Summer is the time for lazy days and nights – and encounters with critters. At our place, that includes foxes, beavers, raccoons, fishers, deer, coyotes, bears, snapping turtles, hawks, owls, groundhogs, otters, muskrats, and snakes. Thankfully, not all at the same time.
My neighbour Charlie hates snakes. Kills one every chance he gets and always tells us stories about killing them when he was young. Big ones. He and his brother would stab them in the head with pitchforks and hold them up as high as they could and their tails still wouldn’t touch the ground, so they might have been eight feet long. From his description, they were harmless black rat snakes that only kept the mice and rodents down, but Charlie wouldn’t budge from his opinion.
“I remember when the farmhouse next to ours first got electricity,” Charlie said, “Everything was all right for the first year but then the overhead light in the kitchen started blinking on and off, and there was a dark stain spreading across the ceiling. On top of that, they sometimes heard funny noises in the walls. They called in the electrician, and he started to take that ceiling light fixture apart. As soon as he pulled it down, three or four snakes fell out of the fixture hole and landed on the kitchen table. It turned out that the ceiling and walls was full of snakes. All that family could do was move out and burn the house down.”
“Snakes remind me of a story about my wife when she was little,” I said, “and a fateful ride back from the cottage with her uncle.”
“Susan had a reputation for getting sick in the car. Her uncle Bruce was giving her a ride one day and forgot that he had left some chocolate chip cookies in the back seat with her. Well, with the combination of a bag of cookies and a long, hot car ride, I guess you can imagine what happened.
“Bruce pulled off the road near an old gravel pit to try to clean things up a bit. He saw an old red flannel shirt on the ground that was a perfect rag, so he grabbed it and started wiping down the back seat. Well, that shirt contained a nest of baby snakes and he wiped so vigorously he just flung them all over the inside of that car.
“They were still 30 minutes from town and it wasn’t a very comfortable ride back. Susan’s aunt was in the front seat with her feet up on the dashboard. Susan had crawled up onto the ledge underneath the back window, and the hairs on Bruce’s legs were jumping at the thought of those baby snakes crawling up his pant legs.
“When he got into town, he claims he drove that car straight into the dealership and traded it in on the spot. Took a cab home and never fed Susan cookies again.”
“Speaking of critters crawling up pant legs,” said Charlie’s son, Jed,” I went out hunting with my father-in-law, Mike, for the first time just after I married Bernice.
“Mike was a pretty good hunter. Lots of pictures around of him posing with various game, and he has the skin of a bear he shot tacked up on his cottage wall, so I was a little nervous about doing well.
“We were hunting grouse on old logging roads just north of here. It was a beautiful day and we walked up every road in the area but didn’t see a bird. We were driving home when, all of a sudden, Mike stuck out his right leg and kind of jumped. Then he grabbed a handful of his pants at his right hip.”
“Stop the car,” he said.
“I stopped. Mike jumped out and dropped his pants. I wondered if this was some sort of family penance ritual you had to do if you went hunting all day and didn’t get any game, but he came up with a field mouse.
“That mouse must have hitched a ride on him somewhere on the last road. Then it ran up his pants while he was riding in the car, and he wanted to get rid of it before it went up too far.”
We had bats in our cottage once. Although bats have worse public relations than tax collectors, they are really quite beneficial. Ten bats can rid your yard of a million mosquitoes in a typical summer.
Little Brown Bats have a wingspan of 9 to 11 inches and hunt mainly over water and among trees in open areas, eating at least 1,000 mosquito-sized insects every night. Big Brown Bats have a wingspan of 13 to 14 inches and prefer creeks, ponds, rivers, meadows, pastures, and the tree-lined streets in cities and towns. They require 3,000 per night because there isn’t that much meat on a mosquito.
Although bats are beneficial, that doesn’t mean we have to make a bed for them in the kitchen. I think the sensible attitude is somewhere between (1) being screaming vigilantes with torches and nets and (2) trying to make them pets. We finally got rid of our cottage bats by building a bathouse in the woods and encouraging them to move in. Before that, we tried everything. Lights, radios, mothballs, prickly pear covered with hairspray in the rafters, everything.
I was in the attic one day on a rickety ladder putting up the prickly pear. My father-in-law was steadying the ladder with one hand and brandishing a tennis racquet in the other. A bat flew by and he took a wild lunging swing at it but forgot to let go of the ladder. As he was pulling the ladder over with me on the top step, that bat landed right on my chest, at my first button. I glanced down into the inside of a little pink mouth while I grabbed a rafter with one hand to keep from tipping over. Then I grabbed the bat with the other hand and managed to throw him down on the floor. My father-in-law finished him off. That was enough ladder work for me that day.
Later that night, we heard the bats swishing around in the attic. My brother-in-law grabbed the tennis racket and marched up the stairs to do battle. The next thing I knew, he was racing back down with a bat flying about a foot behind his head. He bolted through the open front door, knees pumping, and that bat followed him right out into the night.
I’ve always thought it was a good thing there was a door at the bottom of the stairs, and that the door was open, or my brother-in-law would have punched his outline right through the side of the cottage, just like a coyote in a cartoon.
Critters – part of the charm of living in the country.