Friday, September 15, 2006

Yard Drama: A Story of Housecats, Chipmunks, Rats, Ivy and Native Plants

I didn't mean to have a yard full of rats. Not that I object to rats on principle - but the novelty has worn off.

Just two short months ago my beloved Notch was the queen of the realm, with her empire of underground passages and 22 holes in my front yard. Notch is a ferocious chipmunk who rolled and beat up any other chipmunks and any rats that ventured into the yard. She was fearless. She spent every afternoon in the middle of the yard, sitting straight up on her haunches like a meerkat, surveying her turf. When she pounced on intruders, fur would fly in a wild tussle....then the victim would scuttle off, utterly defeated. Notch would once again assume her surveying posture, until at dusk she retreated below.

I loved her. She was everything I wish I was. The fearless part, I mean. I couldn't help but root for her. She's so tiny! But she knew what she wanted and she wasn't afraid to just lay it on the line. "Bring it on" seemed to be her motto.

I took to leaving a raw unsalted peanut or a piece of walnut at the opening to her main hole, just once in a while, as a token of my esteem. Occasionally she would come up and take it while I was still within a few feet of her hole. I know I shouldn't have done that. I never should have. It's bad bad bad to feed wildlife under any circumstances. I don't know why I succumbed to temptation.

But it probably wasn't the peanuts. It was probably the birdfeeders that drew the rats. We had a sunflower feeder and a suet feeder over the ivy. Yes, English ivy covers about a third of our front yard - the part that's too shady for grass to grow. I know that English ivy is bad too. It's an introduced plant and worse, it's a very aggressive invasive species. I mean, it was here when we moved in - I didn't plant it. And while we're at it, listing my crimes - I know that even having a lawn is not an eco-friendly choice. If and when I get real about putting my wildlife-promotion ideas into action, I will get rid of the grass and put in a native meadow, or a native woodland. I mean to. We've gotten advice about how to do it, which I've posted about. It's just a lot of work, and....are we gonna move or not? I don't know.

Anyway, we've been seeing an occasional single rat for a couple of years....just one. Way in the back of the back yard. Under the backyard bird feeder and maybe near the compost. Although theoretically the compost is in a rat-proof container. Just one rat for years.

Until I started working at the front window on the book that's due this fall. I like looking at the front yard while I work. So I got to keeping the suet feeder and the front yard seed feeder full all the time, for the birds. But birds are messy. Suet and seeds were constantly dropping into the ivy. That's probably why Notch defended her territory so fiercely. It was only a few feet from the ivy patch.

And then Ken (husband) a few times threw handfuls of birdseed into the back yard, trying to get rid of some milo seed he'd bought on sale that the birds don't like. We started noticing more than one rat in the back yard. Then before long the rats discovered the gold mine of bird-feeder detritus in the front ivy patch, and then, then....there were a lot of rats in the front yard. They live in the ivy, mostly, so we only see them occasionally. But we can see the ivy rustling....if you look close where the ivy is moving, you can spot a rat.

Now these aren't Norway rats, the kind that infest houses and carried the plague and all that. I'm talking about cotton rats, Sigmodon hispidus. Or hispidis, I forget. They're rounder, have blunter snouts, furry tails - not naked tails like icky Norway rats. Cotton rats are actually quite charming native woodland mammals. They have no more desire to live in a house than a gray squirrel or a raccoon does.

But here's why I'm irked about the rats. We went on vacation in late July-early Aug, and when we came back, Notch was gone. I was sure the Siamese cats across the street had eaten her, and I grieved. But then I saw her one day. She came through the yard, and it was her, torn notch in her ear and all. No mistaking that damaged ear. But she was obviously a visitor. She looked around and then left, for the neighbor's unmanicured shrubby area. What the heck?

I noticed a few days later that some knucklehead creature had tried to drag a huge bundle of pine needles into one of the holes that had been Notch's. A couple of days later we met the knucklehead - a dadgum cotton rat. In Notch's hole!! Acckkk!

The yard seems totally out of control now. I stopped all the feeders. (The next door neighbor has several, no one's gonna starve.) I'm moving the the little waterbowl into the backyard, a few feet every day, so any critter using it will still be able to find it. During the dry part of the summer, everyone used that water bowl. Notch used it, and all the rabbits that ate our garden like it was a cafeteria, they used it too. The rats and squirrels used it. And the songbirds used to literally stand around the bowl waiting their turn, in July. The bowl is only big enough for one bird at a time, and they often liked to bathe in it. But my wildlife viewing days, while at work in the front window, are over.

I don't know where Notch is now, I hope she's still alive. I'm convinced the ivy has to go. To get rid of the rats. I mean, yes they're native, but my mammal field guide says they reproduce every 6 weeks, with an average litter size of 6! (Chipmunks reproduce only twice a year.) I don't want a yard teeming with rats, even cotton rats. I've gotten advice on how to pull up the ivy without spraying herbicides. Just dig. A little bit at a time.

Meanwhile we have a new chipmunk. He stands on top of the brush pile in the back of the back yard and chirps all day long. Sometimes he goes up into the gutter downspout and chirps for hours. A barred owl and a Coopers hawk have been hanging out in the backyard, drawn by Chuck's chirping. (The chirp sounds like "chuck.") They want to eat him. They want him badly.

I love Chuck already, because....he's wild, he's fearless, he looks like Notch. But if the owl or the hawk eat him, that's okay. They were here before we were, before people took over the world. They're native predators and rodents are their native prey. Unlike house cats, who are not native, and who threaten wildlife survival because of their unnaturally high numbers. The cats are not entitled to my chipmunks.

Meanwhile, I'm left with rat-viewing as my only wildlife option, at least from the front window. Maybe I can move my worktable around to the back somehow, and watch the drama with Chuck and the owl and the hawk. I'll root for him, but if the owl eats him....I won't mind...too much.

1 comment:

megaselia said...

It makes me wonder how God got all those animals to live so happily in the ark, when someone smart like you can't even manage tiffs between a chipmunk and a cotton rat. Makes me think Noah also probably wound up with a boat full of rats.