Home & Garden

Varmints do the darnedest things

Former Wichita mayor Vince Bogart gets the biggest kick out of the raccoons in his backyard — the ones he used to trap and have carted out to the country. Until he felt sorry for one raccoon who had to spend an entire day and part of a night cooped up in the cage until his moving van arrived.

Vince, who was mayor in 1964-1965, and his wife, Judy, feed the birds in their lovely secluded backyard in College Hill. They're able to sit out and enjoy them, or view them unobstructed from a huge bay window in their kitchen.

For all the seclusion — and their location in the heart of the city — it's amazing the number of raccoons and possums that make their way into the yard. These varmints are like the squirrels that seem to be multiplying exponentially for many other people I've heard from this year.

A couple of weeks ago, Vince just had to call, because, from what he could tell, the raccoons had commandeered the tube feeder full of shell-on peanuts that he puts out for the woodpeckers.

Vince went out one day to find that the feeder had been pulled up by its leather strap into a fork of the tree and wedged there so that the bottom of the feeder could be pulled out and the contents spilled to the ground.

Vince wired the bottom shut, and then the coons managed it so that they got the top to fly open instead.

"It's not enough for them to get in here, but to get it up here and jam it so the peanuts fall out," Vince said, unable to stop laughing. "I keep putting more in there because I can't believe it."

Vince has added a second, more secure peanut feeder so the woodpeckers get their share.

He is just about to put mothballs around the soil of his wife's flower pots to keep the squirrels from hiding nuts in them and then digging up the flowers in the process. I'm not sure the sight of the moth balls will be better than strewn potting soil and teetering plants, but we all have to do what we have to do.

Extension agent Bob Neier suggests not feeding the birds if squirrels are bedeviling you — and if they're not bedeviling you, count your blessings.

"Is there a way to block squirrels from the trees in hopes of keeping them from the yard? If we can't find a way to curtail their destruction, we will probably have to quit planting flowers," Denise Elder wrote me in an anguished e-mail this spring. "They have destroyed the flower beds the past three years. We have tried the commercial sprays for pests, cayenne pepper, etc., with no luck at all. They seem to be more aggressive each year."

I can't bear to not feed the birds, so I'm always running out and clapping at squirrels and blackbirds to try to sound like the shotgun I'm not carrying. It gets old, plus you become what Mike Everhart of Derby says of himself in a recent e-mail:

"I probably have a neighborhood reputation as the crazy guy who chases squirrels, but it seems to help keep them away from the feeders as much as possible... at least they have to work harder at it... LOL."

LOL, all right — lamenting out loud.

"I think I'm getting as crazy as the goofy squirrels," Charlotte Dulohery adds, describing what her garden has become:

"It isn't so pretty with pieces of chicken wire, welded wire and upturned wire baskets on most pots, but it's very effective. I used to raise canaries and finches, so I have some leftover cage tops that I put over some pots, and I have put garden staples through pieces of nylon screen over some pots....

"Every plant that went inside for the winter is now sprouting oak trees from last year's squirrel activity. I'm just about ready to stand out in the yard and remind those bushy-tailed spoilers that I used to EAT squirrel when I was a little kid! Where ARE the native predators?"

Mike agrees: "We find ourselves rooting for the barred owls and other birds prey."

As with cycles of insects on plants, I wonder what's allowing squirrels to take over. I called Cliff Washington, in charge of animal damage control for the Department of Wildlife and Parks in Wichita. He gets the calls. And the calls. And the calls. He doesn't know that there are more squirrels this year, but here are his suggestions for people:

"They can trap and relocate them or dispose of them any kind of way they want to." Any kind of way does not include shooting, at least in the city limits. You can purchase humane traps at hardware stores and set them with peanuts, and you should relocate a squirrel at least 20 miles away. I'm thinking this routine could take the better part of a life, and I don't mean the squirrel's.

Cliff also recommends trying repellents such as Critter Ridder, Shake Away and Repels-All: Read the label to see how often it would need to be reapplied. The same advice applies to other varmints, including rabbits.

You can call Cliff at 316-683-8069 from 8 a.m. to noon weekdays — people "will call about any little thing," he says. And big things, too, like squirrels wandering in a door left open on a pretty day. He has contacts of people who can extricate the varmints.

I wondered: Does Mr. Washington feed the birds?

Yes, he said, he does.

And the resulting squirrels?

"I just leave 'em alone," he said. "They gotta live too."