There must be an invisible sign flashing over our house this summer. It reads, "Eat here!" The sign is visible only to the wild things who live in the woods: squirrels, field mice, bear and the latest, raccoons.
I wish I still thought raccoons were cute little furry critters with smiling mouths and black masks. The masks should tip you off. They're bandits, and will eat just about anything at your house they consider theirs.
Naive, trusting person that I am, at first I believed it was a possum gnawing at a corner of the extra sack of chicken laying mash we stored on the back deck after a trip to the local Big Spring Mill in Elliston. It's worth the nine-mile trip to buy two 25-pound sacks of feed there than to buy one at the local hardware store. Only one fit into the can, hence the open storage.
Somewhere along the way I figured out the culprit must be a raccoon instead of a possum. Then came the day I found an unopened sack dragged across the back yard and part-way up the hill. It still hadn't dawned on me there was an entire passel of raccoons conspiring to get that sack of feed up the hill and over the fence into the woods.
We've had six Araucana laying hens for three years and only now are we getting raccoons inside our yard. I declared war a week ago after hearing chickens screaming at 5:30 a.m. and found a mama and a half-grown raccoon head to tail, frantically trying to find a way out of the chicken coop that is a totally enclosed cube of chicken wire.
We couldn't find where they got in and they couldn't seem to remember how to get out. After rousting my sleeping husband out of bed, Bill and I finally had to open the coop door and beat on the outside wire covering to chase them out. (Of course, in between times I had gone into the coop and taken pictures of the two. Once a journalist, always a journalist.)
Bill had thwarted the varmints for more than a week by wiring a shutter horizontally along the chicken wire at ground level. Before that, one or more raccoons had been pulling up a 3-inch half-circle and going in to raid the feeder.
We've had some interesting conversations with farmers, local wildlife experts and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries since then. For instance, we found out if raccoons are not shot in the trap, which is what most chicken and geese owners I've talked with do, coons usually come back if they're not relocated more than 10 miles away.
But it's illegal in Virginia to transport raccoons unless you have proper licenses. Catch 22.
In researching raccoons and their rights in Virginia, I learned:
• There is a continuous open season to trap raccoon and several other furbearers within the incorporated limits in Roanoke County, or, according to DGIF's website, of any city or town in the Commonwealth, and in other specific counties. A very helpful young woman named Stephanie in the DGIF office out of Bedford confirmed that for me.
• Trapping laws are different than hunting laws. Depending on where they live, property owners might still have to get a kill license from the state even if they are hiring a wildlife control service.
• A person 65 or older does not need a license to trap on private property in that person's county.
Wildlife people and Barbara Leach, an Extension Service horticulture technician who frequently writes columns in our paper about gardening and garden pests, passed along some good advice:
"One of the biggest attractants is inadvertantly feeding raccoons. Leaving out dog or cat food – even bird food – or having fish ponds, streams and frogs."
Speaking of food, I also found out some of the old guys in the Roanoke Valley are partial to baiting live traps with cans of sardines to attract raccoons. The mama of our laying-mash litter is probably too smart to fall for that. For now, it's a standoff. We're keeping the extra chicken feed inside the house. Let's just hope the mama and her little ones don't manage to get a copy of our house key.