Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

Of Mice and Men

A full tray of D-CON is about to replace an empty one.  I have spared my dear readers a picture of the dead mouse!

A full tray of D-CON is about to replace an empty one. I have spared my dear readers a picture of the dead mouse!

After driving through the night, we arrived in Maine on Sunday at 7:30 a.m.  Once inside, we were greeted by three totally empty trays of D-CON (mouse poison) and one very dead mouse (my husband had the unpleasant task of removing it).   A propitious start, I thought.

I’m always a little on edge when I walk into my house after a prolonged absence . . . especially between seasons, when there are extreme temperature changes.  Once the wildlife know we’re gone, they are only too happy to “house-sit” in our nice, cozy abode while we’re away.  Intruders of the non-human variety can mean anything from beetles, flies and wasps, to rodents,  porcupines, raccoons, fishers, or even bears.

When our house was being built, shortly after we installed our garage door, a very determined mouse gnawed at the hard plastic and rubber weather seal at the bottom, breaking it and creating a glaring point of entry.  This kind of damage was not covered under our garage door warranty, and repair would be expensive, since they’d have to take apart the entire door in order to replace the weather-stripping.  We decided to live with it, and try to fill the hole with spray-foam insulation and steel wool.

Meanwhile I took no chances, even though I didn’t really have a mouse problem – – yet.  I put trays of D-CON throughout my house:  under the kitchen cabinets, behind the microwave,  in our basement under our food storage shelves, and at the bottom corners of the garage door.  We do a visual check for possible mouse infestation each time we return to Maine from our home town, especially since that time when my husband went to use the bathroom upon arrival – – and found a dead mouse in the toilet. (We now make sure we keep the toilet lid closed before we go away.)  Once we noticed that the tray of D-CON behind the microwave oven had been delicately noshed, but no further signs of mice or their droppings were discovered.  (I should mention at this point that when our grandchildren come for the summer, we remove all the trays of D-CON for safety’s sake.)

This time, though, I had a feeling that mouse presence would be worse, because the house had been vacant for 3 weeks and outside it was terribly cold.

Sure enough, all the trays of D-CON inside the house had been ravaged.  One small dead mouse was on the floor next to our food storage shelves.  Fortunately, the food was completely untouched (I store large, emergency-sized non-perishables such as grains, flour, nuts, seeds, condiments, etc. in glass jars and industrial-strength sealed plastic containers that are inaccessible to non-humans).  Unlike rats (thank heavens we don’t have those!) mice desiccate and are odorless after death, but even then it is unusual to find a deceased one out in the open.  I only found a couple of random mouse droppings.  But the hole in the bottom corner of the garage door is a little bigger so it looks like we will have to have that weather-stripping under the garage door replaced professionally, after all.

The problem with finding evidence of a mouse is that, left unabated, they multiply rapidly. (You can click here to see what happened to our pop-up camper when it was taken over by mice two summers ago.)  I couldn’t be sure it was “only” one mouse, even though at present there was no evidence of more.  This meant an unplanned trip into town to buy more D-CON, a drive I was not enthusiastic about doing after being on the road for the past 10 1/2 hours.  After all, I had loaded the car with groceries from our home town so I wouldn’t have to do shopping for a week.   But with predictions of a snowstorm headed our way the following day, it was now or never, so we did make the 45-minute trek into North Conway.

But before setting out, there was even more important business to take care of:  getting our house warm.  We cannot simply turn off the heat when we leave, as the pipes will freeze, but we do set the thermostat very low so we won’t go through too much (expensive!) propane while we’re away.  When you’ve been driving through the night, the last thing you feel like doing when you come into the house exhausted and cold is building a fire and puttering around to keep it going.  I’ve learned from experience that before we leave Maine, I layer kindling and firewood in the woodstove and close its door, so all I have to do when I return to Maine  is open the woodstove door,  light the pre-prepared wood with a match, and an effortless fire awaits.  Even with the hottest of fires, though, it takes hours to bring the indoor room temperature from 45 degrees F (!) to 67 degrees F.  But by now I have the routine down pat and make sure that longjohns/leggings, sweaters, gloves, hats and coats are close by.

Suddenly we realized that we had forgotten to replace the screen panels on our porch with plexiglass ones.  We use our  porch, which is located just off the kitchen, even on sunny winter days, thanks to its ideal southerly location.  In the summer, the porch is shaded by trees and the cool breezes flow pleasantly through the screen panels.  In late autumn or early winter, once the leaves have fallen and the outside temperature cools, we replace the screens with plexiglass.  The southern exposure of the porch means that the sun shines on the plexiglass panels on a sunny day, and through this “passive solar” heat our porch can often reach temperatures of  60 – 65 degrees F on a 20 degree F day!

But because we had neglected to do the switch-over before returning to our home town, we were now faced with unscrewing the screen panels and screwing in the plexiglass panels in 22 degree temperature!  Needless to say that although we worked quickly, we were forced to seek shelter indoors in between each panel installation to warm our hands (gloves were too bulky to handle the tiny screws).

Taking down the summer screens...

Taking down the summer screens…

. . . and putting up the plexiglass panels

. . . and putting up the plexiglass panels

We had planned our departure from our home town carefully.  Since a snow storm would hit the East Coast on Sunday but not reach Maine until Monday, we decided to leave right after Shabbat, on Saturday night, and drive through the night.  We figured that if we could fit in a nap after davening (religious prayers at the synagogue) and lunch on Saturday (not an easy feat considering the short hours of daylight), we’d be rested enough to travel the distance to Maine, especially if we could  alternate the driving between us.  An added bonus would be the lack of traffic at night, but unfortunately we hadn’t counted on New York’s perpetually jammed George Washington Bridge (with the rip-off toll price of $13 for the “privilege” of traversing it) being busy even at midnight.   But once we managed to get out of New York the rest of the way was quick and uneventful.  Indeed, the very next morning our home town experienced a huge snowstorm even bigger than predicted, and the entire New Jersey turnpike was hazardous  with snow, ice, and accidents, so our timing had been perfect.

That same snowstorm finally hit us today.  I did manage to trek 3 miles in the woods with my very enthusiastic dog in the morning, while the snow was still sparse.  I walked with trekking poles in case it got icy in spots, but this turned out to be unnecessary.  The temperature was 22 degrees, but I was wearing layers and a down jacket and in reality I was a bit too warm.  At least now my cheeks have a rosy glow.

Instead of attending to work responsibilities (I have several clients waiting on photos), I spent the morning cooking enough food to last for the next 2 days.  I made a hearty vegetable soup, some butternut squash, sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, and a large tub of yogurt – – all “stick to your ribs” kinds of food for the coming cold spell. (Forecast for Wednesday night is 3 degrees F and 0 degrees  F Friday night.)

After heating 1/2 gallon of milk to the foamy stage and letting it cool slightly, I added a few tablespoons of yogurt to the milk and stirred well.  Then I poured this warm mixture into a bowl, covered the bowl with a plate, and wrapped it in a beach towel for extra insulation.  Usually I let the yoghurt ferment in the trunk of my car on a summer day, but in winter I put the bowl on a trivet on my wood stove.  After about 8 hours the yoghurt will solidify to the proper consistency.  I then let it sit overnight in the fridge to firm up some more.  The next day I will spoon it into a large glass jar and enjoy.  This is about a 1-week supply.

Homemade winter yogurt:  After heating 1/2 gallon of milk to the foamy stage on my regular propane range and letting it cool slightly, I added a few tablespoons of  plain, store-bought yogurt to the milk and stirred well. Then I poured this warm mixture into a bowl, covered the bowl with a plate, and wrapped it in a beach towel for extra insulation. Usually I let the yogurt ferment in the trunk of my car on a warm summer day, but in winter I put the bowl on a trivet on my fired-up wood stove, since our indoor room temperature of 67 is not warm enough for the yogurt to culture properly.  After about 8 hours the yogurt will solidify to the proper consistency. I then let it sit overnight in the fridge to firm up some more. The next day I will spoon it into a large glass storage jar.   I like to use the yogurt to make smoothies, or to eat 1 cup plain with 1/4 cup of raw oatmeal and frozen blueberries mixed in.  This makes about a 1-week supply.


Last week I drove about an hour away to a community center in Jackson, New Hampshire to attend a lecture given by a bear specialist for the State of New Hampshire and the White Mountains from the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

Despite a week of warm temperatures, the bears in our woods are still hibernating, according to USDA’s Nancy Conneau, although bears have already been sighted about 2 hours south of us.  Weather-wise, we have only another week or two before we have to bring in our bird feeders.  You see, bears have one thing – – and only one thing – – on their mind:  FOOD.  They are in an endless struggle to fill their stomachs in the Spring to recover the 30% body fat loss from the winter; and in the late summer and fall, they must increase their body fat by 40% to account for growth, development, and to tide them over during the coming winter’s hibernation (and if they are female, the biennial birthing/nursing process).

A very easy meal for bears is to visit the bird feeder, which contains all sorts of yummy seeds full of protein and fat.  Which is a problem, because bears have a phenomenal memory.  And once they find a bird feeder (or dumpster, or greasy bbq grill, or dog food) in a specific location, they will visit that location daily, hopeful that the homeowner will think that the bear was scared when he ran away from the loud noise caused by the homeowner banging on pots to keep the bear away.  Hah!  The bear was running from the noise, but he is simply waiting until the noise goes away and then, ever persistent, he will visit again and again because he cares more about food than noise.  Their sense of smell is amazing – Ms. Conneau claimed that a black bear can smell a sunflower seed from half a mile away!

Bird feeders are such a problem – – Ms. Conneau referred to them as “bear feeders” – – that several local towns have had to adopt ordinances outlawing homeowners’ use of bird feeders from April 1 – Dec. 1.  People have respected the ordinances . . . and the bears have moved on . . . to chickens!  With the increase in interest in raising chickens (in my area, several houses have hand-inked cardboard “Fresh Eggs $2.00/dozen” signs),  bears in their never-ending quest for food have been hitting chicken coops.  They go after the chicken feed – – and the chickens.  Last summer, it seemed wherever I went (post office, library, Town office), the dead chicken count was the hot topic on everyone’s lips, and the culprit was  not the usual fox or coyote – – it was bears.

Ms. Conneau’s recommendation:  store birdseed in galvanized cans, preferably in a locked garage or storage shed, and surround the coop with an electrified fence.  While I don’t raise chickens, I do have several beehives on my property, and we do have a solar-powered electrified fence that has kept the bears at bay . . . so far.

“I had to shoot three bears at three different locations last year,” says my Bee Man, who owns and tends to the hives on my property.  “Once they get into the honey, not even an electric fence will stop them.  They are very determined, and the quest for filling their stomachs overrides any discomfort, whether from the sting of a bee or an electric fence.”

One problem is that bears are, well, so darn cute.  It’s fun to watch bears, especially when they appear so reliably at places like a dumpster.  What people don’t realize is that by feeding a bear, they are essentially condemning it to death.  As bears become habituated to a dumpster, or a neighborhood, they gradually lose their fear of people.  And in their never-ending search for food, they become increasingly daring.

The lady in the seat next to me raised her hand.  “Last year, I had a bear encounter,” she began.

It was a hot summer day so all the windows in the house were open.  She was in the backyard, mowing the lawn.  She decided to take a break, and went into the front door for a cold drink.  She saw mud on the stairs and thought, “Oh, Kyle (her teenage son) must’ve come home early.  He never wipes his feet!”  She followed the muddy trail up the carpeted stairs, all the while yelling, “Kyle!  Darn you, I told you to wipe your feet!” and when she got to the top, she came literally nose to nose with – – a bear!  Slowly and quietly she backed down the stairs, went outside, and called 911 from her cellphone.

“They sent Fish & Game, and they spent 45 minutes getting him out of the house (through the window).”  But all was not well.  Within 15 minutes the bear came back out of the woods, and tried to re-enter the house.  “Fish & Game had to shoot it right in my yard,” she said.  “I’m just glad they didn’t have to kill it inside my house.”

In some cases, nuisance bears are trapped, sent by truck and released by the Canadian border.  But it’s not really a great solution, because many of the bears return within days, covering great distances.  Females’ territory usually covers 5 – 10 miles (1 – 2 miles when cubs are young); males’ territory covers 10 miles but can cover up to 20 miles.  Although we think of them as lumbering creatures, they can run up to 35 mph.

Ms. Conneau suggested that if you really want to keep your windows open during hot summer months, to lay ammonia-soaked rags on the window sills.  Ensure you don’t have trash lying around, even if it means more trips to the dump (no, there is no trash pickup in rural communities), and meanwhile dousing the cans with ammonia as well.   (I should add that when we built our house, I was mindful of bears, and I did not put any large windows on the ground floor by design.  I am also extremely strict with my grandchildren about not leaving any food outside when they come to visit.)

The good news is that, while black bears in New Hampshire and the White Mountains are certainly dangerous animals that are capable of killing humans, the last time someone was killed by a black bear in New Hampshire was in 1784.  (Grizzly and polar bears are much more threatening and dangerous to people, but they do not exist in the Eastern U.S.)  There are approximately 5,000 bears in New Hampshire, with most in the White Mountains.  And Maine has the largest black bear population in the continental United States:   25,000 to  30,000!  (About 3,000 – 4,000 bears are killed every year in Maine during bear hunting season.  I know of five bears killed in my woods during hunting season in 2012).

Bear cubs are born in January or February in dens during hibernation.  Usually one or two cubs are born to a bear (the female is known as a “sow”), but last year there were four sows in New Hampshire that had five cubs each!  The cubs stay very close to the mother (usually in a tree while the mother forages) for the first 3 – 4 months; they move a little farther from the mother as they mature.  Cubs remain with their mother for 18 months, reentering the den with her their second winter, but the coming Spring they are on their own and must find their own territory.  They will find a mate in their second Fall and so the cycle continues.

One doesn’t want to get between a bear and her cubs.  Ms. Conneau recommended that hikers (and their pet dogs) should wear a noisemaker such as a bell to alert bears to their presence.  Black bears usually retreat before people are aware of them.

So other than the cuteness factor, what good are bears?   Bears affect the ecosystem in a number of positive ways.  But put simply, according to the Fish & Game website, “the most important function is the knowledge that if you live in an area that can support a healthy bear population, that area is also healthy enough to support you.”

*see my archived post about a bear encounter at