Monday, October 24, 2011

Suburban pests, Part 1: A feathery master of ceremonies

Centerpointe is a happenin' place.  It may look like a sterile treeless newly-built suburb, but you can actually see a lot of wildlife activity going on here, if you're observant.  And some of that activity is likely enhanced by human activity. 

Take this guy, for instance.
Immature Cooper's hawk.
Sorry about the poor pic quality - he didn't see fit to hang around long enough for me to do good portraiture.
Where did I take that pic?  On one of the far-flung margins of the neighborhood?

No, right in the middle of the neighborhood, between two VERY closely-spaced houses.

And why was he brave enough to be perched there on the fence between two yards?  Obviously there were humans in the immediate area, one of whom had a camera. 

He was there because, seconds before, he had just killed a large Norway rat in one of these two adjacent back yards.  On the close-in photo, you can see that his visible leg is coated in blood. 

Normally, a Cooper's hawk would not sit on a suburban fence in close proximity to human beings, but an accipiter such as this is only a medium-sized bird of prey and that was a huge rat he had (I got a good view of it as he flew away).  He had to rest and regain his strength before he could remove it to a more private dining location. 

And what was a Cooper's hawk doing killing a rat in a Centerpointe back yard on a Sunday morning?

I like to joke that there are only two kinds of homeowners in greater Houston:
  1. Those who KNOW they have rats.
  2. Those who DON'T YET KNOW they have rats.
For a large rat (larger = older = smarter) to be active on the open ground in broad daylight on a weekend when homeowners and their kids are outdoors in the same area suggests to me that:
  1. There are A LOT of rats in the area, perhaps competing amongst themselves for food such that some of them are forced to forage at risky times, and
  2. There's probably an inadvertent food source quite close to where this rat was killed.
The "inadvertent food source" in most suburban scenarios is usually:
  1. Bird food in an outdoor feeder (even if none spills on the ground, rats can climb trees and poles and get into any feeder). 
  2. Dog food left outdoors by homeowners, particularly those who work during weekdays and are afraid that their dogs will get hungry during the long hours they're away from home, so they leave both dogs and food in their yards. 
Do I sound unusually educated about the behavior of rats and the genesis of suburban rat problems?
Your happy blogger several years back,
with non-friend recently deceased at my experienced hand.
Anyone who has lived in southeast Texas for 20 years has likely had rat experiences (or should have had them - if you didn't have those experiences, it's probably only because you didn't know the rats were there).  I can't tell you how many rats I've killed in how many different suburban houses I've lived in over the years.  There's never been a house I've lived in where I did NOT find them - they are in every place, in every neighborhood. 

And each and every time I found them, the inspiration for the infestation was either nearby bird seed or dog food.  Leave either of those substances outside your house, and the chances of both you and your neighbors having rats are close to 100%.  Supply food, and they will come. 

It wouldn't be so bad if they remained confined to back yards, but their ultimate goal is to set up housekeeping in your attic.  They are very, very good at finding ways of getting into it: they can climb brick facades and squeeze into gaps in the roof deck.  They can chew through roofing shingles.  Their absolute favorite thing to do is to chew the insulation off your a/c lines and climb up into the attic that way.
Check under the foam insulation for tell-tale gaps.
Really, these things should not be sealed with foam.  They require tight-fitting chew-proof metal plates applied to the side of the house with tough mastic.
And once in the attic, they wreak havoc, chewing through electrical wiring and everything else they can get their teeth on. 

And they breed, well, like rats. 

So, my advice is this, especially now that we're into autumn weather and rodents (both mice and rats) are particularly enthusiastic about penetrating your house:

First and foremost, check your premises and your neighbors' premises for food sources (that's what I'll be doing!).  If you find food sources, remove them.  Explain to your neighbors that Fido is perfectly capable of making it through business hours without a heaping bowl of kibble to keep him company.  Your neighbors simply might not know about the dangers of this practice of leaving food out.  They also might not know that a dog's physiology is different than a human's, and that dogs can go for much longer periods of time without feeling discomfort from hunger.  Your neighbors might also be assuming that because they keep dogs in their yard, they can't possibly have rodents because the dogs will guard against them.  Wrong.  Rats will march right in while dogs are sleeping and the dogs will be none the wiser for it. 

Second, check your attic for signs of rats or mice.  Maybe lay down a few glue traps prophylactically.  If you don't catch anything, no harm done.  If you DO catch something, then it's an early warning to you to take further extermination action before the problem gets out of hand and you end up with damage to your home.

But make sure you check for food sources first.  If the food is not removed, you'll never get rid of rodents.

Welcome to the reality of life in the subtropical southeast, and good luck with it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Calder crimes

The Calder crimes:  not the happiest blog topic, but they are part of our collective history and you'll likely hear about them soon enough if you have not already, and if you're not from this area, that might come as a rather rude surprise to you.  It'd be good to have general context in case anyone asks you about those crimes, due to the re-heightening of public awareness, so here's the scoop:

Texas Killing Fields reportedly hits theatres either tomorrow or next week, depending on which source is reporting accurately.  This movie is a dramatization of the unsolved murders of multiple young women, four of whose bodies were dumped in fields along Calder Road on the west side of IH-45, roughly catercorner from Centerpointe. 
Movie poster courtesy Internet Movie Database
Prior to the development of this motion picture, this gruesome serial killer story was remembered mostly by locals who had lived in Clear Lake and north Galveston County long enough to have been witness to the news coverage that occurred around the time of the murders.  One can still find relatively unsophisticated "whodunit" type summaries of the crimes on the internet that pre-date the recent revived interest in the cases, such as this old one.  It is true that locals historically referred to the area as "the killing fields".  The reference was subsequently changed to either "the fields" or the "Texas killing fields" to distinguish it from the Cambodian genocidal dumping grounds of the same name

But now the local media, including Galveston County Daily News and Bay Area Citizen, have published articles heralding the release of the movie and describing the crimes upon which it is reportedly based, at least loosely.  I can't comment on the content of the movie, and how it reflects upon our general area, because I haven't seen it.  From internet sources, I can't even tell whether they filmed it here or elsewhere. (Ordinarily I would never patronize a movie of that type, but because of the local connection, I think I'll check it out).

So yes, it is generally agreed that there was a serial killer.  Yes, some of those crimes were committed near here.  Yes, the murders remain unsolved.  And yes, there's a movie about to hit the big screen.  Those murders happened a long time ago (roughly 1983-1991) and it is speculated that the serial killer has since died, because no additional related crimes appear to have happened after a certain date.

Incidentally, one of the murdered girls found in the Calder Road field was Laura Miller, who was apparently abducted from the C-store near the corner of FM 518 and Hobbs (you can see that gas station as you go across the FM 518 overpass heading south on IH-45 toward the League City Parkway exit).  Following her death, Laura's father founded the volunteer mounted search and rescue group known as Texas Equusearch, which went on to become world-renowned for its skills in locating missing persons (and recently was credited with locating the young man who spent two snake-bitten days at the bottom of a League City manhole). 

At this point I could leave you with a YouTube embed of either the "Texas Killing Fields" movie trailer, or a segment showcasing Texas Equusearch.  Easy choice.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Galveston County Master Gardeners Plant Sale

The Galveston Master Gardeners are having their fall plant sale this Saturday.
The header above was excerpted from this very cool website, where each listed plant is linked to a description.

Unfortunately, that very cool website does not include any information about the location of the venue, so I had to look that up via GCDN.  You can see a map of the Wayne Johnson Community Center here.  And here's another

Having gone to one of these sales previously in south Harris County, my advice is this:
  1. Identify from the website inventory which plants you think you'd like to purchase.  At least make a mental inventory.
  2. Get there early, early, early.  Note that, because they usually preview plants, other people will likely have been given numbers so that they will be ahead of you in the check-out line. 
  3. Be prepared for the possibility of pandemonium. 
A surprising number of people take their gardening (and Master Gardener plant sales in particular) very seriously.  The atmosphere can be brisk and intense.  People generally do not go to these things to browse - they go to snap stuff up.  Snooze, you loose. 

I'll have more on landscaping in the next week or so, as I eluded to in an earlier post.  Now is the time to deal with landscaping for the following reasons:
  1. It's cooler outside so you can work without keeling over. 
  2. We got over three inches of rain last Sunday so there's finally some soil moisture.
  3. A lot of residential stuff was killed by the summer drought.  Much of the neighborhood looks crummy. 
  4. Big-box stores and garden outlets are also having their autumn plant sales, typically 70% off.  It's fiscally foolish to buy at top-of-the-season (spring) prices and technically foolish also: the roots of many plants need unstressed opportunity provided by cooler weather to take hold before the next summer's heat is upon us again. 
More advice: if you're not an experienced gardener/landscaper, or even if you are, I recommend you exhibit an overriding preference for drought-tolerant plants.  Sunday's rain was great, but we're still in the worst drought in recorded history, and it's expected to continue.  And as of this post, League City is still in mandatory water rationing, and I have days where I feel that this might continue for all eternity.  That doesn't mean you can't have landscaping - but it does mean that you should start thinking WAY outside the subtropical box about your planting choices.