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Rats, birds and freezing fog

Once again we find ourselves — or we lose loved ones and pets — within the veil of vexation, curtain of calamity, dearth of daylight or pea soup prison, known far too congenially as freezing fog.

Yesterday I saw no sun. Today I noted Ol’ Sol shining forth at 2:21 p.m., with just enough gusto to faintly illuminate the landscape for a couple of waning hours before resuming hibernation.

One activity that helps enliven dreary days is feeding gluttonous over-wintering birds. I position the laptop (it needs a name) on top of my recliner by the bird observation window. I can stand and work just a couple of feet from these free-fliers.

Besides the house sparrow crowd, I host birds not usually noticed until spring. Birds such as the fruit punch-colored house finch, Cassin finch, lesser goldfinch, chickadee, Anna’s hummingbird, Oregon junco and a mourning dove who finds it too cool to coo his plaintiff refrain so he just eats himself silly.

Since I switched to a gourmet blend of bird chow, feathered buddies who had dropped me like a hot mealworm have returned. Those who once referred to me as “Millet Mama” are deigning to visit the humble feeders once again now that I offer sunflower seeds, nuts, brie and caviar. Lately I’ve seen the rufous-sided towhee, nuthatch, one newcomer I’m researching, and one rat. Wait, rat, did I say?

It began when I started noticing sunflower seed shells on my laundry room floor. They formed a telltale trail leading behind the water heater. I figured I had a mouse in the house — a small, cute, fuzzy-eared mousey that I might live-trap and release into the woods as a snack for a screech owl.

But one fateful night as we opened the back door carrying Chinese take-out, Lane pointed and said with restrained urgency, “There he goes. It’s a rat.”

Now, a rat is a different critter entirely from a mouse. A rodent of a different stripe, if you will. They are big, formidable and possibly gang-related. Their teeth seem longer. I began researching various ways of doing him in, then started with the angst. I mean, I couldn’t blame the hairy, long-tailed opportunist much as I had two sacks of birdseed sitting right there on the floor. He had good-enough taste to appreciate my recent upgrade. I explored closing off any possible entries and started thinking, “Gee whiz, Rizzo is only trying to make his way in a wild world full of predators who look upon him as a succulent winter repast.”

And one thing I know about rats after having had one as a pet years ago, they are whip smart. It’s harder to think about killing something with brains enough to solve problems. I actually began wondering what the difference was between this poor slob and the one I’d named Juliet and pampered in a cage with a wheel, bell, and food and water dispensers. For one thing, he could be a she looking for a nice, warm pantry in which to nurture a family. My sense of live and let live, though often generous to a fault, extends only so far.

One idea posed on the good old World Wide Web involved peppermint oil, as rats apparently have a strong distaste for peppermint patties. I soaked several cotton balls with extract and tossed them along its trail. Though I closed the laundry room door and slept upstairs, I could hardly nod off that night because every time I inhaled I got the sensation that I was at the top of a high, wintry mountain with a cold wind whipping my hair.

Next day, the cotton was there but no sign of rat visitation. I’d also moved the tantalizing seed to an indoor closet. Cautiously optimistic, I hoped the peppermint had done the trick. Would I need to reapply every few days? I never got the chance. After a couple more days, all the cotton balls were gone. I’m sure they make great nesting material. I just ordered some electronic vermin eliminators.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer. Reach her with bird stories and/or rat advice at pcdover@hotmail.com.