Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of chipmunk stuck in cage bars © Andy Ewert

A striped and speedy escape artist.
© Andy Ewert

December 2011

Mother Nature triumphs

An urban couple confronts neighborhood wildlife and learns a lesson.

Story and photos by Andy Ewert

Newton's Third Law of Motion teaches us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I learned that this law applies to Mother Nature, specifically in coexisting with neighborhood wildlife. Over the course of the year, my "animal relations" evolved from peaceful coexistence to skirmishing and finally open warfare. This, in turn, sparked a counteraction by my furred and feathered opponents, leading to unintended consequences that forced rethinking my strategy of confrontation.

The origin of my struggle against nature began humbly enough. Every spring for several years, a family of house sparrows nested in a cozy niche above the back door of our East Side Milwaukee home. My wife, Lupe, and I tolerated droppings, fallen nesting materials and an occasional broken egg that decorated the adjoining wall and breezeway. Live and let live was our philosophy then. We learned to instinctively duck when approaching the back door or risk a face full of alarmed sparrow fleeing the nest.

Last spring, my fastidious better half, who takes a less tolerant view of inappropriately placed organic matter, declared that enough was enough. Seeking a quick fix, I plugged the niche with ammonia soaked rags. This worked for a while, until the ammonia evaporated and the persistent sparrows pulled out the rags to once again successfully nest. This year, I employed a more environmentally friendly tactic: cramming the nest site full of stiff cardboard. I won that round.

The victory was short lived. During my daily online work sessions, I watched through a window of my home office as a pair of sparrows – very likely the ones I displaced – pecked a hole in the aluminum flashing below our gutter and built a nest. While I was impressed with this avian ingenuity, my wife was not amused by the damage to our home. Every day the birds methodically carried grass, twigs, and dried weeds into the hole, littering the sidewalk below. In cruel irony, when their handiwork was complete, a pair of European starlings showed up, drove the sparrows out, and assumed residency in the nest. Seemingly contemptuous, the interlopers poked their heads from their new home to stare indignantly at me laboring away on the keyboard.

Back in the trap

The downward spiral of man vs. nature entered a new phase. One morning distress cries from my wife summoned me to the backyard. Her cherished tulip sprouts, mounted high on a pedestal to thwart neighborhood varmints, were torn to pieces. Adding insult to injury, potting soil was scattered across the patio underneath.

Squirrels. I know their modus operandi well. A 35-year-old Havahart™ live-catch trap was secured. It was time to take Mother Nature down in size. A generous slather of organic peanut butter spread across a multi-grain cracker proved the irresistible lure. Success was rapid – five young squirrels in quick succession. Their pathetic cries from the car trunk as I transported them to a distant suburban woodland only steeled my resolve to prevail.

When the peanut butter and crackers began disappearing from the empty trap, it was clear a new, fleeter villain was afoot. I adjusted the trap's trip mechanism to hair trigger and, within hours, snared a plump chipmunk. There would be no deportation for this cute little guy. Punishment was a stern lecture and a few digital photographs prior to release. But then things became a bit unhinged when the rambunctious rodent, fattened on my gourmet peanut butter, managed to wiggle halfway through the trap bars but no further. What to do?

My wife suggested donning a pair of heavy leather gloves and either pulling the creature out of the trap or pushing it back in. This proved hilariously unsuccessful. I took a wire cutter to the bars. The hardened steel gave way and the chipmunk scurried off, no worse for wear. I moved the trap to the other side of the house.

"Do chipmunks learn from their experiences?" Lupe asked doubtfully. "Of course not," I barked. Two hours later, the chipmunk was back in the trap.

Cardinal sins

Mother Nature, the tormentor, provided an ally in my quest against furry thieves. Once while fetching the morning newspaper, I spotted a large female red-tailed hawk, perched on the neighbor's front lawn. Eyeing me with open hostility, she took to the air with a young squirrel in her talons. Glory be. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This impressive raptor regularly patrolled the neighborhood, keeping small birds and mammals on constant alert. A young Cooper's hawk paid our backyard a visit, futilely diving on nimble chickadees.

Photo of cardinal on car mirror © Andy Ewert
The battle begins...
© Andy Ewert

My face-off with wildlife was only warming up. One evening while grilling in the backyard, we watched a young male cardinal repeatedly attack its reflection in my car's passenger-side mirror. At first it was pretty funny. After a while, my wife took pity on the testosterone-charged juvenile and suggested putting a paper bag over the mirror so it wouldn't injure itself. Whatever. As I did my good deed, I couldn't help but notice the winged pugilist had smeared my vehicle's mirror and front quarter panel with bird grease, excrement and feathers.

The outcome of my cover-up was less than satisfactory. The bag kept blowing off the mirror, I grew weary of constantly replacing it, and the cardinal expanded his assaults to include our garage windows and the mirrors of neighbors' vehicles. Despite his diversity of targets, he still finds time to visit my car a couple of times a day.

Not hoppy

On to our neighbor's garden. Throughout spring and into summer, rabbits devour the young shoots, stems and leaves of pricey flora and bite off the flowers. My neighbor to the north, dedicated to his greenery, warned me of a large rabbit seen lingering about. He's aware of my vendetta against squirrels. Perhaps he thinks I'll engage nature on a second front.

I confess to a soft spot for cottontails. Little does my neighbor know that this particular rabbit is my rabbit. From sightings and piles of tiny berries, my wife and I know it lives smack in the middle of her garden. We bonded when he was a bunny. Slow movements and gentle words won over its trust. One evening it hopped under our feet as we sat in the backyard. In our presence, it innocently nibbled grass and weeds, seemingly oblivious to my wife's flowers. We named it Pacquito and, unfortunately, the bunny didn't remain little for long. To Lupe's chagrin, neither did its appetite nor berries.

One day I watched Pacquito grazing by our neighbor's garage. I rolled down the car window and called its name. To my surprise, the rabbit loped up to the side of the vehicle, looking at me like it expected a handout. I cringed, hoping none of our neighbors witnessed this fraternization with the enemy. Then the thought crossed my mind: What if Pacquito really is Pacquita? Endless broods of hungry bunnies? What have I done?

Sure enough, by early summer, my fears were realized. Out came the Havahart™. Three of Pacquita's little offspring were quickly relocated. Not before, to my wife's fury, numerous treasured plants were cut, nibbled, or completely consumed. Thanks to the deportations, our rabbit situation stabilized. However, I still see momma prowling the neighborhood. I keep a wary eye on her whereabouts and her waistline.

Wake up calls

One of the theoretical joys of working from home is extended weekday sleep. The reality in our neighborhood is very different. At about 5 a.m., the cardinals whistle for the attention of their ladies. Shortly after, it's the cooing of mourning doves, followed by raucous crows cawing. Any remaining vestige of sleep is squashed by the energetic vocals of sparrows, house finches and robins. The 7 a.m. trumpet of hungry Canada geese is overkill. Early morning is for the birds and they won't let you forget it. Earplugs provided needed relief from the sunrise treetop symphony.

Mother Nature displayed her ugly side in summer. During July, flash floods ravished portions of Milwaukee and its northern suburbs. Fortunately, some of us on higher ground were spared. The torrential rains brought Lupe and me an unexpected houseguest. We first noticed a gnawed banana on our kitchen counter. What was it? Obviously something small and hungry. The next morning, another partially consumed fruit. Closer examination revealed rodent droppings. "Get rid of it," she-who-must-be-obeyed decreed. A good husband knows what to do.

With a heavy heart, I drove to the store and purchased three snap traps for about three bucks. No $20-plus Havahart™ for this home invader. Only termination with extreme prejudice would suffice. I baited one trap with organic peanut butter. The next morning, I quietly disposed of our deceased guest, a gray and brown streaked field mouse undoubtedly brought into our home by the flood. I remembered the precocious white mice – Pixie, Jose and George – that were my pets during grade school. I viewed the poor little fellow with sadness before bagging and disposal. At least he enjoyed a fine last meal, for however long it lasted.

As she confounds, so Mother Nature entertains. Early one fine August morning, I was treated to a classic predator-prey drama two blocks from home. I spotted a fox slinking about in search of breakfast, not the first time I'd seen one in the neighborhood. This juvenile looked like he hadn't eaten in a week. Suddenly he stiffened, stopped dead in his tracks, and flattened out in typical canine stalk mode. His prey? An old, gray, potbellied Chihuahua, out unescorted for his morning constitutional.

Intuitively, the pint-size pet turned, spotted the stealthy intruder and locked eyes with death. Instead of making a run for it, the plucky pooch valiantly stood his ground and issued a staccato of high-pitched yaps. The fox jumped back, startled by the unexpected ferocity of his intended meal. Hearing the racket, an elderly, white-haired lady, clad in bathrobe and bedroom slippers, rushed from the house, down two flights of stairs and, with remarkable agility, scooped up the now very macho Chihuahua, who continued to voice his battle cry as they disappeared with a slam behind a thick wood door.

The moral of these experiences, I've concluded, is that our struggles against Mother Nature are indeed in vain. We're outnumbered. Their will, born from the instinct to survive and evolve, is stronger than ours. In the end, Mother Nature will always triumph.

With this realization I've amended my ways. No more traps. No more bags over car mirrors. No more rages over destroyed flora or organic matter on the walkways. What will be, will be. Peaceful coexistence and appreciation is my only antidote to aggravation, futile actions and elevated blood pressure. It will save me some organic peanut butter, too.

Andy Ewert writes and records his battles with pesky urban critters from his home in Milwaukee.