As Groundhog Day arrives, many thoughts turn to the upcoming spring with longing and anticipation. Chores will call us outside not long after the thaw. As we step out, we prepare ourselves for the possibility of unnoticed, unanticipated, and undesired damage to lawns and gardens. Although they may go deep to avoid the cold, many of these critters responsible for damage to these areas do not hibernate like the groundhog. In honor of the burrowing beast, let’s look into controlling our furry foes.
The cute groundhog (Being born on February 2nd this is easily my favorite of the bunch) belongs to the order Rodentia (rodent) derived from the Latin verb rodere (to gnaw). Unfortunately this guy is associated with some very unsightly and unwelcome relatives. Mice, rats, moles (not actually a rodent), along with voles, shrews, squirrels, gophers, and chipmunks comprise some of the more common rodents encountered in the US. Depending on the situation, their presence may or may not cause a problem. I hardly give notice to the rabbits who habitually frolic in my back yard, probably because they aren’t rodents. However, the squirrel trying to claw its way into my house through my skylight came sharply into focus.
Controlling pests requires proper identification, a pretty simple task when talking about squirrels. Subterranean dwellers prove more difficult to spot, let alone identify (the first step to gaining the upper hand). Identification happens by inspecting the surface damage they create. Moles and gophers plug their tunnels, never leaving an open hole.
An active mole leaves two distinctive types of damage in its wake. The first is one of more mounds of loose soil configured in mini volcanoes. They may range greatly in size, starting at just a few inches and extending up to two feet in diameter. The second is evidence of tunneling about an inch below the surface that snakes about yard. A mole digs a series of feeding tunnels as it searches for food. These typically connect via straighter tunnels that often follow the contour of a barrier such as a sidewalk or lawn edging. The mole’s diet consists of earthworms, beetles, grubs, larvae and any insect it may encounter in the soil. Healthy lawns mean a plentiful food supply for moles, so if you keep your lawn in great shape you can expect them.
Personal preference determines how one deals with a mole problem. A quick web search delivers methods involving everything from chewing gum and floods to chemicals and gas “bombs”. All can be effective, some more than others. I’m the type that likes to eliminate doubt with my problem resolving. A well placed “Easy-Set” Mole Eliminator trap does both and is definitely my choice when it comes to moles. They deploy with a simple stepping motion and do not expose anyone to bait, poison, or chemicals. Finding a straight connecting tunnel reduces the wait since a given feeding tunnel may be visited infrequently.
A gopher inflicts much different surface damage compared to a mole. It does not carve out surface tunnels and produces a crescent or horseshoe-shaped mound. Being a strict herbivore, it damages plants below, at and above the surface. Gophers excavate several feed tunnels with openings 2 to 3 inches across that are kept plugged. Once again, dealing with them is a matter of preference with many options available. Before doing anything one must consider these factors: the size of the problem area, do you want to repel or kill, are there health or safety concerns, and are pets or children present. The more important the area is to you the more diligent you need to be, whatever method you select. Keep on the lookout and respond quickly to new activity.
Voles, ground squirrels, and chipmunks leave their tunnel entrances open. Their burrowing inflicts damage below the surface and may compromise sidewalks, decking, patios, and other structures. Above ground they feast on both ornamental and garden plants. They consistently travel along certain paths, or raceways. If not controlled the damage can be severe. Last summer voles decimated my neighbor’s hostas. While doing research for this article, I realized I had them in my yard as well. We will formulate our control strategy soon.
Exclusion will not be an option for us, but can be for contained areas. It requires fencing at least 12 inches above the ground and 6 to 10 inches below with a mesh no greater than ¼ of an inch. Facing the mesh with a weed barrier below the surface will increase its effectiveness. Protect individual plants and young trees by using cut off milk or soda containers, tin cans, or even corrugated HDPE plastic drainage pipe. Whatever you use, make sure it is supported so it can’t be pushed against the trunk and leave sufficient room for growth.
Trapping could prove most effective for us. The population is not over-whelming and children and pets will not be a problem. Traditional mouse traps should work fine. Baited or not, place them at right angles on the raceways with the business end on the trail. Handle trapped animals with care as they carry infectious pathogens and parasites.
The roots of Groundhog Day trace back to ancient times when weather greatly influenced man’s survival and the observance of animal behavior led to the creation of loosely associated myths. Popular belief tracks its modern US observance back to a Germanic tribe known as the Tuetons. They supposedly adopted a superstition brought to them by Roman legions that the weather on Candlemas day foretold the coming spring. Numerous recorded rhymes and songs impart a ‘second’ winter to follow should Candlemas be sunny, but a quicker thaw if conditions were foul. The Tuetons transformed the weather reference to include a local animal. They concluded that if the sun did appear a hedgehog would cast and see a shadow. Spooked by the sight, it would retreat to hibernation, escaping six more weeks of harsh winter weather. Early German settlers in the Pennsylvania found groundhogs in high abundance and adapted the tradition to the native rodent.
In our modern day US, every February 2nd, news and weather anchors across the country report on the activity of a local groundhog, telling audiences predictions on the arrival of spring. Unfortunately I did not get my wish for a very dark and dreary 2-2-15.