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What is “cute”?

The other day, a visiting friend gasped when he saw a rat run across a corner of the suburban Connecticut yard where I garden during the week.  I shuddered when he told me.  I could guess what had drawn the creature:  we have a henhouse full of geriatric chickens who are not the neatest of creatures.  Indeed, I found the mouth of a burrow in one end of their run, and I took measures to evict the burrower.  I didn’t hesitate; I know that if the rat proliferates, the neighbors rightfully will complain and the chickens will have to go.

Yet later, as I was pondering this visitation, I spotted a chipmunk sitting in the crotch of the sourwood tree (Oxydendron  arboreum) that tops the tangle of bare-knuckled perennials my wife and I grow in front of our house.  And the unfairness of the situation struck me.  Why is it that the chipmunk, also a rodent, passes as cute, while rats are almost universally hated?

In fact, most of the charges leveled at rats also apply to chipmunks.  For example, chipmunks are disease vectors:  out west they are carriers of plague and here in the east they are among the most dangerous reservoirs of Lyme disease.  Depending on where you live, they may also host leptospirosis, salmonella, hantavirus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, encephalitis, and, of course, rabies.

Chipmunks are less prone to invade our houses, it is true, though they will occasionally gnaw their way into attics.  If cornered, chipmunks, like rats, will bite.

What’s sure is that chipmunks are far more serious than rats as garden pests.  Chipmunks, along with squirrels, are demons for looting new plantings of small bulbs such as crocuses, and like rats, chipmunks are burrowers, creating tunnels that may damage the roots of desirable plants.

When I posed this question to my wife (a level-headed scientist), she responded that chipmunks are cute and that rats, with their pointy noses and hairless tails, are creepy.  That, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.  I had a girlfriend once (yes, before I was married) who was also a scientist and who had adopted a retired laboratory rat.  She adored this creature, who was smart and playful and clearly was attached to her.  I must admit, though, that I never took to it.

I have a neighbor, a retired college professor, whose backyard is shaded by a row of enormous Norway spruces.  One of these became the favored roosting spot for a flock of black vultures.  The vultures were also messy, covering the terrace below the tree with excrement; I think that the professor, a man in his 80’s also found the constant scrutiny of scavengers ominous.  At any rate, he began to annoy the birds with a BB gun, persisting until, after several months, they moved on to another, distant tree.  Would the college professor have responded the same way had his visitors been a flock of bald eagles?

Posted by on July 17, 2017 at 10:43 am.   This post has 6 responses.
Real Gardens

Wildlife Encounters

I’ve posted before on this blog about the attraction of wildlife tracking in the garden.  Garden wildlife, I noted then, reminds me of teenagers – the critters eat distressingly huge meals then typically leave without communicating about what they have been up to or what their plans are. Reading the tracks is the only way to learn what the animals are doing (would that this worked with teenagers).

I had a notable encounter of this kind this past month.  Something was stomping the plants in my garden.  And for a change it wasn’t careless human visitors.

Over my many years as a horticulturist, I’ve grown accustomed to wildlife attacking my plants, though more often in the form of slugs, beetles and caterpillars nibbling holes in the leaves or even, as in the case of cutworms, decapitating whole seedlings.  On the whole, I find myself better able to tolerate mammalian invaders because, although their individual appetites are far greater, they are also easier to exclude.  A welded wire fence keeps the bunnies at bay.  (By the way, am I the only one who even as a child rooted for Mr. McGregor?  As far as I’m concerned, Peter Rabbit got off lightly.)  A solar-powered electric fence that administers mild shocks deters the deer very effectively, at least in my very rural neighborhood.

Whatever it was that was stomping my plants seemed to find the fence to be no impediment, however.  I was stumped (not stomped, fortunately) until my wife Suzanne found a trail of huge double-hooved tracks.  A quick look at my Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks revealed that we had acquired a garden moose.

We had seen moose on our property before.  Once, my wife had seen a bull moose with a big rack of antlers in our beaver pond, and on another occasion I had spotted what seemed to be a young male on our dirt road.  The tracks in the garden weren’t distinct enough to identify this visitor as anything other than an adult – almost 6 inches long, the footprints were big enough to blanket the whole heart of a lettuce or Napa cabbage.  Judging from the path it had followed, this moose seemed not to be eating in the garden, just stumbling around squishing things.

The visits continued — I assumed that the long-legged moose was stepping over the fence — until one night when our dog, who was sleeping by an open window, exploded with a fusillade of barks.  This, apparently the moose did not like, for the next morning we found the electric fence torn off its poles where the moose had, it seemed, exited at high speed.

It has not returned since.  I don’t miss the damage to our garden, though I do regret the sense of contact with the wild that the moose brought.  Now that the blackfly season has passed, I may take my tracking guide and make an expedition into the nearby swamp, to see if I can find evidence of the moose on his or her home ground.  I’ll try not to stomp any plants.

Posted by on June 19, 2017 at 9:30 am.   This post has 7 responses.