Rats and mice! These rodents are legion on the desert. I am mostly a live-and-let-live kind of guy - except when it comes to rats and mice. So I declared preemptive war on them. This is a war story. Who will win? Read to the end to see how we turned a problem into multiple solutions.
Rats and mice:
Carry all kinds of nasty diseases. They were responsible for spreading the black plague.
They defecate and urinate everywhere – one of the ways they spread disease.
They chew through just about everything, ruining your stuff and leaving their pathogen-laden slobbers on everything they taste-test.
They raid your pantry, eat your garden produce, and feast on your animal feed.
Rats steal eggs from the chicken coop and kill and eat chicks.
Pack rats steal many little items that you’ll probably never see again. Don’t leave your keys or anything else important laying around.
They attract snakes who eat them. You can’t get rid of rattlesnakes on your property as long as you have rodents attracting them.
We've seen six different kinds of snakes at the ranch in the last six months. None were dangerous except the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and we've probably seen them six times. But apparently they're unable to control the rodent population.
We've been told we should get a dog. Are you kidding? We have all kinds of dogs! Neighborhood dogs and wild dogs such as foxes and coyotes. We've seen them all visit the ranch (cats big and small have visited too) and apparently they're unable to control the rodent population.
They say you can get rid of rodents by building an owl house so the owls will prey on them. I have plans to build an owl house but we already have owls. We hear and see them all the time (along with a number of other birds of prey) and apparently they're unable to control the rodent population.
Pack rats (aka. wood rats) create piles of sticks and rocks called middens (see photo at top). They often build them under prickly trees or prickly pear cactus to help keep predators out. Only one rat lives in each midden unless there are babies. Inside is their nest and underneath are tunnels in the ground. Archaeologists like middens because some are hundreds of years old and they often contain trinkets accumulated by many generations of rats. Snakes like to make their homes in middens and so do other critters you don't want around such as blood-sucking kissing bugs.
The Problem is the Solution
We like to figure out ways to turn problems into solutions. How do you turn rodent problems into solutions?! I found a few ways to do this.
Our neighborhood predators obviously needed help! We would not want to use rodent poison because it ends up killing the predators who eat rodents who've eaten the poison. And these are our allies against a common enemy so we don't want to harm them.
The first thing we tried was Jiffy cornbread. You mix it up with baking soda and put it out for rodents to eat. The baking soda reacts to stomach acid and because they uniquely don't pass gas (fun fact you may not want to share at your next dinner party), it's supposed to cause bloating until it kills them. I was hoping it would at least slow them down so predators could more easily get them. We were quite pleased to see a roadrunner grab a mouse with his beak and toss it down his throat. But the rodents must have caught on pretty quick (upset stomach?) because they didn't eat very much of the bait.
Then we got some brownie mix, added the leftover Jiffy mix and more baking soda, mixed it all together with water, and created several bait stations. It probably would have worked great with domesticated rodents who are acquainted with processed food, but the desert rodents eat healthy food like greens, seeds, and mesquite pods. Nothing seemed interested in the new mix except ants.
Worse, signs of rodents were showing up everywhere! I was finally ready to go on a killing spree. I don't enjoy the thought of dealing with dead rodents, but it needed to be done. I was quite disappointed with the neighborhood predators for allowing things to get so far out of control!
Deep in the bowels of the internet I discovered a simple, DIY bucket trap that entices rodents to commit suicide. They walk right up the ramp of death (a plank from the ground to the top of the bucket) and jump in - where they drown in the water at the bottom. Then all I have to do is dump the bucket! What entices them to jump is a can smeared with peanut butter suspended on a wire - I used part of a coat hanger - that extends from underneath the ramp through the can to the other side of the bucket. The can spins when the rodent jumps on it so they fall into the water.
The bucket trap got mixed results. In one spot I harvested two rats and five mice in a 24-hour period. The water freezes at night which theoretically would allow a rodent to land on the ice and jump out. I've never found any live ones in the bottom, but I have found plenty of frozen mice who fell in the water before it froze. In some places I set it up I would find the can pulled over to the death ramp and completely cleaned of peanut butter. Wait till you see the size of these big fat pack rats below!
I also got some traditional, wood snap traps that everyone has probably seen. The mouse traps are consistent killers as long as birds or ants don't eat the peanut butter. I usually reset them late in the day since rodents forage at night. There's also a giant version for rats that looks otherwise just like the smaller ones. It doesn't have consistent performance but I did get a couple rats with it and some mice, until it came up missing.
My replacement snap trap was worth every penny! It's plastic and has holes I use to stake it to the ground. I've only had it for a week and have gotten a rat almost every night! I look for trails near middens and put it right in their path. I think I've gotten all the rats within about 200 feet (their typical range) of our main garden area. There are at least a couple more middens further away that I'll get to.
I've now harvested about six dozen rodents. Harvested! For what? For turning a problem into solutions.
SOLUTION ONE: At first I was putting the rodents into a compost bin for nasties. After a couple years of composting they will be super-good fertilizer for trees.
SOLUTIONTWO: The dead rodents now go into a bucket suspended about a foot above the ground in the chicken paddock. Numerous holes are drilled in the bucket where flies enter, lay their eggs in the rodent corpses, and maggots crawl out and fall to the ground for the chickens to eat. An automatic treat feeder!
Automatic Maggot Feeder
SOLUTIONTHREE: One midden was built in such a way that it will help with water harvesting. I trapped the resident rat and directed storm water so it will flow through the midden. This will slow and spread the water in order to infiltrate it and stop the erosion where the water had been flowing.
Midden Designed for Water Harvesting
SOLUTION FOUR: We have - or I should say had - many middens at the ranch. We flooded and then tore apart most of them. All this wood that has been gathered by pack rats provides a source of wood for sunken hugelkultur beds, which I'll write about some other time.
Two Pack Rat Middens Destroyed
Dedicated Christian, patriot, family man, founder of Sabbatical Ranch