Thursday, May 8, 2008

Springtime was Made for Spring Guns

It's been a long layoff since my last post, and even longer since my last rat story, so I'm just going to apologize up front -- no doubt I will be long-winded.

When Spring rolled in this year, I was anticipating an onslaught of the rodent kind. But to date, things have been mausoleum quiet around the yard. It seems as though the colony of Norways that took up residence around the back of the yard last Summer were successfully culled. Nary a rodent form has been spotted scurrying under the bird feeders gathering seeds. And it has been even longer since I've see any sign of roof rats climbing in the brambles or hanging from the feeders.

So 'All quiet' has been the rule this Spring. That was until a couple weeks ago. One morning I went over on the side of the house (where the gate entrance in the fence leads into the back yard) to survey how much the blackberry vines had overgrown from the winter rains.

When I went to open the gate, I heard something shuffling back inside the dense growth. It didn't seem like a bird, but I couldn't see anything to confirm that it wasn't just a wrentit like the one that had taken up residence back in that area at one time last year. A couple of days later, when I approached the gate again -- this time from the back yard side -- I heard the rustling again, and this time saw a shape with a tail scurrying down a vine back in the vegetation. My heart told me "rat" but I didn't see enough of it to say with certainty that it wasn't a large lizard (lizards and even garter snakes have been spotted also inhabiting the brambles). So I decide to set out some stale Cheerios as bait up on the upper cross beam of the fence next to gate latch (but tucked back in under the vegetation to avoid visual detection from a bird passing overhead). I knew that if the Cheerios disappeared, it wouldn't be the work of a reptile.

Sure enough, when I checked on it the next day, the cereal was gone.
Rat on!

I immediately began thinking of ways that I could dispatch the little beast, preferably with a lead pellet to the brainpan. I considered placing a trap on the fence, but quickly dismissed it. I wanted to dispense a dose air rifle justice, dammit. It has been quite a long time since I last used my tool of choice to drop a rat, so I wasn't going to let this opportunity slide. I mean come on, this is a blog about pest control and air guns, not traps!

But the confined space between the blackberry and rose vines and the house and shed was going to make shooting nearly impossible, particularly with the vines overgrown as they were. They were aggressively climbing onto the roof of the shed making a tunnel at the far end -- you literally had to duck half-over just to make it under them. This was a problem in its own right that needed to be addressed, irrespective of the rat situation. So last weekend I broke out the clippers and got to work. I hacked and hewed for the better part of the day Sunday, taking out every vine that had exceeded its boundary, beating back the vegetation to open up the small path once again. For the first time in six months, sunlight touched the ground between the bushes and the shed. I wiped the sweat and blood from my thorn-scratched face and toasted my labors with a cold one.

It's Miller time

Now that this chore was done, I had to figure out where I could get a clear shot at the bait area. There were several issues to contend with. First off, no matter where the shot was going to come from, I was going to end up with pellet holes in the gate, which I did not like the thought of. Second, due to the placement of the shed, brambles and narrow opening, the angle was such that the only realistic shots at the target area were going to have to come at a range of less than six yards. Unfortunately, the scopes on both my rifles cannot focus under 10 yards. Finally, the logical spot to set up was some six yards away at the opening of the path -- on the back corner of the shed and right next to the blackberry bushes. This was problematic because if a rat had to travel through the bushes to get to the gate area, and if I were seated on that spot, it was going to pass within three feet of me. Not only was it unlikely that I could go undetected in that eventuality, but the idea of sitting right next the bushes in the dark of night where all manner of creepy and crawly things traverse gives me the heeby-jeebies. Okay, so I'm a wimp.

John Rambo ate things that'd make a billy goat puke. Me? I'm afraid to sit too close to the hedge

It wasn't long before solutions to all three problems came to me. First, I had this wooden feeder for squirrels that I had picked up cheap last Fall. I had always intended to use it as a bait station for rats but had not yet had the opportunity. I placed it on the top cross plank of the gate and secured it with a thick rubber band holding it to one of the fence boards. It fit perfectly. Now I could use the bait station as the backstop for any shooting, and not worry about the wood on the fence being damaged. Check!

As for my scopes not being able to focus under ten yards, it was while I perused Pyramyd Air for a new scope I couldn't afford that it dawned on me -- I didn't need to use a scope at all! It was one of those V-8 moments where I literally thumped myself on the noggin at the thought. At that close range, there was no need for magnification anyway, so just removing the scope and using open sites was all I needed to do. Check! Third and finally, I had stumbled upon the solution to my shooting spot conundrum while I was trimming the vines. In order to get them off the top of the shed, I had used a ladder and climbed up on the shed roof. While I was up there, I realized I had a perfect view of the target spot. All I would need to do is camp out up there quietly with my unscoped rifle and take the even closer 3-4 yard shot. Check!

When I got home that night, I brought my .177 caliber Gamo Hunter 440 out of the closet and removed the BSA scope. I had to use the Gamo .177 because it was the only of my two rifles to still have its open sights. Then yesterday, after work but before the sun set, I sat out back and measured out the 12-foot range and placed a clean paper target on my pellet trap. It only took about five minutes of shooting and adjusting the sights until the Crow magnum hollow point pellets were tearing one ragged hole in the bullseye. Once the gun was sighted in, I put it away in the closet so I could do a little reconnaissance.

I wanted to do a dry run so I knew what time the rat was coming to the bait station. I didn't want a long, uncomfortable wait up there on the roof when I actually had my rifle in hand. So that night I baited the wooden station with more Cheerios and some sunflower seed butter (peanut butter substitute), and climbed back up on the roof of the shed. I placed two flashlights on a towel at the edge of the shed's roof, shining red-tinted light onto the platform where I hoped the rat would soon appear. From this vantage point, the upper cross beam of the gate (and the bait station) were about twelve feet away and roughly three feet below me. It was about 8:45pm -- the sun had set and the sky was darkening. So I got as comfortable as I could and began my silent vigil.

The roof of the shed

It wasn't long before I began to hear small sounds of movement coming from the wall of blackberry bushes below and to my right. Soon the sounds were coming from the fence area to the right of the gate. It was just before 9:15 when a whiskered nose and two beady eyes appeared out of the vegetation next to the gate latch. He stepped out a moment later. It was odd - he had this funny habit of coming out on the 2x4 cross beam and hanging his head down low over the edge of the wood. He would stretch his neck down so far, at first I thought he was going to jump down onto the ground. He would do this for 10-15 seconds at a time. It was only after watching him do this several times that it dawned on me what he was probably doing. He was listening for sounds of a person on the other side of the shed. At that hour, I am occasionally out in the back yard, so most likely he was listening for me!

That was as close as I've been to a wild rat that wasn't already bleeding from one of my pellets. It was incredible how close I was and that he could not detect me. Even though he was well-illuminated, he seemed completely unaware of that fact. If I needed any more evidence that rats can't easily see red light, here it was. After his momentary pause, he proceeded to climb out of the plants and make his way over to the bait station. At first he was very cautious and would stretch out, grab a Cheerio and immediately pull himself back into cover. But on subsequent visits he would linger a little longer, finally coming out and resting on the bait station for lengths of time. In fact, he gave me so many looks at perfect shots, I started to lament that I had left the rifle in the house. I also noted how large he was -- maybe 13 or 14 inches head to tail. But he was a roof rat without a doubt - large ears, big beady eyes, pointy snout and a really long tail. In the past I have sometimes struggled to identify roof vs Norway rats, but there was no ambiguity here.

Over the course of 30 minutes, he carried off all the cereal and licked clean all the dollops of sun butter. When the food was gone, as quietly as I could I grabbed my flashlights and made my way off the shed roof. I plan to go up again in the next couple nights for the final showdown.

The battle plans have been drawn up for Operation Overhead

The next chapter will cover the final stalking and dispatching of the vermin. Stay tuned...

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