BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Gardeners vs. Wildlife: Part 2
Kerry Peetz
/ Categories: Opinion, Commentary

BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Gardeners vs. Wildlife: Part 2

By Kerry Peetz

Voles, pocket gophers, squirrels, and snakes live right alongside us Coloradans. As gardeners we have absolutely no interest in “sharing our space” but the cold hard fact is that we really have no say in the matter. But, maybe, just maybe by the grace of God and with few Hail Mary’s we can learn how to manage these creatures and live peacefully.

First, positively identify the pest and determine all techniques that can be used to deter the pest such as habitat modification and exclusion. Set realistic goals such as minimizing pest numbers and do not expect to totally eliminate them.

Voles. There are eight species of voles found in Colorado. They often are called meadow, field or pine mice.

Voles are mammals that cause damage by girdling seedling and mature trees in orchards, yards and forests. They also damage field crops and frequently construct runways in lawns. Damage by voles can be reduced by habitat modification, exclusion, repellents, trapping, and poison grain baits.

Voles are small rodents that measure 4 to 8.5 inches long and weigh 0.8 to 3 ounces and vary in color from brown to gray. They are pudgy, with blunt faces and small eyes, small and sometimes inconspicuous ears, short legs, and a short (the long-tailed vole is an exception) and scantily haired tail.

Use mouse snap traps to remove small populations of voles from backyard lawns. Place traps perpendicular to runways with the trigger end in the runway and bait with small amounts of rolled oats or peanut butter. Set traps in the fall before most damage occurs. Trapping is not practical for controlling voles in large areas or on large populations.

Pocket Gophers. There are four species of pocket gophers found in Colorado. Pocket gophers reduce productivity of portions of alfalfa fields and native grasslands by 20 to 50 percent.

Damage by pocket gophers can be reduced by exclusion, cultural methods and habitat modification, trapping, and toxicants applied by hand or with a burrow builder.

Distinguishing among the four pocket gopher species in Colorado is moderately easy. The differences and images can be found on the internet. Search for Botta’s pocket gophers, yellow-faced pocket gophers, northern pocket gopher, and plains pocket gophers. 

Pocket gophers feed on roots they encounter from digging, from vegetation they pull into the tunnel from above, and vegetation above ground near the tunnel. They like above-ground vegetation when it is green and succulent.

Pocket gophers can be excluded from valuable plots of ornamental trees and shrubs with a ¼ to ½-inch mesh hardware cloth fence buried at least 18 inches. The bottom of the fence should be bent at a 90-degree angle so that a 6-inch apron of wire projects horizontally toward the gopher. Place the fence in shallow soil at least 2 feet from the nearest plants to avoid root injury. This method is of limited practicality because of expense and labor. Cylindrical plastic Vexar mesh tubes placed over the entire seedling, including bare root, can reduce damage to newly planted seedlings.

Squirrels. Fox squirrels are medium-sized gray-brown rodent with a large bushy tail and a tan-orange underside. Their bodies are 20-24” with tails 8-10”. They weigh 1.5-4 lbs. and inhabit the region from Canada down to New Mexico. Get ready for this: their life expectancy is up to 10 years and longer.

Do not provide food with the intent of feeding squirrels. Well-fed squirrels are reported to take over available nesting areas and are more likely to enter structures. However friendly and domesticated they might seem; we should always remember that they are wild animals who will bite if they feel threatened or cornered.

Squirrels can cause damage around homes and gardens, where they feed on a variety of fruits, nuts, and other crops and plants. They can also dig holes in garden soil or in turf, where they bury nuts or seeds. They can be a nuisance around structures by gnawing on telephone cables, chewing their way into wooden buildings, or invading attics.

Tree squirrels carry certain diseases that are transmissible to people, and they are frequently infested with fleas, mites, and other ectoparasites. Let’s not forget their fondness of garden and patio furniture cushions. They chew these apart to use the inner stuffing to pad their nests!

In our urban and suburban areas of the diocese, tree squirrels are difficult to control because of their great mobility, and because many people feed and provide nest boxes for the squirrels in order to encourage their presence. It is relatively easy to keep squirrels out of buildings, but keeping them out of a yard or garden is a continuous challenge.

Excluding squirrels from the garden is the best long-term solution. A 1” wire mesh wrap may be used to protect tulip and other bulbs. Protect garden produce with mesh cages. Consider removing bird feeders, since spilled seed attracts squirrels, and it is difficult to squirrel proof a feeder.

Snakes. Most Colorado snakes are nonvenomous (nonpoisonous), harmless and beneficial to people. Nonvenomous and venomous species can be easily distinguished from each other. Of the 25 species of snakes in Colorado, the western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) and the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) are the only venomous species. The western rattlesnake appears in most habitats throughout the state. The massasauga, however, is limited to the southeastern grasslands.

Snakes possess the following reptilian characteristics: they have scales; are ectothermic (they rely on external sources to control their body temperature); and, like most reptiles, lay eggs.

Most snakes prey predominantly on rodents, although some also eat bird eggs, nestlings, lizards, and insects. They in turn are prey for eagles, hawks, and humans.

Cover food supplies to discourage them from living in backyards.

Snakes need cool, damp shelters and may take residence under and possibly inside buildings. This behavior may become more noticeable in the fall, when snakes seek areas to hibernate for the winter.

There are ways to discourage snakes from moving into a yard:

1.            Eliminate cool, damp areas where snakes hide. Remove brush and rock piles, keep shrubbery away from foundations, and cut tall grass.

2.            Control insect and rodent populations (the snakes’ primary food source) to force them to seek areas with a larger food supply. Put grains in tightly sealed containers and clean up residual pet food and debris.

3.            In rattlesnake-infested areas, construct a snake proof fence around the backyard or play area. Use 36-inch-high galvanized hardware cloth with a ¼-inch mesh and bury it 6 inches deep, slanted outward at a 30-degree angle. Make certain the gate fits tightly and swings into the play area. Keep all vegetation away from the fence to prevent snakes from climbing over it.

The best way to protect yourself while gardening is to wear thick boots and gloves, and take care when working in areas that may serve as a hiding place for a snake. Most snakes will actively avoid interactions with people and only strike out when cornered, approached, or attacked.

We all share God’s green Earth. May God bless the wildlife and God bless us. “And please dear Lord, keep all of the squirrels and snakes out of my yard. Amen.

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