Squirrels in the Attic

My small pond with a distant view of the house and barn, Hartford, NY.

For all my love of nature and the connection I feel for my fellow creatures, it wasn’t the most thrilling discovery to find them moving into my house. Yes, I’ve lived with the presence of mice for years and even an occasional chipmunk, as people in old houses often do. But a couple weeks back I learned gray squirrels had made a nest inside the soffit of my house. And not just one, but three.

I learned this early one morning when my cats ran eagerly to the bedroom window, staring and swatting at something outside. I’d heard the shutters rattling and assumed it was the wind shaking them, as it so often does. There is no shortage of wind out here on the farm.

When I got up and pulled back the corner of the shade to check outside, cats anxious with their tails twitching at my feet, I saw two beady eyes peeking back at me beyond the window screen. The fuzzy gray squirrel was just sitting there, motionless.

Disappointing the cats, I let the shade fly up quickly to spook him off.

I’d seen squirrels climbing the window screens before, tiny claws digging in but never seeming to leave a tear, so I was not entirely surprised. I feed them as well as the birds, so basically I know it is my fault. I even buy them special squirrel food with peanuts and corn, and even got them their own feeder.

All to my detriment, apparently. But not theirs.

Chasing off the little visitor happened a couple mornings in a row and I began to get concerned. It seemed odd he would return to the same spot over and over. So I walked outside later one morning to see what all the fuss was about. I found the grapefruit-sized hole right on the corner of the overhanging roof soffit, just outside my bedroom window.

The squirrel’s penthouse

The hole was still under construction at that time, and I found evidence of chewed wood, white trim, leaves and nuts on the slate roof below. Clearly its occupant had been making runs with his winter stash, climbing up and down the shutter on trips. Shortly after, I saw three busy little squirrel-beavers on the ground outside, and knew it wasn’t just one I had to worry about.

I’d heard horror stories of squirrel damage before and nearly had a panic attack right then and there. Fires, leaks, gloom and doom, etc., etc.

Unfortunately, the hole was kind of also my fault. It had been there for awhile. I knew about it; but it had been small. Woodpeckers had started it looking for insects a couple years ago. I had patched it twice, but they returned. Then last year starlings found it and must have improved on it a little, since they raised their nest of baby birds inside. After they moved out I added it again to my mental list of repairs, and then forgot about it.

Until now. Now my negligence had allowed the gray squirrels to find it and think they’d hit the mother lode. Food, plenty of trees around, and shelter–I should be surprised they didn’t find it sooner.

So now what to do? I called one of my friends who works in pest control. He came and inspected my attic, a scary place indeed. Just walking up there might send a person crashing through to the room below if they didn’t watch their step. Bats had lived there once (maybe still), mice of course, and now possibly the squirrels. I thought he was pretty brave to go up there.

But he didn’t see evidence of them living in the insulation, at least not yet. They might just be living inside the soffit, happily somewhat warmer in that space for the winter, right?

Or not. My friend told me stories of them getting into the house. I pictured holes chewed in walls, cats scrambling after them at all hours and getting hurt, or getting diseases, and the subsequent trips to the vet. None of it made for a pretty picture.

Of course, I still didn’t want to hurt the squirrels. It wasn’t their fault; they were just doing what they do, looking for a warm place to hole up (pun intended) for the winter. They had probably even been born or grown up in the yard here, coming to the bird feeders. I’d probably watched them chase each other through the grass and scamper up trees all summer. I felt terribly guilty knowing I had invited them or their parents in to this seeming paradise, only now to be contemplating their eviction.

But still, I knew it was probably not a good thing for me or the house that they had arrived and I would have to take some action.

My friend told me the best thing to do was to try and trap them with a Have-a-Heart trap and relocate them, though they might not survive in a new place this time of year. His company, if they caught them, would kill them for sure. And charge me a few hundred dollars to boot.

Nature had decided to take me at me word and put it to the test once again, I reasoned.

This has happened before, of course, living in the country. A little over a year ago I lost two of my chickens to a weasel, a horrifying event. And then last fall I had a beaver attempting to dam up my pond. He started with small trees, and was making his way up to big ones that had been growing for years. The process could have flooded the fields, and any related damage to anyone else’s property would have been my fault. They cannot be legally relocated, so very sadly I had to have the beaver trapped.

After my panic had worn off a bit, I called a local wildlife rehab agency and asked them what to do about the squirrels. They said I might still be able to relocate them successfully this time of year, as there is still food and shelter and not a lot of snow on the ground yet.

But if I waited too much longer, the babies would arrive in February or March. Then I would be dealing with even more of them, or babies falling and getting trapped in walls, which I couldn’t stand the thought of.

So I got out my Have-a-Heart trap and proceeded to set it up one night near the nest site after work. I put peanut butter on a small lid and set it carefully inside, opened the doors, and set the latch.

A few days went by with nothing. Then right before work one day, I looked out the window and saw a squirrel was trapped inside. One of the three in my roof, I didn’t know for certain. But he or she was there, and now I had to follow through on my plan.

Quickly I put the trap in my Subaru and drove through the semi-frozen fields. They were still muddy in some places, and my car struggled at times to find purchase in the grass. But we made it out back finally. I stopped by an area of pines and oaks at the edge of the woods, figuring there would be more food and shelter. The woods also have a lot of old deadfall, good hiding places I hoped for the new arrival. It was early afternoon, and still fairly warm.

When I opened the trap, the gray squirrel darted out straight into the trees. I felt bad knowing I’d frightened him, and that I was sending him (or her) off to a very uncertain future. But it was a chance, and I had to try to make some compromise. I said a prayer for the squirrel as I got ready to head back.

Now, a few days later, its gotten very cold again and I am leery of trying to trap the others. And I don’t know if the one I trapped might have returned.

A pest control device meant to scare the squirrels away arrived from Amazon yesterday, which I promptly attached to the house near the nest. Unfortunately the squirrels don’t seem at all deterred. Irritated maybe, but not scared. I heard them coming down again early this morning.

I’ll admit part of me is thinking, let them stay through the winter and keep my fingers crossed for the babies, then close up the hole come spring. I know it sounds crazy and is probably not the best idea for my house, but the thought of killing them because they made their home somewhere I don’t like seems very wrong. And it’s partly my fault because I created ideal conditions for them. Plus the memory of the beaver last year haunts me.

These things make me ask myself time and again whether I’m really cut out to live my life in the country so close to nature. Though I love the bright and beautiful parts, I can’t have all the good without the bad, too. It may seem like a silly or very simple issue to some people, but each sad or hard thing troubles me deeply.

Probably sometimes when I think I’m helping, or trying to, I end up doing more harm than good. It’s an old, familiar lesson.

I keep asking for help and guidance from the universe, for some least harmful and most peaceful solution to present itself. Maybe, in my sense of conscience, it already has. Or maybe the answer is still coming.

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About Jacqlyn Thorne

I've never really liked labels: I am this, I am that... But in the interest of introducing myself to the world, I can say that I am many things: nurse, writer, photographer, poet, painter, gardener, friend, armchair philosopher, counselor, nature lover, real-estate aficionado, movie buff, sometime yogi, and aspiring world-traveler. I think that's a pretty good list... for now. I want to become a bigger part of the vital, creative force I feel deeply at work in the world and connect with other people who want to do the same.