Do you remember me telling you about the rat problem?
To sum up: 2018 was the year we were inundated with roof rats. This is not uncommon in our neighborhood, which 100 years ago was part of the foothills leading to Mt Diablo. Well, it still is part of the foothills, but now it’s covered with houses. Living this close to open space and a state park means that we get wildlife of all kinds in our suburban yards - and most of the time we love that. The line of cars on the way to the freeway every morning, folks in a hurry to get to work? stops completely when a rafter of wild turkeys wants to cross the road. Folks with small dogs like chihuahuas and terriers? they keep ‘em inside when hearing reports of a coyote roaming the streets. Depending on the season, you’re likely to see whole families of deer munching on whatever they can find, and the opossums who make their nests under our outbuildings. Raccoons, moles, voles, snakes, foxes, we’ve got it all. But this past year, the rats were out of control.
And it wasn’t just in our house; most of our neighbors were also complaining of a surfeit of rodents. We would have guests over to eat, and as we sat around the farm table on the patio enjoying twilight and home brew, we’d see whole groups of them skittering along the fenceline. While we were accustomed to it, it put guests off, I can tell you. And when the rats moved into the walls of our home, we declared war. It took the better part of the year to figure out every single way they were getting into the house and close it off. We had vector control come out. We refurbished our garage door so it would shut tight against the floor when closed. We hired a guy to climb all over the roof and figure out where to put hardware mesh to close off holes. I checked and re-checked the protection around the chicken coop and food. We bought bin after bin for the garage to house anything remotely food-like, even potting soil. We had to get a new dishwasher because rats had chewed the water line in our old one and shorted it out. We stopped composting. We set traps. We set more traps. There were traps everywhere. We also had rat mites - a microscopic bug that lives on rats which moved on to biting some of our family, the itching driving them, sleepless, slowly out of their minds. The same hired rat guy spread a ‘safe’ sort of dusty poison in our crawl space and attic, several times, to kill the mites. It went on and on. The rat guy came every Wednesday and every Wednesday he found new places to fortify. It was crazy. We resorted to a Vitamin D-based poison that kills rats but not the things that eat rats.
Eventually, we did get a handle on the problem. We no longer have them in our house. But I just got a text from a neighbor asking about the guy who came out every week and could they have the contact info? because everyone in their house is itching like mad. So I know the rats are still out there. They are non-native and have found a very good home here, where every third house keeps chickens, everyone has dog or cat food lying around, folks feed the birds, and everyone composts.
Remember when we talked about insects, and about the prey-predator balance? There is always more prey than predator. This was the case with the rats. I pleaded to the trees every day: Where are you, hawks? Where are you, owls? I pleaded with the woodpiles too: Where are you, snakes? I all but did dances, shaking instruments and ululating. Praying, but instead of saying “come, Lord Jesus” I was saying “come, predators.” When would the balance be restored???
January 3rd, 2019, that’s when.
I know I posted before about the Cooper’s Hawk hanging out in our yard, hunting the little birds. Yesterday I watched her nab one, then sit on the fence for a good two minutes before flying off with the bird in her talons. Where there’s one hawk, there are others - and rats are good food for them too. I have also recently seen Red Tail Hawks circling our yard. The chickens know to head inside where they can’t be seen, when a hawk is overhead. They are on high alert.
Last night, we also heard a Great Horned Owl for the first time in a while. They have a very loud and striking call. This particular one was quite close, in our neighbor’s oak tree right across the street. They are voracious predators of rodents. They have a huge range in their diet and will eat almost anything, but small mammals are their bread-n-butter. They also eat squirrels.
We also heard a Barn Owl for the first time last night in a long while. I remember the first time I heard one and I thought, naturally, ‘that’s a screech owl.’ Because barn owls screech, or ‘scream.’ Screech owls actually have a very nice hoot. So how did those two get mixed up, way back when???? Anyway, the scream of a barn owl is quite startling. Last night there was one in close proximity to the Great Horned Owl and they were singing a duet of some kind. I was desperately hoping they were Game-of-Thrones type war cries, and the rats would soon see their doom.
After we both stood out in the cold, shivering and listening for a while, Tom declared it ‘Raptor Day.’ And so it was. Here’s to more of them, and less of the rats. And come summer, I’m hoping to have a ‘Snake Day.’ I shall report if it becomes so.
Predators always come. It’s a mantra worth repeating.
Today, however, I have declared it ‘Bread and Bean’ day. I am cooking up some of the rattlesnake beans I dried and saved this past summer, and making a bean and kale soup, or maybe pasta e fagioli. I haven’t made bread in two months, so that’s happening too, and it’s nice to have a warm and sourdoughy kitchen on a cold day.
One of my professors is teaching an Edible Landscaping class this spring and has asked for my help. I’m not sure how much help I can give, because I have a very full class load, but one thing I can do is share seeds. I spent some time clearing out old seeds and organizing what I have left, and then I put in five big orders: for veg, at Seed Savers, Baker Creek, and Johnny’s; for flowers, at Renee’s and Floret Farm. Tom also gave me some flower seeds from Larner which need sowing now. Anyway, I have plenty of seeds to share and it will be fun to swap with my teacher and try some of his varieties. I’ve got my beds laid out for summer planting (on paper that is) and it’s fun to think about the coming season. My teacher said “you’re so organized!” and then I told him how I’d gone out the garden a couple days ago and found three huge Daikon radishes that I don’t remember planting. So how organized am I, really?
We ate these, pickled with carrots, in Bahn Mi sandwiches last night, yum.
I’ll share my summer plans and seed varieties with you as we get closer to planting time. Meanwhile I’m imagining that we are all doing the same thing right now - planning and buying. It’s winter’s chief joy for gardeners. :)