Battling Pest Invasions is a New Hampshire Tradition
Move to the country to get away from the crowds and you may find yourself with a house full of unwelcome guests.
Illustration by Randall Enos
Forty years ago my parents, casting around for a weekend place in New Hampshire, found this shambly 200-year-old sheep farmer's cottage, with no insulation, no usable kitchen, rotting clapboards, doors and windows, a shallow dug well that went dry most of the time, a jumble of buried rocks that served as a kind of septic system, and - because the house sits on a long ridge of radon-oozing granite littered with boulders, some of them huge glacial erratics half the size of the house - a dirt-floor cellar that was no more than a crawl space: a dark, musty hole good for nothing except storing root crops.
My parents are gone now. My husband and I inherited their place, moved in 17 years ago, and have made our own mark on it. After fighting the rocky soil for years, trying to grow vegetables, we knocked up raised beds and had them filled with compost. We added a garage; it's crammed with junk. We maintain the tiny cemetery in the field behind the house, keeping a fresh flag on the grave of the Civil War soldier, Silas Richards. He's buried there, along with his son, Fred, and, we think, someone else in an unmarked grave.
We're never alone in this house; others come and go. By "others," I don't mean the spirits of the people resting in the cemetery, or of the other generations of Richardses who huddled around the hearth in the days of yore, scratching out a living from the thin, rocky soil.
"The others" are the various critters from whom we are always having to reclaim our turf. Come warm days, wasps wake up in the attic and worm their way into our living room through the joints in the posts and beams, falling in our laps, drifting in front of the TV screen. Flies, too, come to life up attic. We swat the ones that find their way downstairs and sweep up the scores of corpses that litter the attic floor. Resident bats return in spring and attach themselves to the screens on the attic window vents, sheltering under the wooden-slat louvers. We dispatch the black flies and mosquitoes that sneak into the house in bug season. We put up with the no-see-ums that deliver a tiny sting and force us to turn off our bedside reading lamps, because that's the only way to get rid of them. We check each other every night for ticks when those little bastards appear every year, fretting that every freckle might be a dreaded lyme tick. In summer, for weeks on end, we get gangs of earwigs in the house. The vile things secrete themselves in our bath towels and hide under things in the kitchen. Every night we inspect the bed, lifting the top sheet and looking around. Sometimes we find them there or under our pillows. (You wonder what they get up to when you're sleeping.) Before we put on our shoes, we shake them out; wigs can nip if you mess with them. One morning - really gross - there were three of them in the bottom of the Doctor's Brushpicks Interdental Toothpicks container after I neglected to shut the lid.
For two years in a row, we had invasions of Reduvius personatus, an assassin bug that disguises itself as a dust bunny by accumulating dust as it roams around the edges of the rooms, searching for prey. The first time I saw one shuffling around, I thought I was losing my marbles, and once when I sucked a big one up in the vacuum, it thudded against the sides of the tube.
Then, the snakes hibernating in the cellar. When my parents fixed the house, my father had the carpenters stuff insulation between the floor joists in the cellar, to keep the floors upstairs toasty on the feet. When the old man and I moved in, we discovered that the insulation was keeping moisture trapped down cellar, so we had it pulled down. The poor sod stuck with that job freaked out as black snakes, nesting in the warm insulation, tumbled out, writhing all around him as they fell. He refused to pull out the last bit of the stuff around the fireplace foundation, so it stayed there till one year when we had to get at some pipes. We pulled it down ourselves and a clutch of newborn mice dropped out. Blue, almost transparent skin. Blind, helpless, adorable. Perversely, I took photos of them; they looked like human fetuses. We gathered them up, and the old man took them outside and did them in (I didn't ask how) because, still sightless and hairless, they would not have survived on their own. I felt like an accomplice to murder.
For several years running, we had infestations of Asian ladybugs. The first year, they appeared in late summer, swarming on the sunny side of the house. I stood there, entranced, staring at them crawling around on the house, and on me. Why, it was wonderful, magical, a kind of miracle that they should bless us with their presence. And then they came inside. At first that was all right, because they just nestled in corners of windows and along the tops of doors, and seemed to be good citizens. But then they filled up more cracks and crannies, so I sucked them up with the bagless vac. I dumped that vac outside, thinking to release them, but the journey up the tube must have finished them off because I didn't see any sudden flurry of escapees.
Then there were the late-summer invasions of legions of crickets, whose daytime chirping in the grasses and sedges in the fields around the house is so charming in the still days of August and September, when most of the birds are gone. But in the house? We'd just be getting to sleep when one would start up. So we'd drag out of bed to find the thing. Is it under that radiator? No, crap, it's on the other side of the room. Is it under that bureau? No, goddamnit. And sometimes it'd be down cellar, but so loud it seemed as if it were right under the bed. We'd see them on the floors, on the hearth, scoop them up in paper towels and give them a good (ugh!) crunch. (Screw Jiminy Cricket!) Down cellar, they went all night, playing their six-part inventions. Sometimes, in desperation, we'd spray where the offender seemed to be, filling the air with petrochemicals. Finally we resorted to ear plugs, and waited for the first stiff frost to finish them off.
Okay, so we put up with all the little crawling, stinging, noisy critters. But there have been times when I've been tempted to vacate the premises and move to a cinder-block high-rise. One night, I woke to see a shadow of something streaking, erratically, across the bedroom wall. Poked the old man: "Did you see that?"
"There it is again. Look!"
"Just a big moth."
That's no goddamn moth! That's a bat! Get it!"
The old man stumbled out of bed, flipped on lights, wandered around the house. "There's nothing there." He doused the lights, and we settled back in.
I was just drifting off again when the thing skimmed right over me, so close I could hear its fluttering wings:floopafloopafloopafloopa.
"I told you it's a bat! Did you leave that attic door open again?"
The old man dragged out of bed, buck naked, turned lights back on, leaped and banged around, shutting doors and managing, at last, to corner the thing in the bathroom. Meanwhile, to keep myself from going batty, I drew the sheet up over my head, remembering when, growing up, we lived on the upper two floors over my father's ground-floor medical offices in a creaky old Gothic house where bats hung out in the deep, dark recesses of the third-floor storerooms. Now and then a bat would get into one of our two nearby bedrooms. I can still hear my brother hollering, "Mama, mama! There's a bat in the room!" Mama opened the door at the foot of the stairs and called up, "Just put your heads under the covers, dears, and Dad will take care of it." After an eternity, Dad thumped up the steps, armed with a broom. Thrashing mightily, he finally managed to slug that bat, stunning it. I'm vague about just how he finished it off. I supposed he doused it with ether from his medical office on the ground floor, the way he finished off mice he cornered and whacked with the broom.
Back in the present, my old man, apparently not concerned that he was as naked as that needle-toothed little vampire, finally managed to scoop up the bat in a towel and release it outside.
For several winters, we woke to frantic scrabblings in the walls of the bedroom closet: mice, fallen into the walls and trapped there, clawing and scratching till they died, usually over the course of a few nights. And then, for a couple of weeks, the closet stank of carrion as the corpses disintegrated. We aired the closet by day, and shut the closet door by night.
Then the old man got a brilliant idea: he cut out little sections of the closet walls just above the baseboards where we'd heard the scrabbling, and made panels to replace the wall sections so that, once the scrabbling stopped, we could fish out the corpses before they started to stink, then screw the panels back on to cover the holes. The first time we fished into the wall where most of the mice got trapped, we found eight little skulls and a jumble of tiny bones.
Last winter an endless parade of mice came in - mostly into the cellar, finding their way up and over the sills and through the gaps in the rock-wall foundation. Or maybe just one pair came in, the randy little devils breeding family after family in the woodpile. In any case, by mid-March we'd caught 22 mice in the traps down cellar, and a half dozen in the attic traps.
What really gives me the heebie-jeebies is the snakes. I don't mind coming across them outside in the grass, though I'm always startled when I spy them wriggling away from my feet. I remind myself: yes yes, they eat insects, and yes yes, they won't hurt me. Still.
Once I went down cellar to do laundry, and there, coiled up, was a snake, damn near three feet long. I'm used to fetching wood for the stove and brushing off shed snake skins, trying not to think about live serpents looped all around the sticks of wood deep in the woodpile. But that snake on the floor belonged outside.
I bellowed for the old man, who clattered down the steps, grabbed a bucket, and after some dancing around, scooped the thing up, got it up the bulkhead steps, and dumped it on the lawn. There has been another big one down there (how many are there we haven't seen?) and a monster one in the attic that must have slithered up inside a wall.
Snakes down cellar and snakes up attic. But what really freaks me out are the snakes in the part of the house where we live. There have been three of them, all little. But it's the little ones that can hide in your bed and scare the living daylights out of you, or worse, worm their way into your bodily cavities.
I spotted the first one lazing around on my mother's prized Keshan carpet. "Snake!" I screamed. The old man came running, scooped up the squirmy little thing and flung it outside.
The second one was in the front hall, stretched out along the edge of the granite doorsill. After my husband flung that one out the door, I stuffed the gap between the sill and the hall floorboard with steel wool.
But it was the third one that just about put me to the booby hatch. One night last autumn, I stepped into the kitchen, which was lit only by a night light. The thing caught my eye: a black circle in the corner between the baseboard and the doorsill. What the hell is that?! At first I thought it was a huge cricket or maybe a clump of them. But it looked more like a horse turd. Then I made out the faint outline of the coils: Judas Priest!
Once again: "Snake! In the kitchen, in the corner near the bedroom! Get something!" While the old man fetched a container, I shut the door to the kitchen, grabbed a bath towel, snugged it against the crack at the bottom of the door, and when the all clear came, I asked the old man what he did with the thing. Oh, he said, he just dumped it off the porch, next to the bulkhead because it was raining and he didn't want to step out onto the lawn. Oh, nice, duh, make it easy for the thing to slide right into the bulkhead and back down into the cellar.
I try to find something positive in sharing our house with all this wildlife. While my own tastes don't run to grilled mice, snakes and crickets, perhaps in lean times, those critters are what kept the Richardses alive.
We are now enjoying a respite from the beasts of the field and air. No bats in the bedroom, only the occasional wee mousie in a trap, and just a few western conifer seed bugs - things that stink when you scoop them up to let them out.
I know they'll all be back. Sometimes I want to let them have the place. I remember what the old carpenter who built our addition said when I griped to him about all the problems an old house has: "If you want a trouble-free house, get yourself a big block of granite and chisel out what you don't need." We could do that. We could haul up one of those big glacial erratics from the gully behind the house and start chipping away.
Have a Heart?
When it comes to household pests, size matters. Not so much for destructive impact (consider the tiny termite) but for human empathy. It's easy to swat a fly, but do you really want to lure a field mouse that looks like it stepped out of a Beatrix Potter book and then snap its little spine in a spring trap? Or those cute red squirrels you see playing chase around the hickory tree - you know they aren't so cute running circles around in your ceiling. You want them taken out, sure, but with extreme prejudice?
Enter the Havahart trap and its variations, available in all shapes and sizes suitable for just about any critter smaller than a deer and larger than a June bug. But catching a beastie solves one problem and creates another: What do you do with it now that you've got it?
As you gaze into the big wild eyes of your tormenter on the way to find it a new burrow to inhabit in some big empty field, ponder this: According to Ed Gannon of Precision Wildlife Services in Tamworth, the catch-and-release method is often just swapping one form of execution for another, often at the claws of predators. A disoriented animal is vulnerable, says Gannon. "Such a move can put a lot of stress on the animal." He notes that released animals will have trouble finding food and adapting to the environment and, if it survives, will just find another neighbor's property to inhabit.
The solution? Bite the bullet (or use one). Terminate the pest or hire a professional.
Humane "eviction and exclusion" of squirrels (the most common nuisance) by a professional can cost between $300 and $1,500, often with a guarantee against re-entry for a year.
Of course, home invaders range from ladybugs to serpents to skunks and some pest removal services feature specialties. Below is a list to get started on reclaiming your home.
Bennett Wildlife Removal Services
Belmont, (603) 707-1627, bennettwildliferemoval.com
Large animal exclusion, such as deer, bears, coyotes and moose
Dependable Pest Solutions
Rochester, (603) 285-1935, dependablepestsolutions.com
Fowler's Pest Control
Sunapee, (603) 763-7378, fowlerspest.com
Specializing in carpenter ants and rodent elimination
Precision Wildlife Services, Inc.
Tamworth, (877) 945-3776, precisionwildlife.com/NewHampshire
Special services include attic trapping and restoration services and full deodorization and sanitization services.
Presidential Pest Control
Berlin, (603) 528-7650, prespest.com
JP Pest Services
Milford, (603)-673-2908, jppestservices.com
Green pest control - low-impact tools, antimicrobial pest control such as viruses, bacteria, dehumidification, odor control and TAP insect-resistant insulation installation.