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Fortify Your Home Against Missouri's Most Common Pests
Bats can find a way in through a hole the size of a pinkie nail. Brown recluse spiders commonly hide out in vacant fireplaces. Skunks will turn a front porch into a delivery room for multiple litters. Moles will find new ways to mangle a yard with a network of underground tunnels.
When these unwanted pests commonly found in Missouri make their way into a human dwelling, a homeowner can call a pest control or wildlife specialist. But even for the experts, an animal can be a nuisance. The usual culprits that have Missouri residents itching and squirming at night include bats, skunks, raccoons, snakes, moles, groundhogs, mice, insects and spiders. A damaging troop of animals will burrow, slither or break into human homes for two basic needs: food and shelter.
AVOIDING A SPRAY AT ALL COSTS
“There are a few surprise situations,” Kelly Stiefermann says about nuisance pest behavior. Last year, Stiefermann, owner of central Missouri’s A All Animal Control, placed a caged skunk in his trunk and opened the back doors on his next stop to find the skunk staring at him outside the cage. Luckily, the skunk took one look at Stiefermann, who tries to avoid a direct hit from a skunk at all costs, and retreated into its covered cage without spraying.
Crafty and biologically gifted with an odorous defense tactic, skunks receive a wider berth from pest control specialists than most animals do. “I respect skunks,” says Peter Riney, owner of Critter Control of Central Missouri. “You can pick up a possum by the tail. You can catch a raccoon with a control stick. But I don’t mess with grabbing skunks by hand.”
When near a home, skunks build dens under porches and can usually be trapped with a covered cage. This encloses the animal in darkness, so it won’t get spooked and spray. Homeowners can track these night-loving creatures by placing flour underneath a skunk’s den in areas below a porch or a hole in the foundation. This makes the animal’s traffic more visible, says Robert Pierce, wildlife extension specialist for MU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. When the tracks point away from the house, a homeowner can “build out” a skunk by closing off the entrance to its den.
Skunks usually need to be trapped or removed. But deciding whether a pest is playful or harmful can make trapping it much less dangerous. Riney was once called to a home where the owner set up a groundhog trap, but he caught a skunk instead. “I throw a tarp on the trap and depending on where it’s located, it can be hard to do, and I’ve done that, and it’s startled them, and they’ve sprayed,” says Riney, who evaded a direct skunk hit to his body but suffered a smelly truck.
MICE WITH WINGS
Accustomed to dark cavernous spaces along Missouri’s bluffs, bats sometimes leave the comforts of their caves to make a cozy roost in chimneys and attics. MU graduate student Kelley Schwartz and her roommates discovered a 3-inch gray bat fluttering through their living room in their East Campus house in May. “We saw it fly up the stairs, and we followed it to the attic,” she says. “I peered around the corner and saw it hanging on a post near the attic door. It was kind of cute, all fuzzy.”
Schwartz left the attic door closed and thought the bat would leave her and her roommates alone. But later that night, she received a call from her roommate who was woken up by early morning shrieking sounds and a light banging on her door. It was then that Schwartz realized there were two bats, not one. She had no idea that bats could contort their bodies to squeeze through the tiny gaps under doors, which this bat did when it took off to hide in her three-story house. Neither Schwartz nor her roommates have spotted the hairy invader since.
Bat problems often require homeowners to seal up a house by caulking cracks and openings. Two Missouri bats are listed as endangered species: the gray bat and the Indiana bat. Pest control specialists cannot harm these animals, which makes it more difficult. Pest control companies try to allow bats to leave a house while sealing it against future entry points to prevent harming the species. Nets and eviction valves allow bats to fly out from the inside through a one-way door but stop them from returning.
Bat-proofing a house can be some of the most tedious pest control work Riney does, but it’s necessary to put a warranty on the job. “They’re like a mouse with wings,” he says. “Anything a mouse can get into around the foundation, a bat can get into around the roof.”
Although less than .05 percent of bats becomes rabid, homeowners should be cautious about coming into contact with them, especially when they’re acting out of character, Pierce says. For a bat, that means wandering outside in the daytime or lying on the ground where animals or people can come into contact with it. “A lot of our wildlife is active during the night, so if you see one in the day that should be asleep, you don’t want to handle it,” Pierce says.
UNDERGROUND EXCAVATION TEAM
For most homeowners, any four-legged beast besides Fido that crosses the threshold from yard to door deserves a call to pest control no matter how small the damage. But when a burrowing mole turns a level yard into an underground highway with ridges of overturned soil, how much are you willing to tolerate?
“A lot of people really enjoy a well-manicured lawn, and they don’t like it when a mole comes through and messes up their yard,” Pierce says. “But if it’s just a mole on one side of the yard, it might not be worth dealing with it.”
If a garden enthusiast chooses to fight back or open up a can of worms, (which, coincidentally, moles love), it involves setting lethal traps along the raised ridges that appear above a mole’s tunnel work. Because moles eat up to 80 to 90 percent of their body weight in earthworms, grubs, spiders and insects, eliminating their food source is nearly impossible and might simply encourage moles to do more digging.
In the pest control business, where prices depend on each mole caught and killed, companies either flag a spot where they buried a mole or leave it in a container by the house. “About 90 percent of our clientele don’t want to mess with it,” Riney says. “Some people don’t want them buried in their yards, and they’ll ask us to take it with us, but some people will want to view it.”
For Show-Me Mole Control, its policy is in the name. Owner Ryan Roe leaves a Ziploc-bagged mole by a garage or in a trash can for his clients. After working for three years on mole problems in central Missouri, Roe has seen his share of strange mole behavior. “I’ve seen a mole chase a worm on the ground up on the surface,” he says.
Moles, which have tiny, nearly imperceptible eyes, no external ears and soft brown fur, are often confused with other burrowing animals such as groundhogs. These pests pose a serious threat to livestock and horses because their extensive tunnel systems can destabilize a dirt floor.
When burrowing two inches below the surface, digging pests can’t see the difference between a neighborhood yard and a grassy field. When moles and similar digging pests find suitable soil, they set up work on a nest or pass through regardless of their human or hay-eating neighbors.
In the early ’90s, about four groundhog families plagued the riding barn at the Stephens College equestrian stables and made the dirt floor unstable for the horses. “They were really causing some problems,” Pierce says. “Horses were being injured.”
STAKING OUT THE SERPENT
For a creature with a taste for mice, spiders and vermin, snakes should get more attention for their pest-solving appetites than for their frightening appearances. Whether they’re outside, inside or on a plane, snakes and their threatening looks inspire shivers and shudders in squeamish homeowners.
When Donna Wilshire first moved to her house off of Route K, she loved the seemingly smooth transition between her home and the 12 acres of nature surrounding it. In terms of common pests, she could picture a raccoon playfully overturning buckets at night and the occasional mouse eating what the birds picked out of a feeder on her porch. Not welcome in this picturesque setting were the snakes in her house.
After three incidents of ringneck snakes in her laundry room, she realized her snake problem was not a fluke and called Critter Control. Behind a glass kitchen window overlooking a corner of her backyard, Wilshire watched in horror as Riney lifted a 5 1/2-foot black snake out of the grass next to her house.
“I just screamed,” she says. “It was, I don’t know, 7, 8 feet. Maybe it was 50 feet. And he was just carrying it so casually. I lost it. I was uncontrollable.”
Setting out traps and covers for all the roof openings and cutting back long grass from the sides of the house, she took Riney’s advice to snake-proof her home. A week later, Wilshire was showing a yard service person where the previous snake had been when they spotted another, this time inside her garage. Now 6-inch rectangular mats with extremely sticky surfaces catch the majority of Wilshire’s small snakes in her garage and basement laundry room. “They’re in little triangles on the edge of the room, so I don’t have to see a snake if it’s in there,” she says. When captured, the snakes are released into the wild.
For pest-proofing, sometimes it takes thinking like a pest to be most effective. Wilshire considered putting large cement blocks under the kitchen window where some of the snakes were found. “I had a forester come … and I told him that’s what I was going to do down there, and he said, ‘Oh, snakes will really like that. They’ll come out and play with it and sun on the cement.’”
For Wilshire, living alongside nature means accepting the inevitable pest here and there. “They live here,” she says of the land beyond her backyard. “It’s all woods. We live with them, so you just have to expect it.”
CRAWLING EMPIRES STRIKE BACK
When an animal tries to sneak into a human dwelling, it can raise alarms right away. Insects, however, often get a pass until a formidable faction of creepy crawlers takes hold and the problem becomes hard to ignore.
Deciding when to call a pest service depends on whether one bug, two bugs or a thousand bugs is too much. “Some people will tolerate a hundred cockroaches in their kitchen that they see every day, and then some people won’t tolerate a single house fly,” says Richard Houseman, extension specialist for pest management at MU.
Missouri homeowners encounter termites, ants, cockroaches and spiders common to the Midwest. The termites live in soil and invade from underground. They can come up through the soil into cracks in the foundation or expansion joints naturally built into a house. “Nationwide, we have the problem that contractors usually leave wood slabs underneath front porches,” Houseman says. “It’s sealed in, and you don’t know often that they’re in there.”
Removing leftover wood slabs from around a house can help decrease the invasions. Most of the nonchemical techniques used in making a home energy-efficient will abate a pest problem, including installing door sweeps and caulking cracks around windows. “Insects often just take advantage of those openings that are already there,” Houseman says. “Especially flies — they can sense where there is an airstream and follow it into your house.”
Bedbugs, microscopic blood-sucking insects found in beds, clothing and textiles, have been making a comeback since the ’90s. Nearly eradicated from the U.S. in the ’60s, bedbug cases reemerged because of increased global traveling, changes in pest spraying and difficulty controlling the insect, Houseman says. The number of bedbug cases increases by almost 50 percent each year. “People don’t know what to do about them when they have them,” Houseman says. “They just throw out their mattress, and someone picks it up or they’ll just move out, and it goes along with them in their belongings.”
A RECLUSE ON THE LOOSE
The most notorious spider in Missouri is the brown recluse. The rust-colored spider has long legs, which extend to about the diameter of a quarter, and three pairs of eyes, unlike most spiders, which have four. Although very common in Missouri homes, the brown recluse shies away from human activity. Most human bites occur because the spider is hiding in neglected clothing, such as tight sweaters and shoes. Despite the spider’s harmful bite, Houseman says the brown recluse receives an unfair reputation.
“Take 100 bites,” he says. “About 95 of those result in a lesion about the size of the top of your pinkie. It turns black, and then the skin sloughs off, and it takes about six to eight weeks to heal. About two to three bites, there is no reaction, and then the other 2 to 3 percent of bites find their way as pictures on the Internet. It’s always the ones that get bigger and are the size of your hand.”
Just because brown recluses have moved in doesn’t mean human occupants are destined to wind up posting their bite pictures on the Internet. A home near Kansas City conducted a survey on brown recluse behavior and caught more than 2,000 spiders, but none of the residents were ever bitten. Other common Missouri spiders are wolf spiders, which are larger and hairy but not poisonous. Wolf spiders are caught indoors during the spring or fall, when they’re more likely to be on the move. Black widows, which are more visible than brown recluses, are also found in Missouri. But unlike the recluses, widows are not shy.
The best way to monitor and trap spiders is to buy 30 to 40 sticky traps and place them in out-of-the-way areas such as closets or corners. Houseman recommends an integrated pest management system involving trapping, filling cracks in a house and using sprays or pesticides when necessary. “Unfortunately, many homeowners often don’t want to put in the time that it takes to do something nonchemical,” he says. “Often they come and in and say, ‘Oh, can you just spray?’”
Feeling itchy yet? Whether they burrow up from below or swarm in through a cracked window, pests will remain an inevitable part of living. And who could blame a squirrel’s curiosity around a chimney or a bat’s game of hide-and-seek in an attic? Riney sometimes jokes with his customers and says, “The only way I could pest-proof your house is if I wrap it with steel.”
Credits: By Jennifer Herseim - Voxmagazine.com