Clearly a squirrel relocation specialist would be the person to call now that the battle with squirrels had come to my home.

" Carlos," I said, "I need your trap. They're in my house." I could hear him shudder on the other end of the line.

" How many?"

" Just one."

" Pick it up tonight. I'll get it ready for you."

The Trap

Little more than an hour later, I had the metal Hav-A-Hart trap in my basement. It's sort of like a small cage with a trap door at each end. When the bait in the center is moved around, the doors close and lock down, trapping the animal inside. I carefully set the trap with peanut butter per Carlos' suggestion and placed it near the makeshift nest in my basement.

After an hour or so, I heard a crash and went down to see what was happening. The animal had knocked over a large box fan, damaging several things on my workbench, but hadn't touched the trap. I put away the fan and went back upstairs.

The next morning I returned downstairs and found that the trap still hadn't been touched. I'm sure the squirrel was snickering at me from behind the boxes as I examined the cage...not even a trace that the animal had been inside. I decided to set up a trail of bait to draw it into the trap.

I set up a trail of sunflower seeds from the shelves where the squirrel was fond of hiding into the trap. I had to use a small piece of cardboard to continue the trail inside the cage.

I turned out the light and went back upstairs. I came down again in about 30 minutes to get something and I could hear the animal jumping around inside the cage. The beast was trapped. I picked up the cage and found that in the short period of time it was in the cage, the squirrel had made an extraordinary amount of urine and feces on the floor.

The instant the squirrel hit the ground, it took off running furiously across the neighbor's yard and disappeared.

Not wishing to get more poop on my floors, I rushed the trap upstairs and headed out the front door. Carlos had suggested I "take it for a ride," but while I was having my problem with groundhogs, I learned that relocating animals could kill them. I took the cage outside, walked some distance from the house, and opened the trap door. The animal scrambled to stay in the trap, but I shook the cage a bit and dislodged it. The instant the squirrel hit the ground, it took off running furiously across the neighbor's yard and disappeared.

I loaded the cage into the trunk of my car, ate some food, and headed down the basement to clean up the mess. I was shocked to see the same big fluffy tail disappear around the corner!

Stupidly, I had forgotten to seal up the possible entrances before releasing the squirrel.

I went back out to my car and got the trap again. Once again I baited it with peanut butter and a trail of sunflower seeds. Unfortunately, the squirrel that had been trapped once would be a squirrel who would remember the trap. After setting up the trap, I sealed up both of the possible entrances with steel screens.

The animal was toying with me, eating only the sunflower seeds and ignoring the trap. For several days the squirrel had a pretty good life in the basement, drinking water from the sump pump hole, eating my trail of seeds and basking in the box of paper and clothes. Finally I set up a series of boards that funneled the animal in the direction of the trap.

At last, success was mine again as I went down the basement and heard the furious clawing of the animal in the cage. Once again I took it outside, this time pausing to snap a photo, and re-released it. The squirrel took off running across our neighbor's lawn, and this time I followed it as it ran around the back of both of our houses. Apparently my entry prevention methods worked as the squirrel hasn't yet reappeared in our basement. Every time I head down there, though, I look for the big fluffy tail moving around the corner.


A few months after this happened, my neighbor told me that a squirrel (possibly the same one) had managed to get into his basement. He asked my advice on how to trap it, and he bought his own Hav-A-Hart trap. After a few days, he managed to trap the squirrel, but on the way out of his house, the animal escaped from the trap in his kitchen. Instinctively my neighbor tried to stop it with his foot and crushed it, killing it instantly.

© 2003, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #51, August, 2003 | 5783

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