There is no experience quite like opening the door to your beautiful, well-kept second home in the country—and finding piles of mouse poop, half-eaten food in the cupboard and footprints in the butter that someone forgot to take back to the city.
When the weather turns cold, it’s understandable that the mice want to be somewhere warm, or at least sheltered. But the damage these houseguests do can be significant: for instance, chewed wires are a fire hazard.
And if the animals have not only visited for the winter, but settled down and started families—well, let me illustrate the scale of the problem. For 20 years, our house stood empty for much of the year. We knew there were bats in the attic. But it wasn’t until we moved up full-time that we learned there were entire families of bats—generations of bats—literally thousands of bats—in the attic. And that doesn’t count the mice in the rest of the house.
Imagine the cleanup.
“Mice are definitely a big problem,” said Robert Morris, of Honesdale-based Let Us Spray, LLC. As his website notes, mice produce six to eight babies per litter, and eight litters per year. And there could be ants, squirrels, spiders… “Spiders are a big problem too,” he added.
How do you know you have a pest problem? “Look for anything chewed up,” said Morris. You can look for droppings, holes in the wall, shredded boxes of food. With bugs, “You don’t know they’re there until you see them.”
And then what?
Come warmer weather, often the mammals head back outside, but if you haven’t found and eliminated the way into your home, they’ll just be back. And if they’ve started families in your house, then getting rid of them humanely gets involved. The insects might not leave.
So start with prevention. Here is a list of tips to keep the critters out, and then some suggestions about what to do if that’s not enough.
KEEPING THEM FROM GETTING IN
Whether or not you believe in DIY pest control, the most reliable method is to keep the pests from getting in the house in the first place. Robert Morris from Let Us Spray suggests the following:
1. Check for holes. “Mice only need one-quarter-inch of space to get in.” Caulk all holes and cracks. Watch for the holes where power lines, plumbing, or gas lines come into your house.
2. Repair screens.
3. Be sure vents are screened. You can buy “bug screen” that will keep most insects out as well as mice. Don’t forget chimney openings.
4. Keep firewood at least 20 feet from your house. Bugs and mice will live in your firewood, says Morris, but mice stay within a 20-foot range of their nests. If you keep the wood far enough away, at least you won’t bring in mice.
5. Don’t leave food out. (Our neighbor keeps food in plastic bins over the winter.)
6. Repair leaky pipes. If there’s no moisture, Morris says, animals won’t stay.
IF YOU’VE GOT PESTS
1. You can start with the home remedies. It never hurts to try. We used a Havahart trap to catch a flying squirrel. (It likes Mini-Wheats.) But trapping animals in your walls or between the ceiling and roof is a lot more complicated. Especially if there are plural animals.
2. The ultrasonic devices might work, especially in small spaces. But there are reports that the animals get used to the sound and come back.
3. Call a pest-control company, especially if there are babies involved. Humane methods of dealing with many animals (insects are more of a challenge) are common now. When we used a pest-control company for the bats, we waited till the latest crop of babies was old enough, then all but one hole was blocked, then they were smoked out and the final hole was closed. We’ve had no bats since.
4. Companies like Let Us Spray also have green sprays available.
DO NOT DO AS WE DID
Do not say, “Oh, how cute,” and feed the pest. When the flying squirrel came down our chimney and popped out the stovepipe cover, we put the squirrel outside. The next night it was back and this time headed for the immense, immovable hutch. Turned out it likes YouTube, especially those eight-hour videos for cats. Then: “You can’t put the squirrel out, it’s cold,” my wife said. Then it was colder. Then it was raining. Then it was hot. Then the squirrel had a name (Python, short for Monty Python’s Flying Squirrel), and at that point you are done for.