Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Snakes and Mice and Bones, Oh My!

Today I startled a 4- to 5-foot-long rat snake on its way into my garage. I stood still once I noticed it; it had already noticed me and gone still, assessing my threat potential. After about 30 seconds it decided all was well and continued on its way. I have had rat snakes living in my garage before and welcome this one, as I have trapped 13 mice in my kitchen in the last 4 weeks. I'd much rather have the snake feed on them than toss their dead bodies into the small-animal graveyard at the edge of the woods off my deck.

I'm uncertain of the size because coiling makes estimation of length very difficult. My field guide to reptiles says rat snakes range from 42 to 102 inches, so this would be a small one. They are harmless, nonvenomous, who kill like constrictors. My cat had a run-in with one about 5 years ago. I noticed her being very still and focused out on the deck. When I went to look I found her facing down a 6- to 8-foot-long black snake that had raised the front half of its body straight up, head drawn back in an S curve, mouth open. The snake was about 6 feet away and neither creature was moving. I told my cat she was probably safe from this snake, but there are nasty ones up here (timber rattlesnakes) so I preferred that she be very respectful of the species in general, and I carried her into the house to watch from behind the slider. The snake maintained its defensive posture for nearly a minute before standing down and slithering away beneath the deck. I have since found rat snakes curled up on the cinderblocks inside the garage and climbing the rock wall just outside it on several occasions. We cohabit quite nicely.

Mice are a different matter. I don't like to kill, but even one mouse will trash your entire kitchen very quickly. They are filthy creatures, and I have learned not to tolerate them. I use old-fashioned spring-type mouse traps because they are reusable and because they kill quickly and cleanly. I bought a sticky trap once, but it had two major drawbacks. The gluey substance on it gave me a sinus headache, and once the mouse had got stuck on it you were supposed to just throw it away. Poor mouse might take weeks to starve to death or suffocate, futilely attempting to escape every moment. When I had trapped the mouse on this thing, I could not just throw it in the garbage. I actually took it outside and one by one unstuck the little pink feet, then threw the wee gray thing with all its toes intact into the yard. Call me a softy. Then I threw the foul-smelling trap into the garbage bag in the garage to get rid of my sinus headache.

Not sure why I suddenly have so many mice invading my kitchen in the summer when I had none all winter. Mouse invasions are sporadic: none for months, and then a slew. One winter I trapped 8 and the cat caught 12 over 3 months. I knew the cat was getting old when I realized it had been 2 years since she caught anything. She was the major reason for the small-animal graveyard. It seemed disrespectful to throw her catches into the garbage and absurd to actually bury them, so I chose a shady area full of low-growing shrubs about 8 feet from the deck and simply tossed them in that general direction with a short prayer to the Mother Goddess to take her beautiful creature back to her loving bosom. Over the years this space has received many birds, many bats, a number of voles, several flying squirrels, and a praying mantis.

About a year ago, while clearing the path around the house that passes this part of the yard, I decided to investigate the area for the presence of small bones. I found none. Not one. Dozens of creatures went to their maker in this space, and there is no evidence of it whatsoever. Even small bones would take more than a few years to disintegrate entirely. Where are all the bones?? All I can think is that one or another of the carnivores inhabiting my property smelled fresh kill and carried it off to feast. Or perhaps the turkey vultures came when I wasn't looking. There are plenty of them hereabouts; the area just to the north of me is called Buzzard Flats (great country name, ain't it?). Would I really not notice a turkey vulture (wing span 6 ft) descending within 8 feet of my house? Mysteries are everywhere in this world.

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