We’ve blogged before about a white-footed mouse in the house. We read the story to our kids when they were little. Time after time we snuggled down with the book and they never got tired of hearing why the mouse might be cute but doesn’t belong in the house. A recent internet search for the specific book revealed lots of stories but not the one we wanted. Alas. So, here we are decades later writing again about a mouse in the house. Mice are cute but they do not belong in a house.
A person holding a mouse.
Whenever we’d find mouse evidence in our house, we’d set traps and usually catch a few, tossing their lifeless bodies outside for scavenger animals to eat. We do feel badly, but as the mother in the story said, “…a mouse does not belong in a house.”
Path to the outdoor pantry
In January we changed our mind…..sort of. It was 20 below zero outside. Rich trudged through snow drifts to fill our bird feeders and noticed tracks, tiny mouse tracks, in the snow. A crafty white-footed mouse had scampered on top of the snow the night before to scrounge a few leftover seeds for dinner. Its tracks led to a snug nook out of the wind and under the deck.
An average White-footed mouse weighs a whopping .7 ounce. That’s seven-tenths of an ounce! That such a tiny creature can survive the howling wind and intense cold is a marvel of nature. Every nocturnal predator from coyotes to owls tries to capture and eat this diminutive mammal. But, it is wily, wary, and quick. Although not usually out during the day, it has to be mindful of cats and hawks looking for a meal.
After seeing those tracks, we felt a bit sorry for the animal that made them. We still won’t welcome a mouse into our house, but we’re happy it lives just outside in a safe place under the deck. He’s welcome to any seeds the birds overlooked.
To learn more about White Footed Mice and many other wild animals check out Animal Diversity Web out of the University of Michigan.
Frustration Yields to Creativity
Reprising the blog on thwarting House Sparrows. Here is a recap of our initial frustration and subsequent ways to encourage native birds and discourage exotics.
As we wrote earlier, hordes of House Sparrows almost made us give up feeding birds. We’d fill our feeders each morning and hope to watch juncos, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches visit on cold winter days. Unfortunately, hordes of House Sparrows began arriving. We don’t mind feeding a few, but dozens soon devoured all the expensive seed, leaving empty feeders for native species.
Coming Up Short on “Expert Advice”
We asked bird experts what we might do to discourage House Sparrows and tried several of their ideas. Nothing worked well, so we experimented and came up with a few tricks that seem to discourage House Sparrows to a degree yet let other species eat. Our tricks aren’t perfect and sparrows still come, but not in huge numbers.
Here’s what we did:
Altered filling time:
We noticed that cardinals, jays, chickadees, and nuthatches visited feeders in the early morning and late afternoon, but House Sparrows came more late morning and toward the middle of the day. So, we put out small amounts of seeds early in the morning and again in late afternoon. Often our feeders are empty mid-day when the house sparrows prefer to visit.
Eating from platform feeder
Sparrows enjoy feeding on the ground, on horizontal tables and other flat surfaces, and from silo-type feeders with long perches and large openings. We took down our standard silo feeders and replaced them with a silo shape feeder made of hardware cloth with a quarter-inch mesh.
In our quarter-inch mesh feeder, we put a mixture of black oil sunflower seeds and hulled peanuts. Native birds seemed better able to extract the sunflower from the mesh than House Sparrows. The peanuts don’t fit through the mesh, but many native bird species peck at them through the wire and extract pieces of peanuts. House Sparrows seem less able, or willing, to do this.
We also stopped feeding cracked corn and millet on the ground. Sparrows love them. Instead, we now toss full kernels of corn on the ground. Sparrows can’t swallow the big seeds and are unable to peck them apart. Woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, and nuthatches swallow or carry away the big seeds.
Put up with some House Sparrows
Our system helps deter these pesky exotic birds but is far from perfect. House Sparrows still visit and eat seeds but not as many as before we started using these tricks. Maybe they’ll work for you.
A few of you have shared. Now Others Can Share.
Winding Pathways is eager to learn other ways to deter House Sparrows. If you have discovered something that works, please let us know.
House Sparrow Blues
One of our favorite Thanksgiving Day activities is enjoying a sumptuous meal while watching chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and woodpeckers enjoy the seeds we put out for them just outside our window.
Thanksgiving 2023 brought mostly frustration. Crowds of House Sparrows swarmed our feeders with hardly a native bird in sight. Formerly known as English Sparrows, there seem to be more of these pesky immigrants every year.
We’re not alone. A common phone call or email that comes to Winding Pathways seeks ways to feed native birds and discourage hordes of House Sparrows. Over the years we’ve tried these things to discourage the hardy and prolific Eurasian birds:
- Putting only small amounts of feed out in the early morning and late afternoon when native birds visit and House Sparrows are mostly gone.
- Cutting silo feeder perches short to make it harder for the somewhat clumsy sparrows to perch and eat.
- Sprinkle some whole corn on the lawn. It’s too big for sparrows to eat but blue jays and woodpeckers devour it.
- Sprinkle cracked corn way out in the backyard to entice sparrows away from our main feeders.
- Eliminate sparrow nesting sites around our yard and pull out any nests that form under eaves or in tight spaces along the house.
None of these has worked particularly well.
Others More Fortunate
While we are frustrated, other people are fortunate. We recently enjoyed watching a procession of native birds visiting Jody Vrieze’s feeders in a rural area near Charles City, Iowa. It’s along the Cedar River and away from town. Perhaps her home and yard are a key to avoiding sparrow numbers.
Jays swallow large nuts.
Cardinals enjoy eating on the ground.
Woods attract native birds.
Many woodpeckers come to the feeders.
Open water is important for wildlife.
Peanut butter log.
What is a Synanthrope? How Do They Spread?
They are true synanthropes, meaning they need to live close to people. Backpack into a wilderness anywhere and House Sparrows are one bird that won’t be spotted. Jody’s home is in a wooded area away from town, which is probably why the pesky birds don’t visit her feeders often.
Although not liked by most birders, House Sparrows are amazing. A few were captured in Europe and released in Brooklyn, NY, in 1851. Within 50 years they had spread across the continent and are found in and near almost every town and farm. They may have peaked in numbers late in the 1800s when abundant urban horse manure provided plenty of food.
Although native to Europe and Asia, House Sparrows have spread, due to people importing them, to North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa. A surefire place to not see them is Antarctica.
Eating from platform feeder
Thick beak of house sparrow is good for cracking corn.
Winding Pathways Asks for Help
Most people share their suburban and urban homes with plenty of House Sparrows, and moving to a wild area isn’t an option. So, what to do? Well, we listed what we do yet still have plenty of sparrows, so we’re asking for help from visitors to our Winding Pathways website. Please let us know if you’ve found a consistent and effective way to discourage this pesky bird.
For much more information on this amazingly prolific bird go to allaboutbirds.org.
Photos by Jody Vrieze.
Autumn Reveals Nature’s Wonders
Bare trees reveal a bald-faced hornet nest.
November’s wind stripped the leaves off one of our maples and revealed a big gray football-shaped bald-faced hornet nest. Although we’d walked under it all summer, we had no clue it was there.
This fall many people will discover similar “paper wasp” nests in their trees or shrubs or even tucked near a light fixture. Made of a paper-like material, the nest was really made by insects called “bald-faced hornets” that are related to other wasps, including yellow jackets.
These social wasps can attack in droves. Their sting hurts. Because their stingers are smooth, unlike honey bees, they can sting again and again.
So, what do you do when you spot a nest on a crisp fall afternoon? Leave it alone!
The insect’s life history gives the best clue on how to avoid painful stings.
Last fall the colony of 500, or so, worker wasps died as the weather cooled. The fertile queen survived by tucking herself under a rotting log somewhere to slumber through winter. Come spring she’ll make a tiny paper-like nest, usually in a tree, and lay eggs that become workers. These hard-working new insects expand the nest and forage widely.
They are omnivores eager to dine on rotting fruit, but among their favorite foods are caterpillars and adult insects. Bald-faced hornets are a gardener’s friend, removing vegetable-chomping insects. They also sip on nectar so are good pollinators.
Aggressive or Protective?
Most sources claim they are highly aggressive, and they are if someone disturbs their nest. Several years ago, an adult neighbor spotted a nest above the doorway that the family had used all summer. He tried to knock it down and only damaged the nest. His misguided aggression unleashed an attack by dozens of upset bald-faced hornets. Stung many times, he’ll likely never again molest a nest.
We walked under and near the bald-faced hornet’s nest in our yard many times this summer and didn’t even know it was there. They didn’t attack us. Rather, they snacked on our vegetable gardens’ pests.
The lesson: leave these insects and their nest alone.
Ironically, by the time most people discover a nest in very late fall, the colony has already abandoned it. The best thing to do is NOTHING. Winter’s wind, rain, and snow will disintegrate the nest, and the queen will find a new spot to build next year’s colony.
Fish Camp Woes
This year a giant bear tore up the Popsie Fish Company’s camp near the remote Egegik River in Southwest Alaska before the salmon arrived. These huge brown bears are smart, hungry, and massively powerful.
Early Work on Salmon
Early in his career, Rich was a salmon biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, working near the Egegik River. While there he loved eating the most delicious fish……. Sockeye Salmon.
During the summer millions of wild salmon of five species swarm into Bristol Bay but the sockeye is the most abundant. They are caught by many commercial fishing companies who net them in the bay and along beaches. State biologists ensure that enough fish survive nets to ascend rivers, spawn, and produce plenty of young to keep the runs robust.
Remembering Salmon Dinners
Fresh salmon is a treat.
Nearly a half-century ago he and Marion, co-owners of Winding Pathways, moved to the Midwest where there are no Sockeye Salmon. But they love grilling salmon fillets they order from the Popsie Fish Company. It catches, processes, and ships frozen fillets. The Pattersons occasionally order a box. In addition to being delicious and healthy, Alaskan Sockeye salmon are wild fish managed as a sustainable resource.
Bears on the Prowl
This year Popsie Owner Tony Neal had a problem. Like all commercial fishermen, he and his staff arrived well before the salmon run to set up their camp and prepare for fishing. That’s when the trouble arrived.
A brown bear tore its way into their building. Take a look at the photos to see what the bear did. It’s a mess.
Bears are powerful. Photo Eric Handstad
The work room is all shambles after a bear tore it up. Photo Eric Handstad
There is good news. There’s enough time before the salmon arrive to get everything fixed and ready to catch those delicious fish. To see Popsie Fish Company staff in action take a look at their website www.popsiefishco.com.
Increasing Occurrences of Bears
Iowans occasionally report a bear sighting, especially in NE Iowa where the woods make great shelter and rivers excellent corridors to travel.
Bears are increasing across the country even in urban areas. Past photos in papers have shown a bear walking down a major road near New York City. A recent newspaper article reported how a bear crashed into an Avon, CT, bakery and gobbled up 60 cupcakes before lumbering off. At Cedar Lake, Denville, NJ, a mama bear, and three cubs were recently spotted walking along the road. Actually, that is a fairly common sighting. Residents spread the word so walkers will be alert.
Suburban NJ has some prolific and big bears.
Bear and cubs. Photo Catherine Christ
The town police even fondly named one bruin “The Italian Bear.” Each night just after restaurants closed a fat bear would wander from its den, climb into the local Italian eatery’s dumpster, gorge itself, take a snooze, and come morning, climb out and go back to its secret den. Never hurt anyone.
SRF took this pix of a bear peering in the window.
In rural New Hampshire, friends have had bears visit the yard and peek into the house through the windows frequently.
First Person Story
Picket fence was torn apart by a hungry spring-time bear.
Jackie and Peter Hull in Bedford, Virginia, shared this first-person story of the spring adventures with an unruly bear. “Well, I got up bright and early one spring morning, peeked out the bedroom window and what did I see? A smashed six-foot piece of picket fence, a broken spindle on the front porch, and a shepherd’s hook bent to the ground.
“Lucky me I brought the bird feeders in last night. So now I know I can’t feed the birds anymore this year. This is the second year running when on Mother’s Day last year, a bear came and smashed the spindles on the porch railing and a different six-foot piece of fence.
“Later we found bear tracks in the red Virginia clay bordering the flower bed on the outside of the fence. It left its muddy red prints on the fence and the steps going to the side door of the house!
“What to do but repair the fence again, wash the feeders, and put them in the basement? I have decided to store the leftover bird feed in a large bag in the freezer for next winter.
“I will miss my “bird buddies” but I don’t what a 250+ pound bear in my house either. So, words to the wise, the same ones the ranger gave me last year, ‘Bring your feeders in now.'”
Back in Alaska, it is common even in suburban Anchorage neighborhoods to see a bear lumbering down a road. An Alaska-born, former Gazette editor spoke nonchalantly about bears and recess at schools. “We always had outdoor recess…except when a bear roamed the playground.”
Bears are about that is for sure!
A “Hard Knock Life”
A tick’s life is hard. I’m hungry. I am a tick and I’ve been waiting a week for a juicy raccoon, dog, or wild turkey to walk by. Even a mouse would be welcome.
So far, no luck. I know a tick’s best bet for grabbing a passing animal is the “questing” position, so I’ve been hanging on to a branch with both pairs of my hind legs. My front pair of legs sticks out into the path ready to grab the fur or feathers of a passing animal. So far, no animal. Patience is hard and I’m hungry.
I was luckier last year when I was a larva. I was hungry then, too, but the wait was short. A big, furry animal humans call a dog ambled by. Even though I only had six legs then I was able to grab a hold, and the rest was easy. I crawled around exploring under the fur until I found a spot with soft thin skin, dug in, and chowed down. Boy was that blood tasty! It was so nutritious that I left my host to grow and graduate. I’m now a tick nymph, complete with eight legs, but I need more blood to transform into an adult.
I’m still hungry. As I sit waiting, I admire the mosquitoes and flies that buzz by over my perch. They don’t need to be patient but can fly and search for a blood-rich victim. I can’t fly or jump, so all I can do is patiently wait until something walks by. I hope that’s soon because many of my fellow ticks starve.
Attracted to Carbon Dioxide and Moisture
What’s this? I sense a bubble of carbon dioxide and moisture. Might be the breath of an animal. Now I feel the vibration of footsteps. Must be a big animal. My front legs are outstretched in anticipation and I’m not disappointed.
I grab hold of a strange animal. It’s tall with only two legs. No hair. No feathers. Just some sort of covering over thin skin. No chance of biting through it, but I got a good grip on that covering and started climbing using all of my eight legs. Soon I was under what humans call pants and kept exploring and climbing. Bingo, I found a nice moist spot where my blood dinner was just beneath thin skin. I got ready to feast.
Then something happened. I should be happy with a meal so close at hand. Instead, I felt sick. My legs wouldn’t hold on and I dropped to the ground lifeless.
Pity the poor tick the above. Well, maybe not. It’s hard to pity an animal that can spread disease and discomfort. Ticks usually feed on mammals, birds, and even reptiles but if none come around, human blood suits them just fine.
Ticks are effective disease spreaders because of their relatively long life which can extend for two or three years and their habit of eating a blood meal during different life stages. This enables them to bite one animal carrying a disease in its blood and inject it into a different animal during a later feeding.
Seriously Avoiding Ticks
At Winding Pathways, we take ticks seriously. Rich has had Lyme disease twice, fortunately successfully cured by strong antibiotics. Other people are not as lucky and experience long-term symptoms. And, Lyme is not the only disease ticks spread.
Understanding ticks and taking precautions reduces the odds a person will be bitten and contract a disease from them.
How ticks Operate
Ticks are ambush hunters. As the tick describes above, they wait for a victim to pass within grabbing distance of their front legs. Often ticks walk around on their victim for several hours before they dig through the skin and help themselves to a blood meal.
In order to contract a tick-borne disease a victim must be bitten, so a walking tick won’t transmit illness.
Reduce Your Odds
We often explore the woods, work in our yard and garden, and generally spend time in tick country. Here are precautions we take that reduce the odds of a tick bite:
- We spray our outdoor clothes and shoes with permethrin. It lasts for several washings and kills ticks. The hapless tick described above fell victim to this chemical.
- We often tuck our pants legs into our socks, sprayed with permethrin, to make it hard for any tick that gets on our socks or pants to get under them.
- After returning to the house, we disrobe and shower after we have checked for ticks. They prefer moist dark body areas so we especially check those places. Clothing goes into the washer.
- We watch for symptoms of Lyme Disease, especially a rash and fatigue. If they appear we call our physician immediately.
A few years ago, Rich was so determined to prevent another Lyme Disease incident that he invested in socks, pants, and shirts from Insect Shield. The company infuses its clothing with permethrin that, they claim, is effective for at least 70 washings.
Does this chemical work? Is Insect Shield clothing worth buying? Well, since wearing it Rich hasn’t found a tick on him and he’s been free of Lyme Disease. That’s not a scientific verdict but it’s good enough for him to keep wearing the clothes.
Tiny ticks can cause problems, so we go prepared in nature.
Pants, boots, varied sprays can reduce odds of picking up ticks
gaiters with tick guard helps repel ticks.
Pants, shirts, and socks infused with permethrin appear to keep ticks off.
Rich purchased his Insect Shield clothing at the retail price. He’s still testing them but they seem to work. Winding Pathways was not paid for this blog.