Off the Grid  Retirement at our remote log cabin in Colorado

Tuesday, June 09, 2015


Posted by: Rick

Another of the creatures we encounter at the cabin is the pack rat, otherwise known as the wood rat or desert wood rat. These are the cutest little rodents you've ever seen (well, maybe next to a ferret or squirrel). They have bushy tails and big doe eyes. And, they are evil.

We've posted about pack rats many times in the past. Here, here, here, and here just to reference a few of the times we've mentioned these vile creatures.

They are the rodent equivalent of bower birds. They collect stuff (ranging, in our experience, from condoms to fireworks, bits of colorful plastic to dog turds, even bite-sized pieces of rat poison) and line their nest with it. The nests are usually made of small limbs of wood and fresh green pine needles. These nests, when built in the engine compartment of our truck, can be destructive. They chew the colorful wires under the hood of the truck. They can get caught in the fan belts and render the truck useless. (See the above links for an example.)

They stink. They don't mind peeing in their own nest. And, that really stinks. There is no smell quite like the smell of pack rat pee. I hate it.

Usually, they are worst in autumn as they prepare nests for winter hybernation. But, we encounter them all times of the year. And, the primary mission is to get rid of them and let them know they are not welcome at 100 Hidden Meadows Lane!

This year is no exception. The first morning, or maybe it was the second morning after arriving, I looked under the hood of the Expedition (as is my morning habit) and sure enough, there was a pack rat nest on top of the engine. On a subsequent trip to Laramie, we got an error message in the truck "Trailer Wiring is Screwed Up" (or, something like that), and we weren't pulling a trailer. The rats like to get under the hood of a vehicle and make a nest in the possibly warm engine compartment.

(By the way, some people leave the hood of their truck open overnight because the rats will typically not nest in the open. I did this one night and still got a nice offering on the engine. A photo of that next is below.)

Here is an example of the beginnings of a nest under the hood of the Expedition one morning. On other mornings, a different nest was also adorned with insulation from the firewall in the truck. One morning there was some kind of grey foam insulation which source I cannot find. There was also a blue plastic cap for insulating the positive terminal of a battery--probaby from an ATV--again, no idea where it came from.

This is a fairly long story, so I'll continue it in More... Please, click through.

Obviously, the rat(s) must go. There are several ways of dealing with them.

Poison is really not an option for us. There is too much risk that the poison pellets could end up where the dogs might find them and eat them. Also, the damned rats seem to think that the colorful poison pellets (usually green or some shade of blue) are adornment for their nests instead of something yummy to eat.

There are deadly traps. These are big, rat-sized versions of the mouse traps we've all used for years. It can be tricky setting them up. I've bruised my hand more than once. And, despite my best efforts to attach the bait in a way that will certainly trigger the trap when taken, I often find baitless, untripped traps in the morning. Or, I've caught a mouse with the rat trap which is a bit of overkill (if you will pardon the pun). Still, I have had some success in the past. So, the deadly traps (three of them) have gone out every night. I place them strategically around the front tires of the truck. I've baited them with cheese (no luck), dampened alfalfa (our neighbor insists this attracts the rats), salami (from a salad kit), and dog biscuits. So far, this year, this has resulted in many more bruised fingers than dead pack rats.

There are live traps. These are humane traps that capture the live animal, once you've enticed it into the trap. A rat caught in a live trap can later be released back into the wild close to the house of an enemy. Or, in our case, off in the National Forest miles away.

(Another way to get rid of them is to hope they "hitch a ride" with someone who comes to visit. It is not unknown for the rats to hitch rides "back home" under someone else's hood. I have not figured out a way to turn this into an effective eratication strategy. This happens more by luck--or bad luck to the recipient.)

This year, I have two live traps. Mine and one from our "swears by the efficacy of alfalfa" neighbor. (He gave me a coffee can of alfalfa cubes to use as bait.) Here are photos:

Note the alfalfa cube at the back of the trap.

I am making fun of the alfalfa cubes, but it turns out they work. A few nights back, I actually caught a pack rat in a live trap using them as bait.

One learns many lessons when living off the grid. Some lessons are passed on by friends and neighbors with similar experiences. Some are learned the hard way--by experience.

On this day, I learned a lesson about releasing a pack rat into the wild. I loaded a stinky, mean, vile, cute critter locked in the humane trap into the truck and drove up County Rd 80C toward Sand Creek Pass until I was out of Sand Creek Park and into National Forest. There is a nice camping spot along the road, often used by hunters in the fall, and I turn in there, parking the truck in the middle of a clearing. I took the live trap which held the evil creature to the edge of the woods--about 30 feet from the truck--pointed the door toward the woods and opened the trap. The pack rat immediately sensed freedom, ran out of the trap, turned a 180° circle and ran back under the truck!

Now, I don't know if he just kept running. Or, if he sought the comfortable, familiar surroundings of the Expedition engine compartment. But, I learned a lesson: walk further from the truck and into the woods and release the damned thing closer to shelter within the woods. Maybe toss a blue piece of plastic in the direction you want him to go to further entice the desired behavior.

I looked under the hood, but did not see anything. The engine compartment of a modern vehicle is so tightly packed with things that make it go that one cannot really see much anyway.

I prayed the critter had kept running and was not hidden way among those "go bits" under the hood. But, to add some insurance to those prayers, I drove home on a bumpy back road hoping to dislodge the rodent if, in fact, he had sought solice back under the hood. 

Now, I know where this pack rat was nesting when not under the hood of the truck. He (or she) had built a nest under the wooden platform that is at the door to the cabin. I decided it was time to get rid of that hiding place. So, I removed a few boards from the platform and scraped out all the nesting material which included all that I've previously described and more. I hauled a wheelbarrow full of it into the woods and dumped it.

Pack rat nest under the platform at the door to the cabin. Note all the nice soft pine needles for bedding.

I then had the brilliant idea of filling that platform with dirt. However, after two wheelbarrow full loads of heavy dirt and decomposed granite from up the hill, I realized it would take 20 or 30 wheelbarrow loads and I gave up that strategy. Instead, I decided to plug all access to the cavity from the outside by piling and packing dirt along the sides and corners, topping that with heavy rocks, packing more dirt inbetween the rocks, and hoping it holds. We could even plant some flax or other nice flowers among the rocks in the future. The final product looks something like this:

I'm writing this article several days after all this activity. And, I'm happy to say that, so far, we have not seen any sign of the pack rat. We've gone three mornings with no nesting under the hood of the truck. And, no activity with any of the traps. I'll wait another few days before publishing it and declaring victory though, because we all know how scheming, clever and evil the pack rats are.


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