Things that go bump in the night

#343 in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 2000, Hills Newspapers

Friends of ours who recently moved into a Montclair rental house began their tenancy with a spider problem. The telephone man had come to hook up their phone line but when he approached the phone box on the side of the house, he stopped cold. “I can’t do it,” he said. “We’ve been warned about Brown Recluse spiders, and there is one!”

The lady of the house wanted her phone. She swept the spider down, stomped on it, buried the body, and persuaded the phone man that the danger was past. She got her phone.

When she found another spider the next day which seemed to be like the first one, she called an entomologist at U.C. Berkeley. The spider man said that Brown Recluse spiders are poisonous and should be avoided, but that they are shy and in short supply. Probably her spiders were some other type. She tried to forget them.

Then, a week or so after the spider incident, she called us to report another problem. She and her family were hearing scrabbling and loud scratching in the walls at night. Some kind of animal was obviously in the house, but what kind? Whom should the landlord call?

From the description, it sounded like a fairly good sized animal, maybe a raccoon or opossum, so we suggested assistance from the pest trapper people.

Several years ago when we noticed an unpleasant odor at Anet’s house in Rockridge, we’d called the pest trappers who sent out a man to investigate. He quickly identified the source of the problem, a large raccoon, unfortunately dead under the house. The man removed it and, having a little time to spare, he sat at Anet’s piano and played for us some quite good music he’d written himself. He was a songwriter who traps animals on the side.

Too bad, it wasn’t the piano player who was sent to our friends’ house. The man who did come said there was nothing he could do. After looking around, he said that the night noises were coming from something smaller than a raccoon, opossum, or skunk. They’d have to call someone else because he doesn’t “do” rats.

Rats! How icky. The rat people were called immediately. The guy who came advised cutting back ivy on the side of the house and closing up holes in the siding. He set some large traps baited with peanut butter in the attic and went away.

In the middle of that night a loud clap was heard followed by scraping and thunking, then nothing. Examination of the attic the next morning revealed that one trap was missing. The exterminators said that a rat must have dragged the trap away, probably to somewhere in the walls. Nothing to do but wait.

That was about a week ago. At least it is silent at night now. But there is a bad smell in the house. Without tearing up floors and opening walls, again there is nothing to do. Supposedly the smell will go away before long.
Thankfully, I’ve never had rats. At least I don’t think I’ve had. We have had at my house in lower Montclair skunks, raccoons, deer, and recently, for the first time, one lone opossum who comes to the patio outside the kitchen most nights. He doesn’t do anything; he just walks around, then leaves. Same with the skunks.

The raccoons seem to be the smartest and the most trouble of the bunch. A number of times they managed to pry open a window at night, enter, wash their paws in our cat’s water and eat dry cat food.

The deer no longer eat my back garden since we attached copper pipe bent into pretty arches to the top of the back fence. Apparently the deer can’t jump high enough to clear the pipe, the top of which is about eight feet off the ground.

I didn’t know we had mice, had never seen one until the kitten we adopted earlier this year became a cat. This cat is a big hunter. He’s dragged in from the garden a number of times a lizard who lives there. The cat doesn’t hurt the lizard; he just finds him and brings him to us and we return him to the garden.

But he does catch and kill mice. Where does he find so many little mice? Why don’t the mice get it that this cat will never stop? It seems like they’d move on to a better place, but maybe they don’t talk to one another.

All these animals in the city! We hear about them often from clients, people who live in attractive areas, both in the hills and in the flats. Raccoons pry up the edges of lawn turf to look for grubs. Squirrels build nests in attics. Skunks spray basements. There is more talk about deer than any other animals – how to keep them out, what plants they might not eat – but maybe that’s because people don’t like to admit they have problems with other critters, especially rodents.

Things could be worse. The same people who are waiting for the smell in the attic to end moved here from Texas. In addition to enormous cockroaches, lizards, opossums, and skunks, they also had at their house in an upscale suburban neighborhood, snakes and armadillos.

They could have done without all of those, but they had one wonderful animal experience while in Texas, this one with birds called Chimney Swifts.

Fireplace chimneys are the nesting home of choice of the mother Chimney Swift. If she finds one that is open at the top, as was our friends’ chimney, she builds her nest and lays her eggs inside.

It was in April that our friends first heard the babies chirping. Although, as they discovered, each baby was only about as big as your thumb, there were six of them and, in unison, they were loud. They were so loud that it wasn’t possible to watch TV in the same room with them.

The fireplace was a corner type with two fireboxes and a wider opening than is often true so it was possible to look up inside the chimney and see the nest perched precariously on a ledge. Concerned that the nest might fall, our friends laid soft rugs and crumpled packing paper in the fireplace to make a safe landing.

It was good they did because heavy rains soaked the nest and two of the little birds fell down. The local bird rescue people first suggested moving the babies into a wooden bowl placed on the ledge. But when water collected in the bowl making the new nest soggy, it was replaced with a plastic colander which worked like a charm.

Although the birds had been handled in the relocation process, everyone was hopeful that the mother would continue to feed them, and she did.

Every day our friends used a flashlight to check on the birds. They watched as the babies, clinging to the brick surface, inched their way along the chimney walls in an attempt to reach the top – and adolescence.

Two of the babies fell and had to be taken to bird rescue, a third died, and two made it out the top. The last one’s teeny feet held onto the bricks but his progress was slow.

It was mid-July, ten weeks from the time that the birds’ chirps were first heard before the last bird reached the chimney top and he flew away.

Now, isn’t that a nice animal story?

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