Living with Backyard Wildlife
Vol. 9 Issue 1, Winter 2004
By Leslie McCasker
This article is meant to help deal with situations where people and wildlife interact on a more personal level – around our homes. The rewards of enjoying wildlife in our own backyards, and of knowing how to conduct ourselves in theirs, can be rewarding. Unfortunately, there is not enough time or space for me to go into a great deal of detail or specifics, so, I will try to highlight some of the points that may make your wildlife encounters more acceptable, if not enjoyable.
Our attitudes and assumptions guide the way we react to wildlife encounters. Many people use words like nuisance or damage when relating stories of their interactions with wildlife. Most people tolerate wildlife if it does not interfere with their livelihood, property, pets or recreation. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who see wildlife as a kind of pet, requiring their attention, care and feeding. This perspective fails to recognize the independent and nonhuman attributes of wildlife and often causes more harm than good.
We should strive instead for a balanced view of wildlife ― recognizing our responsibility to safeguard wild habitat and to act humanely toward these wild animals, while understanding the animals’ basic right to exist free of human depredation and interference.
Inviting wildlife to your backyard requires you to take into account all of the possible problems that may come with the invitation. There is always that chance that the wildlife visitors may outstay their welcome or wander into areas you never intended them to visit. With a little bit of forethought you can prevent or troubleshoot most wildlife problems without doing anything drastic.
Some homeowners take it personally when wildlife becomes problematic. They think the animal is acting maliciously. We put up fences to make “good neighbors” and lock our doors and windows to keep uninvited people out. Yet, we expect wildlife to know that they are not welcome, even if we don’t take similar measures to prevent or restrict their access to our property.
The animals are not being malicious. They have simply found an element they need for survival (food, water, shelter, etc.). In many cases, by the time a homeowner discovers that they have a wildlife problem and seeks a solution, the offending wildlife has already become conditioned that their actions can be safely repeated. The longer wildlife is allowed to continue their actions, the longer it will take to recondition them.
Unfortunately, the homeowner who allowed the squirrels to nest in their attic for the last two years is usually not willing to wait for the next two weeks or even two days to correct the problem. But they are also not usually enamored with the idea of paying a pest control operator $100-$200 to fix the problem that they could do for free (and much more humanely/effectively most of the time).
- Most homeowners choose to have an animal immediately “removed and relocated,” which they feel is a quick solution for them and a humane alternative for the animal. There are three major elements to consider before deciding to trap and relocate an animal:
- Most relocated wildlife does not survive. In an unfamiliar environment, they do not have an established shelter site, food and water source, or territory. By dumping it into another animal’s territory, it has to fight and compete with the resident animal for a limited food supply and nesting area. In almost all cases, it is the newcomer that loses – many dying from infection from bite wounds, and others being killed by cars in an attempt to return to their original territory.
- Most jurisdictions prohibit the relocation of wildlife and require that pest control operators destroy trapped wildlife. This is usually accomplished by shooting, drowning, suffocation or injection with commercial solvents such as acetone. This is anything but humane!
- Unless the situation that originally attracted the animal is corrected, the problem will only be repeated by the next animal drawn to the property. Essentially, an “open house/vacancy” sign has been posted. The new animal, many times, is more of a nuisance than the previous one.
Wildlife will continue to repeat a behavior such as living in an attic or raiding trash cans only when it is relatively easy to do so, and they feel it is safe. Attics are ideal shelters, especially when problems of deteriorating fascias or soffets make it easy to get in. Attics are warm, quiet, dark and protected from the elements. However, animals will no longer feel safe or hidden in an attic when a radio blares for several days, or lights are left on continuously. They will begin to look for more suitable quarters within a matter of days.
Reconditioning offending wildlife is much more effective than removing it from the property, and much more humane than destroying it. But in order for this to be effective, reconditioning must be followed by correcting the situation that initially attracted the animal. By teaching the one squirrel to stay out of your attic, he will also continue to defend his territory (your yard) from invasion by other squirrels.
Tips for Preventing Conflicts with Wildlife:
- Do not provide food for mammals that visit your backyard. These animals, unlike birds, can begin to behave in unnatural ways when they are fed by humans. They may become overly brave with you and other humans which can lead to danger for both the humans and animals alike. The animals will still bite, even though they seem tame. They may also become destructive if their behaviors involve your home and belongings. Putting out food for wild animals creates dependency, as the animals learn where the food sources are. Those animals that have become dependent on your food can be severely deprived and even die when you go on vacation or move away (and the next resident human may not be so welcoming).
- Do not leave dog or cat food out for your pets. This acts as the same attractant as deliberate feedings.
- Seal all cracks and crevices that might be used by birds and animals to enter your home. Any size opening can be used by wildlife to enter. If a crack is too small for a mouse or squirrel, it can often be made wider by those little rodent teeth. Be sure the animals have left before you seal their exits.
- Cap your chimney and screen all outside vents in your home. Use ¼ inch hardware cloth, not window screening.
- Stack firewood away from your home. Stacked firewood is a favorite hiding place for mice and snakes.
- Try to avoid cedar-sided homes in forested areas. Woodpeckers and wood-boring insects are fond of cedar siding and can become very attracted to one house, putting many holes in the siding and pulling out insulation. Woodpeckers are protected by federal law and may not be harassed, trapped or killed.
- Fence off small vegetable gardens with hardware cloth buried about five inches below ground and extending about two feet above ground. This will help prevent invasion by rabbits and groundhogs. To limit access by deer, a fence must be tall, with a top section protruding outward to prevent jumping.
- Secure all garbage cans. Do not simply leave the lid on. Devise a latch or buy cans with latches – the more difficult to open, the better. Secure your garbage cans to a railing so they are difficult to tip over. This can help prevent invasion of your garbage by dogs, cats, raccoons, opossums, and crows.
- Screen all basement window wells, so that small animals are not trapped inside them. Also, screen the small spaces that sometimes exist between first floor porches and the ground. Skunks, snakes, groundhogs, and other animals find these spaces attractive homes.
- Keep bird feeders and feeding areas clean. If you ever see rats eating left over seeds, immediately stop putting out bird feed. The birds will adjust; for your sake and for the sake of your neighbors, you must discourage the rats.
Tips for Resolving Conflicts with Wildlife:
Don’t panic! Most wildlife conflicts are easy to solve with a little forethought and common sense.
- If a bird or small animal enters your home, seal the room from the rest of the house. Open all doors and windows from the room to the outside, so that the animal can escape. If it is a bat at night, shut off all the lights after opening the doors and windows to the outside.
- If woodpeckers are currently working on your house siding, you will need to cover their favorite areas with netting or burlap. Seal all siding connections and current holes made by the woodpeckers.
- If birds (particularly cardinals) are beating themselves against one of your windows or a car mirror, you will need to cover it so that the bird can no longer see its own reflection. This should discourage the offender.
- If an unwanted snake is found, don’t kill it! Simply pick it up with a shovel or broom, or sweep it into a garbage can or box and move it to a suitable outside location.
Don’t let potential wildlife conflicts discourage you from enjoying wildlife in your backyard. Most wildlife/ human conflicts are not dangerous to either party and only require a cool head and some basic information to solve. If you do find yourself in need of assistance, contact a wildlife specialist.
The best resource for at-home, do-it-yourself wildlife information and tools and tactics for wildlife conflict resolution is the book, Wild Neighbors, The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife, published by the Humane Society of the United States.