May 15, 2021 by Jean
One of the pleasures of rural living is the opportunity to observe and interact with wildlife, but interactions with wildlife can also be a curse of rural living. While I occasionally find plants in my garden browsed by deer, the deer are less a problem for me than they are for more suburban gardeners. It is the members of the extended rodent clan who are the bane of my existence.
The largest rodents I deal with are woodchucks (aka groundhogs), who like to live in a den under my garden with multiple exits out to various part of the garden for easy dining on delectable plants. Several years ago, one of these creatures moved into my new front garden, building a den so large that I refer to it as “the woodchuck palace.” I eventually hired a wildlife specialist to set traps and remove the woodchuck. But the woodchuck palace has turned out to be such highly desirable real estate that as soon as we trap and remove one animal, another one moves in. I imagine the word going out on the woodchuck grapevine: “Hey, did you hear? That big place up at the end of the dirt road is vacant!” The expense for setting traps and relocating woodchucks is now just a routine part of my gardening budget. So far this spring, we have trapped and removed three, and I’m still waiting for the current resident to be lured into a trap. This morning, I noticed that it had been dining happily on new growth of echinacea (a woodchuck favorite).
But my tussles with the woodchucks pale in comparison to my war with the small rodents. Since 2016, we have been experiencing what is called “masting” of oak trees – the production of unusually large crops of acorns. The conventional wisdom used to be that you would never have two mast years in a row, but we have had masting in four of the past five years. This is most likely a consequence of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since CO2 is one of the two basic ingredients for plants to photosynthesize (the other is water taken up from the soil), all that carbon dioxide means rich times for oak trees, and they respond by growing faster and producing more acorns. This has, in turn, led to population explosions of the various animals that feed on acorns, including white-tailed deer and small rodents like squirrels, chipmunks, and mice.
The first population explosion was mice. In Fall 2017, I had so many mice in my house (mostly running around on the sill plate under my floors) that I resorted to the services of an exterminator. The following year, the squirrel population exploded, which was not a big problem for me (a good thing, since I was still using the services of the exterminator to deal with the mice). The year after that, there weren’t as many acorns and the squirrel populations crashed, with an exceptional number of squirrels being run over by cars as they ran across roads looking for food. Last year, it was the chipmunks whose numbers exploded, and this year there are so many chipmunks that they are starting to feel like a Biblical plague.
I wasn’t paying that much attention to the chipmunks until I went down to feed my woodstove one February afternoon and found two chipmunks running around in the basement. I wondered how these two had accidentally found their way in and got trapped in the house. I opened the door to my walk-in basement and managed to chase one out, but the other disappeared into a dark corner. So I went out and bought a small animal trap to catch it. When I caught a chipmunk in the trap a few days later, however, I heard another one squeaking at it from outside the trap. That was when it occurred to me that I might actually have chipmunks living and nesting (and reproducing?) somewhere in my house.
Before I had a chance to deal with the possibility of chipmunks nesting in the recesses of my house, however, I took my car in for routine servicing. I asked them to check for rodent damage because I had been seeing and smelling evidence of rodents nesting in the car. When the service rep came to find me in the waiting room, he said, “You do have critters – lots of them. Actually, they’re pretty much throughout the vehicle; they’ve basically colonized your car.” He then told me that I should contact my insurance company to see if my comprehensive coverage would cover this and to see if I had coverage for a rental car, since repairing this type of heavy rodent damage would take 2-3 weeks. He also warned me that, once the full extent of the damage was known, the insurance company might decide to declare the car a total loss rather than pay to repair it. Yikes! It was very disconcerting to realize that I had been driving around for months in a rolling rodent zoo, and that I had to continue doing so for a couple more weeks while I waited for my appointment to bring the car back in for repair.
My insurance company (Traveler’s) was helpful and supportive, authorizing a rental car for the period that my car would be in the shop. Within ten days after I dropped it off, after the car had been torn apart to find all the places the mice and chipmunks had been living and scavenging nesting materials and after they had sent an appraiser to inspect the damage, the insurance company declared the car a total loss and prepared to write me a check. Earlier this week, I went to the Toyota dealership to clean out my car so that it could be signed over to the insurance company and towed away. While I was there, I shopped for a new car, which I brought home yesterday.
An interesting coda to this experience was provided when I attended a garden visit with my garden club earlier this week, something I haven’t done since 2019. In talking with friends I haven’t seen in over a year, I discovered that they had been going through the same rodent saga, the difference being that their car is considerably newer than mine and thus was being repaired rather than declared a total loss. Then we discovered another couple, new members of the garden club, who were also dealing with rodent damage to their car. It was comforting to discover that I wasn’t the only casualty of the rodent wars. Now we all just need to devise better strategies for keeping those miserable pests out of our cars.