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Archive for Sunday, October 8, 2000

Critters send gardeners scampering for solutions

Homeowners must decide whether it’s worth the effort to take action

October 8, 2000

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Some friends recently offered me cucumbers, tomatoes and squash out of a garden where I know rabbits are regularly shot with a pellet gun. Not one to turn down free food, I nonetheless felt compelled to ask whether the produce I was about to accept was cruelty-free.

No guarantees about that, the wife (the one who doesn't do the shooting) laughingly told me.

Not one to turn down free food, I told 'em to bag it up.

But the question about the rabbits won't go away. A lot of people have been complaining about them and other garden marauders. And while experts don't necessarily agree that the problem is worse this year, we do know that the presence of wildlife is something that the urban gardener, who is getting more and more in touch with the wilder side of plant material and bird life, has to learn to deal with.

"Usually if you live in a neighborhood now and you have rabbits or squirrels or skunks the urban animals then chances are you have the appropriate habitat for those animals and the food is there or the animals wouldn't be there," says Bob Gress of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

Case-by-case situation

So now that you have their attention, and they have yours, the question becomes whether the varmints are a true problem, and what action you want to take, if any, against them.

Jamie Peck, owner of Critter Control in Wichita, gets lots of calls about moles and gophers in the garden. Some people call him at the drop of one plant, others at the loss of several. The threshold of action that they're willing to take differs too, depending on the animal.

"They want a mole or a gopher dead that's damaging a garden; a rabbit that's damaging a garden, they don't want him dead," Peck says.

My brother and sister-in-law volunteer with a wildlife rescue organization in the Kansas City area, taking in orphaned squirrels and the occasional raccoon family and nursing them back to health and a return to the "wild." Meanwhile, some of these rehabilitated squirrels, transplanted to my parents' yard, eat through the garden, nubbing the flowers down to short stems. At this point the cuties lose their charm for me, and I'm amazed at how one person's pest can easily be another person's pet and vice versa.

"For the most part, people in urban areas like to have them," Gress said of critters.

But in the growing season, rabbits and gophers and moles can have gardeners pulling out their hair along with the remains of plants.

"They were so destructive," Bernadette Sanders of Wichita says of rabbits in her garden this spring. The parsley, naturally, was consumed, as were, maybe not so expectedly, four lily plants, down to stubs. By now, when the garden has matured, she says, the damage is not as noticeable, because the rabbits have so much to choose from, just as the Sanderses do.

Control options

Under the Kansas Bill of Rights, people have a right to protect their property using lethal means, said Charlie Cope, a wildlife biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. But the department tries to get them to use non-lethal means first.

Possible action includes things to harass and scare animals such as shell crackers, whistlers and bangers outside the city, or effigies and lights on at night inside the city. Fences are good options for keeping out rabbits, and cultural practices such as securing trash cans and confining the remains of produce to compost piles are others.

And some people get creative. One of the San-derses' neighbors has in his garden what appears to be an effective deterrent against rabbits, an osprey kite that swoops in the wind on a fishing line around a 10-foot pole. Its 44-inch wingspan does an impressive dance.

Bob Crager received the bird for his 74th birthday (as more of a joke than a rabbit solution) from his son Curtis, but it actually seems to work.

Cathy Clausen of the Wild Bird Center, where the kite was purchased, says the zoo borrowed one to keep wandering prairie dogs in their enclosure, and it worked there. A Canada goose kite has been known to attract geese.

Not only rabbits but birds seem to stay away when it's flying, and it's supposed to protect fish in ponds as well. Since its installation in Crager's garden, sweet potato vines and pepper plants have had a chance to bounce back, though the decimated green beans were pretty much a loss to springtime rabbit predation.

"It's been pretty much of a neighborhood conversation piece," Crager's wife, Rosemary, says.

Maybe the gawking neighbors are keeping the rabbits away.

A bad move

But one seemingly humane way of taking care of offending animals trapping them and then moving them out to the country is probably not a good idea, says Gress. Newcomers probably often become the prey of resident animals or have problems adapting, he says. "People feel better, but it probably leads to death." Killing an animal outright with a lethal trap may be more humane in those cases when it must be removed.

Another argument against moving animals is that there's always another varmint to take its place. You can have one yard that, like my brother's, features squirrel boxes, while two doors down homeowners are trapping squirrels and releasing them somewhere else. "You simply have opened a revolving door," Gress says.

Suspect folkways

Folkloric remedies that are simple and humane, such as water bottles dispersed throughout the garden or bundles of human hair tossed under the flowers, abound.

But even as gardeners become wilder, animals are becoming tamer and less apt to be fooled. Urban rabbits, for example, won't really be turned off by whatever odors we throw at them, such as human hair or dog poop, Gress says.

So what's a person to do?

"We always recommend, because it's the easy way out, whether they're rabbits or squirrels or skunks or possums or red foxes, that they're part of the natural world and figure out a way to live with them," Gress says. "We've given 'em a pretty good habitat."

Is it really a problem?

In the winter when I scatter birdseed on the barren ground, I cringe at the ghostly nighttime vision of an opossum wobbling on the fence and then climbing down among the seeds. I associate the animal with disease, which it can carry, and uncleanness. I never realized until I talked to Cope of the wildlife department that the simple presence of an opossum is probably not a problem at all.

If I don't want the opossum, I can keep the birdseed off the ground. Meantime, I give the squirrels their own feeder, and domesticated cats that become wild around birds are shooed or squirt-gunned out of the garden. The birds fight it out among themselves.

And the rabbits get fat.

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