Monday, October 12, 2009

Tree Rat Nesting Season in The Woodlands

Each year in this neck of the woods, our forest rats search for a place to nest. They like to come to the homes where it is nice and cozy during the winter. If they can get in, they will nest under boards or in some quiet place in the attic. We often respond by calling our favorite pest control company. Some of us try to solve the problem ourselves. What to do?

Unfortunately many of their natural enemies are removed and relocated elsewhere. The Coyote is our best friend for controlling the rat. Owls are also a good predator but we do not have many anymore - lack of trees and space. Since rats are night creatures, their enemies are typically out hunting when the rat is out foraging - night time!

Every year, I am confronted with some sort of rat issue. Last year, they managed to get in the garage, so I had to deal with them there. They had a litter and I had to capture as many as possible. What I did not get, I ended up poisoning. That irradiated them well. They made a mess before I could get them out. To prevent them from returning, I  replaced the bottom seal of both garage doors. Yes, all it takes is a very small opening and they can squeeze through it. About two years earlier, they had found a way to get into the attic through a small opening on an eve of the house. I found that by going up into the attic, turning off all artificial lights and finding where the light was entering the attic. I filled the space with a can of spray Styrofoam and painted it. That worked well. Now we have no light entering the attic.

Last night we heard some gnawing again. This was the second night during the past week that we were awaken by some creature. I went outside and could find nothing of course. So I decided it was probably a rat. The weather and time of year are both perfect for them to be trying to get inside. I know we have Opossum outside regularly but believe this time, the problem is that rats are trying to find a way into the house or possibly are already inside. So I bought a new type of trap and baited two of them - one outside and one inside. The outside one is portable, wired to whatever is available. I screwed down the inside trap because I do not want one to grag the trap into a wall cavity.

We have found that we can endure a dying rat in the wall, but it is not the most pleasant thing in the world.  No perfume or air deodorant helps. It just stinks for about two weeks.  Ventilation is the best tool - a fan in the area with one of those heated deodorant systems. Just don't invite guests! The alternative is to cut out the wall and remove it, if you can find exactly where it is. There will be flies in the house also, so there is a possible health issue in leaving the animal to decay naturally.

Chances are you have seen one of these animals at night or in your yard, especially if you have bird feeders or feed your dogs outside. I have seen them in the trees but very seldom see them crossing the street at night. The less timid Opossum is more likely to be in the street than the rat.

A Tree Rat in the East Texas forest will forage around for almost anything to eat, especially grain, insects and fruit. The forest has an abundance of food in the summer. In the winter, especially when much of the ground is covered in water, a rat will search on higher ground or in plants.  Nearby wild rats tend to come out of the creek bottoms and go up where homes are built because it is dryer and its food tends to do the same. Closely following the food chain would be the Rat Snake and the Coyote among others. Today, the rat is finding itself at the top of the food chain, much to our demise. We kill or remove the Coyote. Many humans despise all snakes, so the snake is on the decline as well.  If we feed the birds, we feed the rat as well. If we feed the squirrels, we are feeding the rats as well. Their olfactory senses are keen. They can smell the presence of other rats, many types of chemicals and can even smell individuals of their own kind like a dog. The can even sense change by their smelling senses. The results in rats returning to the same place they were born and socializing enough to bring in other individuals to their abode. So having scat about the house provides a means to communicate among individuals.

So we conclude with some advice on removing them from the premises. I do not advocate a catch and release strategy. The next best thing is to physically kill them with a good trap. Don't use the old type of rat trap. There are newer kinds that produce more of a quick kill rather than allowing the animal to suffer for a long time. After seeing what the animals go through with poisons, I do not recommend a slow death using that strategy either. Rats are very smart. They rarely get into things they cannot get out of. A poor trap will allow a rat to be trapped with its tail or a leg. The rat will bite off a leg to free itself. They also learn by observation. When they see another rat trapped or killed by a device, they will avoid it. Two types of traps are recommended - the electrical (expensive) trap serves the best purpose. Second choice is called the Snapper. It is a strong heavy plastic trap that can be attached to wood by a screw. It's food cup can be removed to clean or put load the bait.  My portable unit is tied down with a string of wire. My permanent trap is screwed into the attic floor. Let's see how fast I can remove these creatures this year!

Good luck with yours.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nature at its best - beautiful native plant host to a beautiful native butterfly

This Purple Passion Flower (Passiflora Incornata) is very special to me. I planted these vines years ago in The Woodlands Texas, as a native flower, just for their  beauty. Early in my married life, my wife and I planted some at our home south of Houston. The vine grows about anywhere it can attach and reach out to the sun. It thrived there also. Neighbors have come by the house here and asked, "where did you buy that flower?". My response - "I bought four plants at a nursery that no longer exists." I do recommend them in the yard and have no idea where you can buy one today. The vines will grow high into the trees and must be managed to enable the trees to get their sunlight. They are naturally part of the forest and thrive here. They will live through the winter and freely propagate by seed. This flower was hanging about six feet off the ground, hanging from a tree.

There is a huge bonus in having this plant in your backyard. It is very specialized, attracting the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis Vanillae) butterfly. Seeing the underside of this creature in the sun is truly spectacular. This one poses for the camera about 10 feet off the ground.

You might see them in a different pose however.This one is two feet off the ground enjoying the nectar of a  Red Salvia. I have the salvia placed in two places in the back yard. I have noticed that these butterflies also enjoy the Hummingbird bush (Hamelia).

Then again, the Gulf Fritillary seems to enjoy about every blooming plant out there.

Basically, if you plant for Hummingbirds, you have the food for the butterflies. I have six species of butterflies in the backyard this year. This one is dominating in numbers right now because I have the secret weapon - its favorite host plant, the Passion Vine.

 Although happy with my own landscaping some 10 years ago, I have started transplanting more salvia to improve the feeding areas for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Knowing more about the best approach for an excellent butterfly garden, I want to expand a few beds and add such plants as Joe Pye Weed or a Pipevine. One needs both hosts and feeders available to have a mixed population in the backyard.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Drought and interesting find - Truffles in East Texas?

At first this baffled me. I was out in my lawn in The Woodlands Texas and noticed a spot where the grass was not growing. Not enough water? I asked. The location is rather high relative to the rest of the yard, so the question was pertinent considering the severe drought we had this year. So in one of the driest places in my yard, I discovered this mass growing under the ground, with just a piece peeking above the ground, like a tree root , preventing the grass from taking hold there. As you may already know, I subscribe to the practice of mulching my grass as I mow it, so there is plenty of dead material in the yard for mushrooms or  fungi to munch on. Since I have been paying attention to mushrooms this year, I readily noticed this is indeed of the Fungi group of living organisms. One sniff and I said - this is a mushroom growing underground! I wished someone would have photographed my face on that discovery!

So do mushrooms grow underground? Well, fungi do and this one appears to be a truffle. At least it is a tuber (like in potato). This is of the mushroom family and produces spores. When I posted this photo in Facebook for some of my friends to review,  one response was that I needed to go out and rent a pig. That was clever. Boars are known to have a chemical in their saliva which attracts a female in mating season. That chemical is prevalent in these tubers and there are related stories to the truffle. There is the "Festival of the Truffle and Wild Boar" in Italy where the relationship is honored as people go search for truffles.1

So is this  one of the very costly edible truffles that we import from Europe?  In that we had such a dry year, I have been told it possibly is! That makes this little thing worth at least $200 in the market. Still my family said jokingly (I think) -  "you are dead meat if you try to eat this thing. If it doesn't kill you, we will for trying." So it sits on the kitchen table, waiting for me to throw it out or try it.  It sure smells good! The large piece is one tuber. There were two babies attached to it, thus the other pieces.

As it turns out, this type of fungus probably evolved in drier climates where mushrooms were not so successful in the evolution of organisms. By keeping its spores underground and multiplying in that fashion, it is more successful in propagating than its brother, the mushroom.  So when you are digging in the earth or notice something at the surface of the ground like this, you now know what it might be. There are many varieties of tubers and some are native to Texas.

This is a companion article with more detail that I found interesting when I researched this topic - "Truffle Primer" by  Britt A. Bunyard. 

1American Chronicle,White Truffles in the Monferrato of northwest Italy