Tunnel Rats

When we first got the chickens last spring, I read Storey’s guide to chickens from cover to cover. One of the many things it covered was the issue of rodents. The coexistence of rodents and chickens is almost unavoidable because the chickens are rather messy and clumsy eaters and the design of most coops allows the small, conniving rodents access to pick up the scraps. Though nearly unavoidable, you want to reduce opportunities for rodents to the best of your abilities.

Last fall, our rodent story begain with a family of mice that set up shop in the garage to take advantage of the loosely guarded scratch (dried corn). At first, I was gentle. I caught 9 mice in 24 hours and released them all a block away at the abandoned building and blackberry thicket. But then I had to start using kill traps when the little buggers failed to take the hint. After a week or so, we’d cleaned up. No food source, no mice.

Then, about a week ago I looked outside and saw a rat. Not a tiny, cute field mouse, but a big ‘ol Norwegian. I wasn’t surprised (we live in the city after all) and the hens have a steady diet of chicken feed, scratch and kitchen scraps. I wasn’t immediately sure of what to do since we couldn’t exactly get rid of the food source (lazy, sloppy chickens), but resolve wasn’t formed until I noticed the rat had burrowed in to the compost bin and had pulled out bits of celery stalk, carrot, apple core and potato. I’d be happy to have vermicomposting , but that’s done with worms and flies, not rats. And I now know why: Rats take stuff out of the compost bin. And their tiny little feet leave prints in the snow.
Rat Tunnel
So, we decided to trap. It didn’t take long for us to catch the rat, but then evidence has come in that maybe it wasn’t a solo gig. The biggest surprise of all? I was walking from the garage to the house when my foot sank. The brick I had stepped on sunk about 4 inches under my foot. Panic set in because the neighbor across the street was dealing with a drain-related sink hole. Over the next few trips between the house and the garage, another several bricks sunk underfoot. Crap.

Wondering what to do if we had a sink hole, I remembered the house we rented in SW Portland with burrowing rats who dug from the crumbling crawl space out to the middle of the yard under the bird feeder to get bird seed from underneath. So I pulled up a few bricks and discovered tunnels. The rats had created a maze of tunnels under the brick patio. Tunnels filled with chicken food and bits of compost. Impressed and annoyed, things have been escalated. I worked on cramming the tunnels full of dirt and fixing bricks. I ended up placing about 7 gallons of dirt back into the ground before sanding the bricks and resetting the traps. This is likely to be a protracted battle, and I suspect that I’ll lose.

Frozen chicken

Even with the ceramic heat lamp, the coop dipped down to 33F overnight. Their water dish had frozen, so I swapped it out with a warm bottle this morning. They seem to be in high spirits, though I suspect it’s hard to seem lazy when you’re cold. I’m going to look for some bricks to heat in the oven and stick out there tonight, though they’ll lose their heat rather quickly. Maybe it’s time to upgrade the ceramic bulb or reinvestigate insulation options.

3 in the hand

Yesterday was the first time that all three hens laid eggs on the same day. Additionally, they all laid them in the nesting box! Hunting all over the yard wasn’t necessary this time. I think they’re starting to “get it.”

Three fresh eggs and a decoy
Three fresh eggs and a decoy

The decoy is a golf ball that some friends made for me in high school. Oddly enough, we may see them again for the first time in nearly 8 years this Friday.