Furry Vermin


This column originally appeared 11-15-95.

It was nearly dark when I walked through the house one evening several years ago. Seeing movement on the tubular bird feeder outside the window, I wondered what bird would be there so late.
Then I realized that it was a rat wrapped around the sunflower seed. I called to Dave — this he had to see.

Moments later he came around the corner of the house intending to dispatch that rat. But he forgot that his own movement would turn on flood lights, and the rat zipped up the chain from which the feeder hangs, and disappeared up over the roof.
We’d been virtually under siege that twelfth autumn in this house. First it was ants. They launched several invasions on the kitchen counters, and we finally resorted to chemical warfare before they surrendered. I think Dave’s right: they try to come in every fall, then quit just as abruptly, and their disappearance is probably just coincidental with our efforts.

I’ve regaled you before with our saga of mice in the ceiling. And of course, diverting squirrels from the bird feeders is a contest that has furnished us many alternating moments of triumph and despair.
What’s puzzling is why we were only just then being targeted. Except for squirrels and chipmunks, we’d never even seen rodents around here, much less trying to break in at night. (Trying?)

Dave did point out that we set the table for them daily by stocking bird feeders and throwing cracked corn on the ground. The corn began attracting a wood rat this summer, but wood rats are clean little brown guys, bigger than mice, and smaller than rat rats. Ours became rather tame.

We’ve also had a couple of rabbits come for corn the last few summers, but then rabbits aren’t rodents. (Beavers are, you know, and muskrats. So are woodchucks and so are your kids’ hamsters, gerbils, and Guinea pigs. And if you have a chinchilla coat, you’re wearing rodent.)
A wood rat story: They are also known as pack rats, you know, for their habit of collecting shiny or colorful objects. A pack rat’s nest found under a stairway in Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s retreat in Bedford County, Va., then under restoration, was estimated to be over 150 years old. It was an archeologist’s dream come true, a cache of artifacts from several families and three centuries.
Pack rats are also called trade rats. So compulsively they carry around their tiny treasures, that if they see something else they like, they’ll drop what they’re carrying to pick up the new object, thus “trading.”

So, what’s the tally now? Squirrels TNTC, as we used to say in the medical business — “too numerous to count,” it means, referring to cells on a slide.
Four mice have been deposed from under the eaves.
A wood rat and loads of chipmunks feed regularly at the corn, or did until cold weather came.
A rat rat (and that’s not exactly facetious. His legal name is Rattus rattus, or Rattus norvegicus. By whatever name, a dirty rat) — he pilfers sunflower seed and makes his getaway across the roof.

Oh, I hope, across the roof.
A pleasanter rodent tale: Recently when we began our morning walk, we noticed that the front panel of the great-crested flycatcher house was partly open. That’s the box mounted high on the pine, the one from which Dave ousted a murderous black snake last spring. I persuaded him to put it on a halyard for easier — and safer — retrieval, and that came in handy when a squirrel moved in. She began remodeling by gnawing the opening to fit her widening body, and Dave made a new front for the box, using plastic laminate to keep the 2-inch hole preferred by flycatchers.

So on this bright morning, he began lowering the box to secure the panel, when out jumped a pretty little flying squirrel, rudely disturbed from his morning nap. He jumped to a nearby trunk, and a second little face peered from the door. This one moved more slowly, and parked on the trunk above the box. We got a good look at black shoe-button eyes and a luxuriant coat with folds so deep, its owner can spread it into a veritable parafoil.

They looked like something from a Walt Disney feature, too cute to believe. We waited and watched, and before long, they slipped back into their snug, leaf-lined bungalow.
When we returned from our walk, a red-shouldered hawk was in the yard. Now how can we persuade him to stake out the roof and leave our furry fliers sleep in peace?
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]