Rats are the most destructive animals to humans. Rivaling the damage done by the nonnative Norway Rat ( ratus Ratus) and Black Rats worldwide, is the damage done by the California Ground Squirrel. Barn owls eat gophers, rats, mice and cottontail rabbits, mostly in that order. As ground squirrels do not come out at night ( diurnal), and barn owls do not come out in the day (nocturnal), they never see each other. And ground squirrels have a rather formidable set of teeth, with large jaw muscles to back up their bite. These rodents are the only member of the group “rodentia” that cannot be controlled with the use of owl nesting boxes. There seems to be no wild predators that can be introduced to the property and situation that will bear down on a large squirrel population. I had to turn down many a potential barn owl box client because I could not help them, so I began a ground squirrel trapping campaign. I learned much about this by applying my knowledge of the biology and behavior of these subterranean mammals, which I will impart to you here.
Ranches, particularly horse ranches, can be home to seemingly hundreds of these pests. I have seen a tack shed that was so undermined by their constant digging that it had fallen into the ground at one corner 3′ deep and had to be jacked and blocked up.
An Arabian horse ranch in Santa Teresa, Ramona, Ca. where I caught over 250 squirrels in three months, had them running willy nilly upon approach by car or on foot. I had 5 “Squirellinator” traps alongside a driveway leading up the the main house. Every day I would bait the traps and the next day they would be stuffed with huge fat squirrels, some looking like small beavers, they were so large. When they get that big, varmint hunters call them “Ground Grizzlies”. These Squirrelinators are remarkable traps, which work far better than other “Havaheart” type traps. Yet still they had more to be desired. I filled in these shortcomings and in time was catching 50-60 squirrels everyday.
Wildlife need three things food, water and cover. The instructions that come with the traps say to just use food, i.e. grain or dry dog or cat food. That addresses a single need only. If all three requirements are applied to the trap, trapping success rates should go up and indeed in time they did.
First, dry cat or dog food attracts the big “red devil” ants we have in the inland San Diego areas. These stinging insects will kill any animals in the trap. Not a nice way to end the life of any animal. So I quit the use of dry pet food and used pigeon feed because I had a bag on hand at all times, but any cracked corn or any seed will work, so the cheaper, the better.
Now we need to address water. I put rabbit water bottles inside but they never used them. Instead, the squirrels paced along the inside walls of the trap and every time they touched the spigot end of the water bottle, that made it drip. Soon the site was a muddy morass. These squirrels are desert creatures and didn’t do well exposed to the elements when wet and so died from exposure. Again suffering a slow death. I amended this procedure by taking away the water bottles and adding a entire celery plant bought at the grocery store. I wire tied it against the inside wall of the trap. I secured them this way because if left to roll around, invariably they would get stuck under the trap door and release the occupants to teach the other squirrels to stay away from the traps. Not good.
The second series of rodent control about rats.
So I thought about them wanting the bait in the trap but that they were well aware that it was a trap. I imagined them approaching the trap but staying well clear of the jaw mechanism. They would push the trap off its ledge till it snaps shut after hitting the ground, then they would eat the bait, which explained why the trap was not where I had set it at and sprung, sans the bait.
So to solve this problem I thought the answer would be to drill a couple of holes in the rat trap and shoot it down onto a scrap piece of 2X4 with dry wall screws with a drill and screw driver bit. No go. They were too cagey that next night. If they couldn’t push it and snap the trap, they wouldn’t play the game and eat the bait. My favorite rat bait is smoked salmon skin that I would get at the Del Mar Fish House. I would rubber band it on to the bait peddle. Then leave a few of the the tiniest of skin scraps smeared on the board and trap. Not enough for them to get the smallest of a meal but enough to taste how good it is.
Then I remembered the insight I learned with tame rats. Whenever a mother discovered one of her young that had died, they would fuss over it, by gently rolling it around bopping it back and forth and push on it, lift it up, drop it etc. They would do this for about a minute and a half, then, like as it were a mechanical switch in her head, nature would tell her that it was more important to safeguard her living babies than one that was obviously dead and she would just drop it and leave, never to return. But I remembered how strong the instinct to is ‘box” the baby rat around to try and revive it. They were driven to do this. This was going to happen so I might as well use it to my advantage.
I was falconer and since I still had most of her babies frozen in my freezer, marked “Hawk Food”, that I’d use one of them as bait. But imagining the mother approaching the dead baby rat at night in the stock trap, she would pull it off part way before setting off the trap and she would get away. This is called a “bad set” in trapping parlance. It would educate the female completely and she would never get trapped, being forever “trap shy” from that night forward. I had to figure a way to make sure she walked over the bait pedal first before she dragged the dead baby rat away to box it.
So I thought I’d build a little plywood box to put the trap in, which I later built but the first box trap was just an old shoe box. The dimensions were perfect allowing for full travel of the trap’s killing jaw inside the box. So I glued the shoe box to a flat board a little wider and longer than the shoe box. I shot the trap down with the screws inside the shoe box with about 2″ of a gap between the set side of the trap ( not the bait side) and the right wall of the box. This was just enough of a space to place the dead baby bait. I applied a bit of super glue to the baby to make the mother struggle with it as she would rather try to revive it away from the scary trap. I figured she would be pulling on it while bracing her legs into the bait pedal end of story for Mrs.Monsewerrat.
That night I started to make the set by rubber banding a .5″ piece of salmon skin to the pedal just for good measure. Then I cut out a round hole for an entrance door on the left end and set the trap. Then I put the lid on (now the front wall) and electrical taped it in down in place. Next I set the board and trap affair up where the rats were feeding (called “foraging”) as I don’t like to show my hand by placing the trap in their runways, spooking them. That buffet area being the attic crawl space above my bedroom. They would bring dog food and citrus fruit and eat it up their. Then they would fight it out over the food, making quite a racket.
About 2:00 a.m. the next morning, I heard the trap go off and I smiled, but went back into REM. I didn’t check it til the next day (I think rats know about human sleep habits and do their foraging when everyone one is deeply asleep). “GOT HER!” I bellowed like Chekoff on the original STAR TREK TV series upon hitting a Clingon battle cruiser with a photon torpedo. A big fat rat there before me dead in the trap never looked so good! I felt exhilaration, gratification and pride all because I had outfoxed a rodent. What a brainiac.
So the next order of business was to catch the the big boar/ bull male rat, the one sporting the big cajones. If I can get him, I can assuredly break the rat production cycle completely and utterly, once and for all ( or until the next family of rats move in).
I thought if I caught the mother rat with a baby, why couldn’t I catch the bull with the dead female? Now I made an enlarging adjustment to the bait area to accommodate the larger than a baby mother rat in the right hand space by moving the trap to the left another inch, and glued her down there on the right. Just like the mother after the baby, he would try to revive her and drag her away to do it, thereby setting off the trap. I made the “set” and hit the hay.
In the middle of the night about three nights later ( I had been taking her down every morning and re-freezing her to keep her fresh) came WACK! I smiled and thought that I’d just leisurely check it the next morning, and went back to sleep- but I got distracted as we were preparing for my next birthday party. One distraction led to another and another.
Six weeks later I was laying in bed when my eyes drifted over to the crawl space lid. “The rat!!! (duhhhh!) OH s@#t! — It was now August and it must have been 120`s up there in the day. I opened up the crawl space lid to behold one of the grossest things on God’s green earth, a rotten rat. It was green.
But it was at one time a big male boar rat, one I had trapped. He was the smartest of the family and the most trap shy of the lot and I was a bit proud but thoroughly disgusted.
I buried it in the garden as rotten rats are delicacies in certain parts of the yard by trees and shrubs.
End of Part Two
Keeping Rats Out Of Your Yard
The first series of rodent control will be about rats.
Rats are far more destructive than any other rodent species. This is because of the amount of human deaths that have occurred do to their presence. Bubonic plague or “Black Death,” a bacteria is vectored to human from fleas which had bitten infected rats. This pathogen has decimated Europeans in a number of plagues, causing millions of deaths. Today the rat’s chewing of power wires cause hundreds of structure fires which kill people and cause millions of dollars worth in property damage around the globe.
The eradication of an established population of rats within a neighborhood is a daunting task. far better and easier to prevent them than to get rid of them. Eradication involves trapping as many rats as possible, plugging up their entrance holes in buildings and altering their habitat to deny them food, water and cover and to expose them when foraging so barn owls can pounce on them.
Installing owl boxes is the best way to kill rats, the numbers never lie. Of course one would expect me to say this as I install barn owl nesting boxes for a living. But no other method kills more rodents than barn owls do. One would have to employ a dozen barn cats to effect a rat population as much as one pair of barn owls do. Government studies have proved one pair of breeding barn owls can consume as many as 3,000 gophers, rats, mice and voles per year, plus insects.
Installing Owl Boxes
So the first order of business is to install two owl boxes, his and hers, within a hundred yards of each other. People often ask me “What is the best time of year to install owl boxes?” What time of year the box is put up matters not, as this is a long term solution. The answer I give them is “at least one year before you see the first evidence of rodents”. If you don’t have them up already, then have it done asap.
Once the nest boxes are professionally installed, there needs to be a trapping regimen. Ordinary “Victor” rat traps work but need to be enhanced. How to enhance Victor traps will be discussed in a future blog.The County of San Diego used to give out black boxes that look like bait stations but had a rat trap inside, no poison. This is an excellent design as rats are uneasy about being exposed when foraging and will scurry away before they have a chance to settle down and be trapped. When using the traps inside the black plastic boxes, they seek cover inside the box, relax and linger longer, getting trapped more effectively. One must do more than just set a trap however. The trapper must envision the behavior of the rats actions after the person goes to sleep. This is called “getting inside their head,”or “thinking like a rat.” I have known quite a few people that I would expect this type of thinking would be a natural—
I had tame rats as pets when I was adolescent. Decades later, I had wild rats living in my crawl space. I set an ordinary “Victor” rat trap. I caught four 3/4 grown juveniles. I knew from my experience at raising tame rats that I had at least one female, the mother (already on a new litter by now) and a dominant male I called a “bull” lurking somewhere on the property. Time and again I would set the trap, only to find it sprung in the morning, no rats trapped and no bait left. So I must have caught all the young in that litter, so it must one or both the adults parents that are now spooked as the trap snapping shut scares them, making them wary.
This was bad news as now the mother rat had an education. One they know they are being set up, it becomes orders of magnitude harder to catch them.If they are not caught, they will breed and educate their young in behavior. The trapper has to get a head of their learning curve, so the next attempt to trap them is critical or, they will learn a second lesson and will never be trapped.
To learn what I did to catch the mother and ultimately the male “bull” rat, please visit my website and blog to be posted soon.
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