[Urban Wildlife] Who's in the Attic?

Performing an inspection is an art form that involves many different senses — your eyes, ears and even your nose.

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September 21, 2007

Every inspection starts with interviewing the customer. Why did she call your firm? Did she see or hear something? Does she smell something? How long has the customer experienced the problem? What has she done to try to correct it herself? After discussing these issues with the customer, the next step for the PCO is actually performing an inspection. There are lots of places a PCO can perform an inspection and many times, the first stop is the attic.

Attics can have all types of problem animals and insects and our company, Holper’s Pest & Animal Solutions in St. Louis, performs a lot of attic inspections looking for the source of “the noise.” Many times this can be done from the outside just by finding the hole in the area where the customer has heard the noise. Have you ever been in an attic and found a pile of grass and twigs 6 to 8 feet in diameter and 4 to 6 feet high? (It looks like a hay mound in the attic.) This may be starlings entering at the roof vent.

Sometimes you can identify what you are looking for by the time of day and the time of year the customer is hearing the noise. In the fall, squirrels may come into a house from 4 to 6 p.m. and get up bright and early, around 5 a.m. If squirrels are in the attic, they prefer to make their nest in the insulation. (It looks like a bowl-sized indentation.) If the customer has blown-in type insulation, you will see trails about 4 to 6 inches wide. Squirrels in the attic also may chew wiring. Ask the customer if he or she has any problems with the electricity in the house. If there have been problems, have the home inspected for a chewed wire. Squirrels also can bring fleas indoors, so you may need to treat for them in an attic as well.

RACCOONS. If the problem animals are raccoons, the trail in the insulation will be around 12 inches wide. Raccoons many times will designate an area as their bathroom. You will find their droppings in a pile. They don’t just spread it all over; it is usually in one spot. I have been in an attic where the dropping pile was about 6 feet wide, 8 feet long and 8 inches deep. That customer had a problem for a long time! Believe it or not, this was an apartment complex. The tenants heard the noise and it bothered them, so they finally called the office.

Raccoons usually do their damage on the way in. If they do take up residence for a long time, then scat removal may be necessary. This can be a tough job and you will want to do this when it is not too hot. I had a customer that enjoyed seeing the wildlife by her house, so she had feeder after feeder lined up. Every night she would see the raccoons come and share the cat food with the cats. She didn’t even mind the raccoons moving into the attic above her kitchen. Then a really bad smell came from her attic and she called our office.

I went to the garage and opened the attic access. Within 30 seconds the smell hit me. It was so overwhelming, it caused me to have an asthma attack. The problem was so severe that the only way to solve it was to remove all the insulation. I trapped 18 raccoons that lived and ate at her house in about a three-week time.

Raccoons also will leave droppings on the roof even if they are not getting in the house. But if they are getting on the roof, their next step is to move into the house. They will also tear up a yard looking for grubs. It is amazing what a raccoon can do to a yard in one night. What is really bad is when they tear up a yard where the customers have just put in sod. Sometimes they will even roll it up.

BATS AND SQUIRRELS. Our company also does a fair amount of bat exclusions. When we go in and inspect the area, we often find bat bugs and brown recluse spiders in the same space as the bats.

Flying squirrels are another attic-dwelling animal. With flying squirrels, the customer often will complain about how loud the noise is. They think it must be a raccoon, and are really surprised to find out it is such a small animal creating such a loud noise. Flying squirrels can move in as a group, which is why they are so loud. It is not unusual to catch as many as a dozen. One helpful key to identify the problem as flying squirrels is that their droppings are in a pile and then they urinate on them so they stick together. It looks like little spots of asphalt paving. If you think the problem is squirrels and you come back and the trap is sprung with no animal inside, it could be mice or flying squirrels.

For flying squirrels, PCOs need to use a trap with ½- by 1-inch mesh to keep them in the trap. You can also bait rat traps for them. If I use rat traps I put a screw in the edge of the trap and wire it off a rafter so they can’t move the trap. The bait I use for flying squirrels is a fruity bait with a raspberry flavor.
Roof rats also will make noise in the attic, and tunnel through the insulation. The size of the tunnel will be about 1½ to 2 inches wide. They sometimes leave markings on rafters but the infestation would need to be quite heavy to see this.

SUMMARY. Learning to perform a good, thorough inspection takes time. You need time and experience to accumulate the knowledge to diagnose problems. Many times you will correctly evaluate the situation and solve the problem quickly. You are the champion and you look like you know what you’re doing; it’s awesome. Then there are times when the first diagnosis is not the right one and plan B goes into effect. The great thing about these situations is you get to learn. That is where experience comes from. Look, listen, feel and smell. Then use your findings to formulate a treatment strategy and you will be effective.

The author is president of Holper Pest & Animal Solutions, St. Louis.

Louder than the TV

I went to a house where the customer was hearing noise in the wall behind her couch. She thought that it must be mice. This noise was constant and louder than the TV when it was on. So I wondered if this was mice and if not, what could it be? Mice are normally scurrying around the house. They don’t just make a constant sound, although the noise did sound like it was chewing or scratching. I went to the truck and got some flushing agent. I put a tip into the crack in the wall and a flood of carpenter ants came out of the wall. I had never seen this before.