Spring critter-proofing tips from the experts

A squirrel on an eavestrough By Amelia Martin/Shutterstock

Animals. Can’t live with ’em, can’t…no, wait. You can live with them—and at the cottage, you have to. Getting along with your human neighbours usually takes a little compromise; so does getting along with your animal neighbours. “When people pay me to help them deal with their wildlife conflicts, they’re also paying me to educate them,” says Gary Ure, the owner of Second Nature Wildlife Management in Gananoque, Ont. “You do have to co-exist with them. Part of that is understanding the biology of the animal.” The other part is realizing that easy solutions rarely work, but persistence and attention to detail does. You don’t have to be smarter than “nuisance” wildlife and cottage pests. You just have to be more determined. And, sometimes, you have to pick your battles.


Typical MO  Hammers the life out of your siding, either to get at tasty carpenter ants, or while drumming in spring to establish territory and announce itself to mates.

What to do  Say thank you. If Woody is going after ants, he has informed you of a potential infestation. And rest assured that spring drumming won’t last through the summer. (At least not to the same degree: woodpeckers do peck wood.) But we get it—that’s not much consolation if a woodpecker destroys all the knots in your cedar. Like other birds, woodpeckers will become habituated to, and then ignore, most deterrents. But something that’s motion- or sound-activated could work, says Doug Tozer of Birds Canada.


Typical MO  Breaks into the cottage; ransacks it looking for food.

What to do  The best way to deal with a problem bear is to avoid creating one in the first place. Get rid of all bear attractants outside the cottage. That is, get rid of anything that smells remotely edible, unless you can store it in a bear-proof container. Also get rid of bear attractants inside the screened porch—gasoline, empty beer cans, fridges. (Don’t ever leave a bucket of fish inside the porch. Ask us how we know.) When there’s the possibility of food around, bears are tenacious and “will absolutely problem solve,” says Mike Webb, a wildlife management expert on Vancouver Island. They can learn how to open car doors. They can learn to recognize coolers and McDonald’s bags. “And once a bear starts to get food from a human source, it starts to view that food as its food,” he says. (A food-conditioned bear won’t necessarily attack, but you’re still best to not interrupt its meal.) Even if you or your lake neighbours have never had bear problems, it doesn’t mean that you never will. Black bears are more likely to turn to human food sources when their natural sources are low—for example, in the summer thanks to a poor berry crop, or in the fall when there’s an acorn shortage.  

5 misconceptions about bears


Typical MO  Tunnels into damp wood to make their nests; alerts you to the fact that your cottage may have a moisture problem. (“See? We’re helping.”)

What to do  If you see one or two large ants, they might just be workers on a recon mission for food. You can let them go about their business. But if you’re seeing them frequently, you probably have a nest in the cottage. Locate it: check near windows or doors, in the bathroom, or in wall voids, and search for fine sawdust, a.k.a. frass. Carpenter ants don’t eat the wood as they excavate. They chew it up and spit it out, often outside the nest entrance. Getting rid of the ants using bait is unrealistic: “They don’t make bait for carpenter ants,” says Glen Robertson, the owner of Robertson Wildlife & Pest Control in Coldwater, Ont. Well, they do. It’s just that these are the fussiest of all ants and will merrily ignore bait in favour of any other crumb of food that they can find (so keep things clean). You don’t want to let a carpenter ant infestation get out of control—they cause structural damage. Call an expert.


Typical MO  Moves into the cottage undetected in the fall, then emerges on mild winter or early spring days to confuse you. Why are you here, flies? There’s still snow on the ground. 

What to do  Nothing, unless you want to. Cluster flies, while disgusting, don’t breed indoors; they don’t bite; they don’t get into food. By the time prime cottage season has rolled around, “they’ll have just died or left,” says Steve Ball Sr., the owner of BugMaster Pest Control in Kelowna, B.C. But not before annoying the hell out of you with all of their clustering around windows, while buzzing really loudly, in between sluggishly flying through the cottage and crashing into stuff. Like your lampshades. And your face. “They’re the world’s worst fliers,” says Ball Sr. You can swat them and vacuum them up. Then, before next autumn, seal up any cracks and crevices where they can come in. Or hire an expert to spray the exterior of the cottage in the fall. Of course, they’ll use a general, non-selective insecticide. It will kill any insect that comes in contact with it, including, potentially, the beneficial ones.


Typical MO  Chews its way into your cottage through roof or attic vents; falls down the chimney; wanders through an open window.  

What to do  A loose red squirrel when you’re at the cottage is a non-problem. “Confine it to a room and open a window,” says Gary Ure. “People think, ‘Oh no, more are going to come in!’” They won’t. If that doesn’t work, you can set a live trap in the room, “and release it right out the door,” says Ure. “That particular squirrel? Your cottage is the last place he’ll come back to.” Far worse is if a single squirrel is trapped in your cottage for weeks when you’re not there to let it loose. One squirrel can cause bear-level destruction. And then die, leaving you to find its corpse. If you’re going to be away from the cottage for any length of time, make sure the chimney is capped; consider covering chewable screens with sturdier hardware cloth. “I’ve had clients who’ve pulled back the blankets on their bed to reveal a pile of bones and fur,” says Ure. Ack! Well, it’s better than a horse head.

Cottage Q&A: Relocating red squirrels


Typical MO  Hunker down underneath your deck or shed. And fill you with fear. Because skunk spray to the face!

What to do  Here’s what not to do: corner a skunk. Spraying “is usually their last resort,” says Gary Ure. Give them an escape route. They’ll take it. And watch their body language: skunks raise their tails and stamp their feet as a warning. If you suspect skunks are denning under the cottage in the spring, “ninety-nine per cent of the time it’s going to be a mother and babies,” says Ure. And the gang will probably leave by the end of June, in which case you can then safely skirt the underside of the building. Alternatively, you can make the space less cozy. Denning critters are drawn to dark, cluttered spaces, so clear out lumber or anything that you’re storing. If your skunk is a single adult male that has found himself a hidey-hole in one corner, you might have to take more labour-intensive measures. Remove deck boards to let in light; soak the area with a hose. Make him uncomfortable.


Typical MO  Eat every plant in your garden. Even the plants that are allegedly “deer-proof.”

What to do  Exclusion—surrounding your garden with an unjumpable, minimum eight-foot-high fence—is the best sure-fire way to protect it. Like many mammals, and the characters on The Walking Dead, deer base their diet on how starving they are. Ringing the herbs, flowers, or vegetables that you want to grow with deer-proof plants (smelly plants; thorny plants) can work. But it will fail in a situation where the deer population booms and food sources become scarce. Another option is to feed the deer with “sacrifice” plants that they’ll eagerly eat instead of the plants that you actually care about. Everybody wins! At least until the deer mow down all the sacrificial plants.

Wild Profile: Meet the yellow-bellied sapsucker


Typical MO  Drills into your favourite tree in spring, creating sapwells to feed itself and other early-season migrants. 

What to do  Nothing. Sapsucker gotta do sapsucker. You can’t stop it. These woodpeckers target a particular tree and go to town on it because it produces plentiful sap, says bird expert Doug Tozer. “Think: you’ve found a great new coffee shop with coffee that’s cheap and really tasty. Would you never go back?” You could attempt to cover the damaged area with burlap, says Tozer, “but sapsuckers often just build wells elsewhere on the same tree.” Healthy, native trees can usually survive the woodpecker’s eat-a-thon, plus, as Tozer points out, it’ll give you a chance to ogle other pretty species drawn to the sap—the mourning cloak butterfly and the ruby-throated hummingbird.


Typical MO  Skins the bark off your favourite tree and eats the cambium, the living part of it. 

What to do  Porcupines are excellent climbers, so wrap the bottom of the trunk with something that’s hard to climb, such as metal flashing. (Wire mesh? Yeah, that’s basically a ladder for a porcupine.) Keep in mind that if you leave the flashing around a growing tree permanently, you could risk girdling it when the trunk gets too big, says Sylvia Greifenhagen, a forest health researcher with the MNRF. Plus, “direct sun on shiny flashing might cause the bark to warm up too much, causing sunscald, which is also damaging to the living bark.” Happily, “if the porky has only stripped bark from some of the upper branches, the tree will be okay,” says Greifenhagen. Prune to get rid of dead branches. Similarly, “small patches of stripped bark on the main stem will not kill the tree; the nutrient and water ‘highway’ has not been disconnected.” Trim small patches of ragged bark and let the wounds heal on their own.


Typical MO  Knocks over your garbage cans. Oh, trash panda. But worse? Uses your attic like its own personal bathroom. Gross. And kind of insulting.

What to do  Determine how yours gained access. Unfortunately, raccoons don’t need an existing opening, or even anything chewable, to break in. They use their humanoid front paws to pry boards loose and pull apart flimsy soffit vents. “Raccoons have dexterity like you wouldn’t believe,” says B.C. wildlife expert Mike Webb. “And they can climb anything that isn’t cement.” They’re also very smart. “They remind me of the raptors in Jurassic Park.” They’ll methodically test your roof for weak spots until they find one. A single adult raccoon, coming and going only to use the bathroom, is easier to evict than a family. If you know the attic is empty, you can seal it up. But you’ll need to deal with the mess. Raccoons carry parasites, so this could be a Haz-Mat suit situation. “You may want to hire a professional company to do the cleanup,” says Webb.


Typical MO  Gathers on your lawn or swim raft. And craps everywhere.

What to do  Ultimately, habitat modification is more effective than anything else. Geese eat grass, so, “having no lawn will help,” says Nathan Clements, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation in Regina. If you’re desperate to keep your lawn, mow less; geese prefer young shoots (old grass is fibrous and disgusting). As for the raft? “This is a tough one,” says Clements. The problem is twofold. One: geese are smart enough to know a sweet hangout when they see it. “A raft surrounded by water is essentially a predator-free island roost spot to a Canada goose,” says Kiel Drake of Birds Canada. Two: geese are smart enough to see through any of your tricks—don’t bother installing an owl decoy. “They’ll quickly learn to ignore inactive threats and hazing,” says Drake. Creating a physical barrier to the raft can work. You can DIY it by installing support posts in each corner and stringing lengths of rope around the perimeter that are removable when you want to use the raft. Drastic and excessive? Not really. “In some agricultural regions, pneumatic cannons are used to scare geese,” says Drake. “But I suspect that wouldn’t suit folks’ taste in cottage country.” 


Typical MO  Gets into the living room, then proceeds to flap around, puzzled, not understanding that it could just go out the way that it came in.

What to do  One bat could mean lots of bats, so be alert for signs of an infestation—outside, you’d see them coming and going from your cottage at dusk and dawn, and you’d start to notice the foul stench of guano and urine. “Bats tend to arrive with the first insect hatch in the spring,” says Second Nature’s Gary Ure. Mama bats are looking for a place to call home to deliver and raise their babies. On the other hand, a single bat may have accidentally entered the cottage via the chimney—oops! As long as you know that the bat hasn’t come into contact with anyone (because rabies), just offer it a more obvious exit option—open a door or window—and be patient. If it refuses to move and simply clings to the wall, cover it with a plastic container—Ure suggests an empty Tupperware or a margarine tub—and slide a sturdy piece of cardboard, such as a flattened box, underneath. (Wear thick gloves.) Release it outdoors. Go catch yourself your body weight in mosquitoes and other nuisance bugs, little buddy!

Help! A bat has found its way into my cottage!


Typical MO  Caws incredibly loudly early in the morning while you’re trying to sleep. Are they screaming at you? Are they screaming at each other? Doesn’t matter. It murders your eardrums.

What to do  Buy ear plugs, and wait it out; crows get especially noisy during the spring breeding season (April to June) when they’re trying to advertise their territory. But crows, being very smart, are trainable. So repeatedly shooing them away could actually deter them, says Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has studied crows for more than 30 years. That said, ultimately habitat modification is your best long-term option. Don’t make your property an appealing option for the crows. Get rid of accessible food sources: compost, garbage, and dog food. If you have bird feeders, switch to safflower seed, which crows don’t like as much.


Typical MO  Hover uncomfortably close; interfere with your outdoor meals; do unexplainable things like hide in the finger of a gardening glove, and then punish you for not somehow just knowing that they are inside.

What to do  Don’t freak out when a wasp comes near you. In most cases, ignore it, and it’ll go away. Caveat: at a late-season barbecue, yellowjackets are attracted to the food (their natural sources are dwindling). Simple DIY pop bottle yellowjacket traps baited with a sweet liquid can work, but Steve Ball Sr. recommends a “bag trap” such as Rescue! Disposable Yellowjacket Trap; it lures, then drowns, the wasps. “They contain pheromones of a queen,” he says. “I have seen those things absolutely full.” Hang the bags within 20 feet of an outdoor eating area. Traps might keep yellowjackets from crashing your parties, but it won’t stop
them from putting themselves in positions where they’re going to get squished. “In early spring, they explore all kinds of cavities when trying to establish a nest site,” says Rob Currie, a professor in the department of entomology at the University of Manitoba. “In mid-summer, they’re looking for food and can accidentally get trapped.” Oh. Well, fair enough.


Typical MO  Largely ignores you, but startles you when you spot one swimming near your dock.

What to do  High five anyone around you. Snapper numbers are dwindling, and the fact that one is in your lake suggests that the water quality is good. And then be cool—it’s incredibly rare for a snapping turtle to bite a swimmer. “On land, they’re big, lumbering things,” says Sue Carstairs, the executive director of the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre. So biting is their only defense when they’re threatened. But in the water, they’re agile. “They’d rather just swim away,” says Carstairs. Even if a snapper does approach you, investigating, it’s not going to mistake your fingers for prey. Snapping turtles know what fish look like. They have eyes. Still, don’t attempt to feed or pet a snapping turtle; don’t pick it up by its tail and relocate to another part of the lake. We’re embarrassed for all of humanity having to give this kind of PSA. But people do ridiculous things.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Cottage Life.

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