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Not every furry face has to be your favorite, but you can support a healthy ecosystem by choosing to handle your wildlife woes responsibly. Rather than exterminating these common “nuisance” critters, use the following tips to avoid problems while preserving wildlife in your area.
Note: there may be local ordinances in your area regarding live trapping and other animal control measures. Please check with local officials before using these methods.
Rabbits are cute and cuddly-looking, but commonly disliked for tearing up home gardens and flower beds. They can be tricky to stop, but you can fend them off if you’re patient. As a prey animal with a good sense of smell, rabbits dislike the smell of predators, so pouring predator urine around the edge of your garden can keep rabbits at bay. Mammals also dislike the smell of blood, so bone meal spread in a line around a garden will also often keep rabbits out. It also needs to be replenished. Commercial varieties of both are available at hunting and gardening stores. Unfortunately, the smell needs to stay fairly fresh, and the rabbits will learn the smell isn’t dangerous over time. On the bright side, if you teach your family dog to urinate near (but not in!) the garden, the smell and the dog’s presence should keep rabbits out. Otherwise, invest in a fence. The best options are tall, sunk deep, have no holes and are surrounded by one electrical wire.
If you like to see nature in action, you can also attempt to attract natural predators like owls and hawks with nest boxes.
Squirrels tend to steal food from gardens and birdfeeders, and in some cases they will try to nest in places they shouldn’t – like your attic. To keep them out of gardens, follow the tips mentioned in the rabbit section, but remember to put a roof over caged or fenced enclosures. To keep them off of feeders, try making a guard that only birds can fit through with materials like plastic bottles, chicken wire, or a Slinky. Want something simpler? Try changing the feed you use. Safflower seeds are highly desirable to birds like nuthatches and cardinals, but don’t seem appealing to squirrels. If you use a hanging feeder on a wire, try coating the wire with vegetable oil to make it hard for squirrels to grip. For standing feeders, it is best to add predator guards below the feeder so squirrels, raccoons, etc. can’t get to it, but placing feeders at least 10 feet away from buildings also helps by preventing squirrels from jumping to feeders easily. Lastly, you can offer the squirrels a tasty alternative, like an easy-to-reach, large feeder filled with whole, unsalted peanuts in the shell.
To keep squirrels out of the attic, trim tree branches back about 10 feet from the house and check for potential entry points from the inside. If you find holes and suspect squirrels may already be inside, don’t trap them there! Stuff a ball of newspaper into the hole, and if it doesn’t move over the course of a few days, seal the hole permanently. Steel mesh or heavy duty lumber should be used to seal the hole so it doesn’t get chewed open again. If the newspaper has moved, set up a live trap, catch the squirrel, release it and then patch the hole.
Luckily, you don’t have to adopt Caddyshack tactics to get woodchucks to leave your yard alone. Make your yard less attractive to them by removing old tree stumps, brush piles and water sources. Plant pungent herbs like garlic at the entrances to their burrows, or spread something sticky nearby. You can also place wind-spun lawn decorations along their tunnels – woodchucks don’t like the vibrations these cause and may move somewhere more peaceful. Fencing in your garden can also help, but only if you use something woodchucks can’t chew through, like well-sunk chicken wire. If you decide to use a live trap, bait it with whatever has been disappearing from your garden fastest, or use cantaloupe. A family dog’s presence will also help keep these rodents at bay.
Note: these tactics should also work on moles, voles, ground squirrels, etc., but change the live trap bait appropriately.
Deer can take a toll on gardens as well, especially in spring. To deter them, DNR biologist Vince Evelsizer says to focus less on what you plant in your garden and more on what you protect it with. Surround your garden with a 6-foot wire mesh fence, a double-stranded electric fence, a scarecrow or a few hanging metal pie plates (the clanging frightens deer away, but consider that it may keep you awake too). A dog in the yard may also keep deer out, and blood-based repellents can also keep deer out (but they need to be reapplied and kept fresh).
While not always the most welcome of houseguests, spiders are very beneficial. They eat other household insects like flies and house centipedes, and can help keep your home otherwise bug-free with no chemicals. As an added bonus, Iowa has very few venomous species, and both the brown recluse and black widow tend to live as far from people as they can get. However, if you just can’t stand the creepy-crawly on the wall, one of the easiest ways to relocate it safely is to sneak up on it, trap it in an upside-down glass, and slide a sturdy piece of paper over the opening. Then, just carry your spider outside and set it free to eat the bugs there.
Raccoons and Opossums
These species are fairly adept at finding acceptable living quarters in nature, but sometimes a nice warm attic is just too inviting. If you discover one in your house, call animal control to have a professional remove it safely. A list of current nuisance wildlife control operators (NWCOs) can be found on the Iowa DNR’s website at: www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting/Landowner-Assistance/Wildlife-Damage-Management. These animals can be quite large and protective of nests or offspring. If the animal is simply in your garage, leave the door open overnight and the intruder will likely leave on its own. Avoid altercations with family pets by keeping your animals safely indoors at night. Also avoid leaving pet or bird food in accessible areas, including the garage or shed if you leave the door open. These two species are also known for going into a garden or garbage bin, so make sure you secure these well from all sides – they’re clever and their hand-like paws can undo some simple locking mechanisms.
Woodpeckers are a favorite among birders, but they can be a headache for homeowners with wood siding. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get these birds off your house without even making them leave your yard. First, check out the affected area of your house for an insect infestation. If there is one, get it treated and the woodpeckers will move on to other food sources. If you have birdfeeders near the house, gradually move them further out into the yard to make the house itself less inviting. Lastly, hang shiny objects that move in the wind on affected areas of the house – the reflected light is disconcerting to the woodpeckers and makes them less likely to get close.
These clever scavengers can be hard to deter, and they usually come with company. If you have pet food, open trash or compost available, a crow will be sure to make use of that. To deter them, secure all food sources like trash cans and compost bins, use deep nesting boxes that crows can’t get into, use birdfeeders that exclude large birds, and actively disturb them at dusk as they’re trying to roost. If you make enough noise with your voice or some pots and pans, the mob will find a quieter place to spend the night.
Bats are an important predator of insect pests like mosquitos, but it’s understandable if you don’t want a bat colony battening down the hatches in your home. To remove them safely, it’s best to call a professional—preferably one used to working with wildlife. However, if there’s just one flying through the house and you’re determined to remove it yourself, put on long sleeves, pants and protective gloves, grab a towel, close the bat into one room and gently scoop it up in the towel to take it outside. Once there, it’s best to put the bat in a tree or on some other raised object because it cannot take off from the ground. However, consider the time of year before you try to evict your fuzzy stowaways. Bats typically hibernate throughout the winter, so shooing them outside then will only lead to their demise. Bats also have a nursing season from late spring through late summer, so evicting them then might force them to abandon their babies, who are helpless and will perish in your home without their parents. The results of such action can be sad and stinky. To avoid both these potential problems, try to get bats out of the house in the spring or fall, and again, it’s best to let professionals handle this one. Once the bats are out of the house, work to close off any entry points to prevent them from returning. You can also consider placing a bat house in your yard.
Although snakes eat other pests and very few Iowa species are venomous, many people want any snake gone as soon as possible. Still, there are ways you can humanely remove these animals while staying safe. If you cannot identify the snake’s species or don’t want to handle it yourself, have it removed professionally. Otherwise, you can gently sweep a snake outdoors or spritz it with water from a hose to encourage it to leave the yard. Seal up holes in your home that may invite snakes or their prey and keep your grass cut short so snakes don’t have cover. A dog can also deter snakes from hanging out near your home. Please remember that the vast majority of Iowa snakes are protected by law, and it is illegal to kill or harm them.
Hawks and Other Raptors
Many raptor populations plummeted a few decades ago due to extensive use of DDT, but today most are recovered or recovering. But because humans tend to build homes where raptors live, we often intrude on their habitat and destroy it. With a reduced amount of habitat in which to survive and raise their young, these raptors often end up living in close proximity to humans. While many people enjoy watching these awesome predators, others would rather the raptor take up residence somewhere else. If that’s the case, identify and remove the factors attracting the predator to your property in the first place. Keep your yard, including any wood or brush piles, neat and rodent free. If you have birdfeeders, consider taking them down, at least until the predator moves on. If the problem is recurring, plant some bushes or other cover near feeders that smaller birds can dart into to escape predators. If you have small animals like chickens, make sure they have a strong, roofed enclosure to protect them. Lastly, most raptors don’t enjoy being near boisterous human activity, so simply spending more time in your yard could convince the bird to leave. Please note that these birds are protected by law, and harming or killing one will result in a hefty fine.