My wife and I knew we were in for adventure when we bought a fixer-upper recently in the Virginia countryside. But we weren’t expecting this: Even after the closing, the previous residents refused to vacate.
Those who had deposited these skins dared not show themselves, but they had ways of letting us know they were still there. Upon returning to the house after a few days in the city, we found a fresh skin awaiting us on the doorstep.
As a political reporter, I’ve observed plenty of snakes over my career. But out in the country, people actually like the critters. My neighbors informed me that common black snakes were a sign of good fortune. “Black snakes are great for eating the mice, and they actually keep away the copperheads because they are fiercely territorial,” one explained. (This didn’t account for the copperhead skin in the attic.)
This neighbor assured me that the black snakes would keep to themselves — “except in the spring when they can be spotted climbing trees to feast on baby birds.” I made a mental note to remain in urban safety this spring until the snakes-in-trees season ends. In addition to climbing trees, they can also climb houses.
My own herpetological education comes primarily from the 2006 flop “Snakes on a Plane,” in which the creatures drop from the overhead compartment with the oxygen masks. I now picture them doing the same from the recessed lights above my bed.
How my home came to resemble National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center can be explained by the children’s song “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” The snakes come inside to eat the mice, I’m told, who eat the spiders, who eat the flies — and who all enjoy the damp environs of my basement.
I recently went down there with an electrician who was checking the air handler. “Did you see ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark'?” he asked after shining his flashlight on something moving in a dark corner. He was referring to the opening scene, with the tarantulas.
Actually, I have mostly wolf spiders, though a black widow or two can’t be ruled out. Ladybugs shelter in the floor joists. Mud daubers (a type of wasp) make their homes in the garage (which has a mousehole big enough to accommodate a dachshund), as has a family of birds. One bird took up residence in the attic. Carpenter bees occupy the barn. Yellow jackets nest in the ground along the driveway. Deer ticks are so common that locals keep doxycycline on hand for the frequent bites. Invaders such as the spotted lantern fly and the emerald ash borer cause havoc in the local ecosystem.
And everywhere there are termites. That’s as it should be. Termites belong in a forest. But when you build a wood-frame house in that forest, they will eventually find it. “Absolutely — and I say that with 100 percent confidence,” Dini Miller, an entomologist at Virginia Tech, warned me.
I asked Miller’s colleague, Daniel Frank, director of Virginia Tech’s pesticide programs, what to do about my snakes, mice and sundry insects. The first step after identifying and monitoring the critters, he said, is that of “determining thresholds.” In other words, decide “what amount of damage or pest population you can live with.”
When it comes to venomous copperheads in my house, I have calculated my threshold tolerance, and it is exactly zero. When it comes to harmless but 6-foot-long black snakes in my house, my tolerance is not much higher than zero.
Frank told me not to waste my time with electronic deterrents or herbal remedies. (I was too embarrassed to admit I had already applied enough “Snake Scram” — a powder containing clove and cinnamon — to make the exterior of my house smell like a year-round Christmas store.) It isn’t practical to trap them, and it isn’t humane to kill them. The way to make the snakes vacate was to evict the mice.
Tony Sfreddo, a director of the Virginia Pest Management Association who lives in the area, kindly toured my house to assess the situation: The snakeskins. The just-caught mouse in the snap trap. The dead mouse upstairs. The mouse droppings. The dachsund-sized mousehole. The bird’s nest. The clustering flies. The wolf spiders. The mud daubers. “I’ve seen worse,” he reported. I don’t want to think of what horrors those eyes have witnessed.
I did as he coached: plugged holes in the foundation walls, covered vents with mesh cages, had the rotting insulation removed. Next: a plastic “vapor barrier” and a dehumidifier.
But I’m also working on my threshold tolerance. “You’re going to have black snakes from time to time. It’s just a fact of life,” he advised me. “You’re going to have field mice. You’re in the country.”
And if one of those black snakes pursues one of those field mice into my bedroom? He suggests I put a wet towel on the floor, wait for the snake to wrap itself in the towel and then remove it.
But I have a different plan. If I find a snake in my bedroom, I will immediately sign the deed of trust over to the squatting reptile and flee to the city — never to leave its concrete cocoon again.