A Cautionary Tale
By Peter Shelton
COLONA – They look so cute up on the rock sunning themselves in the morning: a mother golden-mantled ground squirrel and her litter of five fuzzy youngsters. They’re like big chipmunks, with their tawny fur and stripes down their backs. They don’t have the chipmunks’ facial stripes; otherwise they’d be identical, supersized.
But these guys are anything but adorable in the garden, or under the hood of your car.
They’re supposed to survive on seeds, nuts, berries, insects and underground fungi. But when sentimental and color-hungry humans moved into their semi-desert (juniper and sage) neighborhood out Buckhorn Road a dozen years ago, they thought they’d died and been presented with an irresistible, exotic smorgasbord. Everything, or almost everything, my wife planted to add color and meaning to our yard was devoured. (The exceptions seem to be lavender and Russian sage.) They were not always destroyed right away, and not always completely, in the first year. But devastated nevertheless.
We planted a jade crab apple, the kind with white flowers on lovely drooping branches, in honor of my sister Polly. The Polly Tree we called it. We knew it would be a temptation for the deer, so we surrounded it with wire mesh.
The second year a few branches got nipped off with what had to have been very sharp incisors. Deer couldn’t have gotten inside; it must have been something smaller, something that could climb the tree. So we buried hardware cloth around the perimeter and ran it up the mesh. That ought to keep the little critters out, we thought, until the tree is fully established.
But no. The next year we looked outside one morning, and every branch had been neatly clipped; the tree looked like a stubbled spike.
We didn’t actually catch the squirrels in the act on the Polly Tree. But we did on other plantings: the blue-and-white columbine, the orange-and-red gaillardia, the Echinacea (Mexican hat). All had been recommended by the High Country Gardens catalogue as deer and rabbit resistant. But not, apparently, squirrel resistant. Ellen was especially hopeful for the agastashe aurantiaca (Shades of Orange) that she planted near the front door. And the trumpet vine she hoped would climb the rock wall bordering the lawn and perhaps some day up the side of the house. Both were decimated by the sharp-toothed squirrels.
Ellen tried Liquid Fence, which is advertised to keep deer and rabbits away and had been known, a local garden center said, to work on squirrels and chipmunks as well. It smelled awful, like it might be effective. But the squirrels ignored the stench, pruning to the nub everything that was not native.
So Ellen began to cage everything – from the blue spirea to the day lilies to the barberry plants – in combinations of hardware cloth or chicken wire and bird netting. The yard looked like it had sprouted rows of mini, galvanized silos. Flower prisons. It wasn’t really the look we were after.
It did keep the squirrels off them. Mostly. On the most disheartening days, you’d see a squirrel inside the bird netting – how they’d found a way in was a mystery – noshing on something delicious then bashing in panic against the cage once he’d seen us.
I called Camelot Gardens in Montrose and told Trina I wanted to talk golden-mantled ground squirrels. She snorted and said, “Do you want a marksman?”
I had already looked online at the papers recommended by the Montrose office of CSU Extension. Their control methods included poisoned grain, poison gas, traps and shooting. One circular from the University of California College of Agriculture said: “Small areas may be freed from squirrels, but these are likely to be quickly reinfested again from the neighboring territory.”
Not encouraging news. Squirrel-pest websites and forums were mostly concerned with protecting urban bird feeders. We don’t have a bird feeder. Some companies will sell you “scent repellents” including fox or coyote urine (www.whateverworks.com). Others peddle “taste repellents” (www.bugspray.com). And there are “tactile repellents” too: Nixalite spiny barriers (www.nixalite.com) or 4-The-Birds tacky gels (www.bugspray.com). Oh, yes. And there are dozens of ultrasonic devises. All I could think of was Bill Murray’s war with the gophers in Caddyshack.
Trina had several products she said might be effective in keeping the squirrels away, including Liquid Fence. She also carried two granular applications called Critter Ridder and Sweeney’s Small Animal Repellent. For guaranteed results, though, she said she knew a guy who “makes his own concoction out of Coca-Cola and powdered fly bait.” She warned that it “will kill everything” in the vicinity, including the neighbors’ pets. “You have to live out in the middle of nowhere,” she said of such non-recommended home remedies. “And you have to be really mad.”
When I talked to Darlene at the Colorado Division of Wildlife she was done being mad. She lives up on Log Hill, she told me, and she had had terrible trouble with golden-mantled ground squirrels getting into their vehicles. We compared notes. We’d both had the critters stuff our air cleaners with nesting material. Leave piles of used juniper berries on every flat surface of the engine compartment. Distribute sage and salt brush stems all over. I had a minor engine fire when a cache of juniper bark started smoldering on the engine block. She had something – it might have been a mouse rather than a squirrel – build a nest in her glove box.
But that was all behind her, because she had discovered Bounce drier sheets. “They can’t stand the scent,” she said. She duct-tapes the sheets to the underside of her hood and hasn’t had a problem since.
So that’s where I’m headed now. To the Bounce aisle at City Market. And then maybe over to Jeans Westerner for a box of .22 caliber shells.