Pesky critter identified!

The mystery of my backyard critter has been solved. We still don’t know what removed a solid three-inch chunk of a melon intact in the middle of the night. Experts don’t believe my “friend” caught on camera could have done such a deed. However, in researching the strength of this critter, I believe it is possible that it did it. If it was something larger that began the process, it hasn’t made itself known to my trail camera since the initial visit.

PRAIRIE DOGS NEXT DOOR
Saturday morning, a neighbor came over and reported “prairie dogs” in his backyard. Since he was an East Coast city dweller before moving to the desert, I went over to inspect the burrow he described.

I told him that prairie dogs haven’t been spotted in our neighborhood, but he insisted they stood on their hind legs and played and wrestled like prairie dogs. I inspected the large burrow hole that went under his foundation and the pile of dirt that laid behind a second hole, the main entrance to the burrow. I went home to check my camera.

I downloaded the morning’s videos from my trail camera. I had pointed it at my bait, the partially eaten watermelon from the original attack. Sure enough, a family of rock squirrels, bushy-tails and all, came over my fence at about the same time that morning that my neighbor had seen them in his backyard (Play the video above. The squirrel is eating the watermelon in the corner of the fence and will climb the fence.). I showed him the video and he was amazed that squirrels acted that way. I was also surprised that they ate a bird, so I researched further. An exterminator arrived this morning at my neighbor’s home and proclaimed it as the Arizona Gray Squirrel. However, according to the New Mexico Extension, they aren’t found below about 4,500 feet and they are tree dwellers.

Rock squirrels are large at about 18 inches in length and a mottled gray/brown coloring. Its ears stand a bit above their heads. They are omnivorous, unlike most squirrels that are herbivores.

Rock squirrels prefer vegetation but will eat birds also. It’s one of the few squirrels that will do so. They burrow in the ground to escape the desert heat, birth their young and store food. They are also notorious for attacking vegetable and fruit gardens, or nut-bearing shrubs and trees. They are large, averaging about 18 inches from the head to the tip of their tails. They are mottled gray and brown, bushy tailed and have ears that extend above their heads. They can climb walls like nobody’s business!

I haven’t spotted them in 24 hours, although they are sly. The rest of the melons and tomatoes are untouched. I visited with my neighbor again and he said he saw them head to my yard this morning but came flying back over the fence almost airborne. I smiled and explained to him that I had inflatable snakes in my tomato plants to ward off birds but I moved one just below the corner near the melons where the squirrels were coming over. The rock squirrel’s main predators are hawks and snakes. Those $7 inflatable snakes paid off again. They worked well to discourage birds from eating my tomatoes also.

A six-foot inflatable snake rests above a watermelon near the corner of the fence the squirrels enter.

A fellow gardener, Diane, who lives in my subdivision, has complained about squirrel attacks on her garden, so although my damage was minor, the following information is for Diane and anyone else who has had problems with squirrels.

SERVE AN EVICTION NOTICE

Habitat modification: Remove wood and rock piles, and enclose compost bins and trash cans. If they have burrowed into your yard, learn their patterns. Most will leave the burrow early morning and at dusk to find food in the summertime. At this time, close off the entrances to their burrow and cover them with bricks or some heavy impenetrable surface. They could still try to dig down elsewhere, but your eviction notice on the burrow has been served. This is what my neighbor did today.

But what if you are in my situation? The squirrel is living elsewhere but has seen the grocery store sign flashing on your wall.

Close the grocery store: If you are growing a vegetable garden, remove any plants that have finished or are nearly finished with production. Make sure you removed damaged or rotten fruit immediately from the plants and fallen fruit from the ground.

Fencing: You can fence in your vegetables by building cages with small-holed fencing like hardware cloth or a sturdy chicken wire (with the smallest holes). Make sure you bury the fencing below ground because the squirrel may dig underneath. Remember, these squirrels are experts at digging and climbing. If you have a raised bed, attach it tightly around the bed so that a squirrel can’t squeeze between the bed and the fence.

Sheet-metal cylinders around tree trunks: Four-foot high sheet metal cylinders can be placed around tree trunks to prevent squirrels from reaching your fruit or nuts, including pine cones and acorns. Again, bury the bottom of the cylinder at least four to six inches below ground.

Poisonous baits are available, but I don’t recommend them. Other animals may get to the bait or eat a poisoned squirrel. They are not repelled by smells (they will dig in garbage cans, afterall!) so ignore some of those home remedies that suggest foul-smelling items like animal feces, etc. Fumigation is effective, but it can expose humans and pets to the toxic fumes. In my neighbor’s situation, the burrow was directly below his bedroom. It’s not a good plan, but if you choose to do it, please hire a professional.

You can trap them or have an exterminator do this. It will work for a few squirrels but if you have them in your neighborhood, save your money unless they have chosen your yard for their burrow. If you trap them yourself, contact your local Game and Fish or Forestry Service office for assistance in relocation.

Get a dog or cat: The squirrel isn’t afraid of dogs or cats unless it is on the ground. But the presence of a dog or cat is a deterrent since it will be more difficult for the squirrel to access food. They may drive your dog crazy from the top of a fence, however.

Don’t proclaim hunting season (even though you may feel like it): If you live in an urban setting, discharging a gun is illegal. In a rural setting, it may be allowed, but identify the type of squirrel first. Some species are protected.

I removed some of my backyard grocery store and now have three inflatable snakes residing in my yard. So far, so good.

Jknapp

I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.