Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Critter Cam in the High Chaparral

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Looking back, it all began with my handyman Martín finding a beautiful female coyote lying dead in the snow under one of my juniper trees. “It” being a groundswell of concern in my semi-rural neighborhood outside Santa Fe about the dangers of secondary rodenticide poisoning to predators who are our natural allies in rodent control, and to people’s companion animals unfortunate enough to eat a slow-moving, dying rodent.

Martín and I both wept at the sight of the healthy-looking coyote lying peacefully under the tree as if she were sleeping. Her fur was thick for the winter and there was no sign of trauma, so I knew her death was likely due to rodenticide poisoning. In tears, I called Joseph Newman, a neighbor who works with Project Coyote and has been raising awareness of the dangers of rodenticides — as well as traps and the horrors of coyote killing contests — for years. Luckily Joe came quickly to collect the coyote’s body to take her for a necropsy. He too was heartbroken. She was the young healthy female he had been observing and photographing with a long zoom lens for the past year. 

A few weeks later, the results of the necropsy proved that she had died of secondary rodenticide poisoning. I was pretty sure that none of my immediate neighbors used rodenticides, though there’s been a learning curve as most have moved here from urban areas. But coyotes have wide-ranging territories and eat a lot of rodents, up to 1,000 per year and the poison can be anywhere. Despite her peaceful appearance, she had died a terrible death, bleeding to death internally from the rodenticides in the mice she had eaten. 

I wondered if she was one of the coyotes who appeared at my bird bath over the past year as she was growing up with her pack. For several years I have been using a motion-activated camera to monitor the wide variety of wildlife who live here. We live on Tewa and Tanoan land in high chapparal juniper savannah that was once a rich hunting ground for Indigenous Peoples. Seeing the “dailies” of who came to the watering hole — a ground-level birdbath and nearby pond — during the night is a wonderful beginning to my mornings. I watch the dance of species and the cycles of seasons through these captured images of coyotes and bobcats, ravens and raptors, rabbits, badgers, and racoons, and the occasional snake, for all the world like the wildlife in South Africa’s Kruger National Park visiting natural rivers and human-created cisterns. 

Was the poisoned coyote among these youngsters drinking at the watering hole? 

I had initially purchased my “critter cam” — as I prefer to call it to differentiate its purpose from a hunter’s trail cam — to determine where mice were getting into my ceiling. The mice were no longer able to get into my garage after I installed barrier brush along the sides and bottom of the garage door, but after a spring windstorm in 2011 damaged the metal roof trim on my house, I started to hear mice dancing above my head nightly. They were remarkably consistent, leaving around 1 a.m. to go out to forage and returning to safety under my roof around 5:30 a.m. The cats stared at the ceiling and jumped on high shelves to paw at the wooden planks. I wore earplugs nearly every night. 

Full disclosure and confession: for a few months I bought into the pest control companies’ advice to “reduce the population,” even though that didn’t make much sense to me — all I wanted was to keep them out of my ceiling. In sleep-deprived desperation, I reluctantly let them set snap traps on the roof and near the walls in the wild grassland around the house. But I felt sick when I saw that the snap traps didn’t kill the mice instantly. Some had been able to run quite a distance while dying.  

Various pest control companies tried several methods of “exclusion,” though not, as it turned out, thoroughly or efficiently. I briefly believed the claims of one “natural pest control” company that their bait boxes couldn’t possibly cause secondary poisoning because the mice would “just fall asleep,” which sounded so benign and humane for a lethal method, and never exit the bait boxes. It was “just” vitamin D3, they said, and wouldn’t harm any other species. 

But when I researched cholecalciferol, I was horrified to read that the mice died from internal bleeding and kidney failure, and that there was no antidote. Dying mice could easily be caught by wild predators, or by a cat or dog, and the buildup could quickly poison and kill them too. I soon realized there is no such thing as a “safe” rodenticide. I asked the company to remove the bait boxes and work on exclusion. They took away the bait boxes but never returned my calls after that.  

I’d always wanted a critter cam, so I bought one online and set it up on the roof. House mice and the larger deer mice came and went all night through a hole in the flashing, which I quickly repaired. A handyman covered all my vents with hardware cloth (also important for fire protection against airborne embers from wildfires) and sealed all the holes around the beams and vigas (round log beams popular in Southwestern US architecture), but the pitter-patter continued. 

Mouse highway into the ceiling through sun-damaged roof flashing

Finally, I set up the critter cam pointing at a wall where I thought the mice were entering the roof through a space by a viga. The photos showed them climbing straight up the walls at 5:30 a.m. Martín discovered a tiny ingress, which all the expensive pest control companies had missed. He sealed it with steel wool and Liquid Nails, a substance that hardens and can’t be chewed through.

The fix has held — knock on wood — for several years now.

I’ve learned to “live and let rodents live,” realizing that balance will be ensured by their natural predators. As long as mice and pack rats aren’t in my house, ceiling, walls, garage, grill, car, or garden shed, they are not bothering me. I wear gloves and a mask to clean up any mouse nests I find in my garden bench as a precaution against the extremely rare hantavirus. Bubonic plague, also extremely rare, is transmitted by fleas that jump off dead rodents. If you don’t poison or trap rodents, then you aren’t going to encounter their fleas. Mice aren’t a problem if they’re not getting into your food or keeping you awake at night, and desert wood rats (pack rats) are not a problem if they aren’t eating your car wires.

Once the mouse problem was solved, I could focus on using my critter cam for something much more fun — documenting the myriad wildlife who came to my watering hole. Aside from the ubiquitous coyotes, I saw bobcats (who I’ve also seen in broad daylight in person, and wrote about for Voices for Biodiversity in Bobcats in the Hood in 2017). I saw snakes, the occasional raptor, badgers and racoons. Most of them preyed on rodents and thus were useful as well as delightful to have around. 

I’ve loved looking at the critter cam pictures of different species doing their careful dance around my watering holes, beginning at dusk and continuing until after dawn. Depending on the time of year and the state of drought or rainfall, they come in waves, carefully avoiding each other. During the harsh drought that began in late 2020 and lasted through spring 2022, the wildlife depended on the kindness of human strangers who would put out water for birds, mammals and reptiles.

Coyotes, who I would hear singing as soon as it was dusk, would usually show up first. They would come in singles, pairs and packs to drink and hunt. Bobcats, singular or with kittens, would show up later, in the middle of the night. Badger, who I had never before seen on this land, would generally come at about 3 a.m. Racoon would wash his food in the bird bath or the pond and have a drink.

Coyote pup; Bobcat kittens

I never knew they were badgers here! Or racoons 

Birdseed falling on the ground not only feeds ground-feeding birds like quail, but also attracts rodents into a little mini-preserve visible through my floor-to-ceiling solar windows. Some people recommend not feeding the birds in order to keep rodents away from your home, but I figure as long as the mice can’t get inside they aren’t bothering me. With the worst megadrought in the Southwestern US in 1,200 years — made more intense by climate breakdown — I feel I owe it to other species to share water so they can survive. The rest — the population balance between prey such as rodents and rabbits and predators such as coyotes, bobcats, badgers, raptors and snakes — the non-humans can work out for themselves. 

Wild predators are great allies in keeping the rodent population balanced

In the early days of the pandemic lockdown in spring 2020, one of my few pleasures was checking the camera first thing in the morning to see who had come in the night. There weren’t visitors every night, but there seemed to be more present on those days when humans had nowhere to go and nothing to do other than walking in the neighborhood carefully avoiding each other.

In the early days of pandemic lockdown, wild creatures could relax

In wetter times there is no need for most creatures to visit my bird bath, other than the robins who enjoy bathing several times a day. I see fewer night visitors once the summer monsoon rains start, except for dry periods in between, and have the most visitors in spring and autumn.

I put up a memorial, a metal sculpture of a coyote, to the young female who died under my juniper. Because of her, people in my neighborhood have banded together, both through the homeowner association and through an ad hoc group organized on the Nextdoor site, to educate longtime residents and newcomers about the dangers of rodenticides. We’ve created flyers that can be given to neighbors who aren’t aware of this issue, and to property management companies, real estate agents and absentee landlords. We’ve had the most success with people who actually live in the community and have a stake in preserving the wildlife and protecting the lives of their companion dogs and cats. Dying rodents are easily caught by dogs in a yard or even cats in a catio; some of my neighbors have lost beloved canine and feline companions. 

We are taking a positive approach and relentlessly educating local residents. Joe Newman gave an outdoor talk on co-existing with wildlife, sponsored by the homeowner association, and several of us consistently provide accurate information in various forums about effective alternatives to poison for humane rodent control, from exclusion, live-trapping/relocation and rodent birth control in bait boxes to, if one feels lethal methods are necessary, electronic traps that kill instantly.

Coyotes can be seen at all hours of day and night, though they prefer dusk to dawn.

The reason I have such an abundance of wildlife near my home is that I have made a conscious effort to preserve biodiversity and to rewild the land by broadcasting native grass and wildflower seed. In recent years it has become the fashion among some residents to mow their whole property or large swathes of it in the mistaken notion that it makes the home safe from wildfire. In truth, it does little to nothing to protect the house because embers can fly half a mile to a mile and land on a rooftop. The cost of this wholesale mowing to the environment is high — it decreases biodiversity, deprives wildlife of cover and contiguous habitat, destroys the delicate soil crust, removes biomass that sequesters carbon, cuts off wildlife trails and causes erosion when it does rain. It occurred to me recently that mowing and using rodenticides and other poisons is a colonial approach to dominating the land, and that a conscious choice to live in harmony with the land and its inhabitants is a way of decolonizing our minds. 

The stark contrast between mowed and wild land. Which one supports biodiversity?

Instead of mowing, I gently weed-whack the grasses and shrubs that are within 30 feet of my house, the distance recommended by fire professionals, making sure to leave four to six inches of stubble. I do this well after the plants have set seed and many birds have migrated south, and then I scatter more grass and wildflower seed. Because I don’t mow and don’t use any kind of poisons on my land, I qualify to have my couple of acres designated as Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. An extra donation got me a nifty metal yard sign that now graces the entrance to my driveway. 

I still feel great anticipation and excitement when I check my critter cam’s SD card in the morning. Just last month I was treated to the magic of a momma bobcat and her two kittens appearing near dusk. They played and romped around the pond as the sun set. My heart opened to see their carefree antics. I only hope that I’m right about my immediate neighbors not using any kind of rodenticide and that these beautiful creatures will go on to thrive and live long, healthy and wild lives. 

Bobcat mom and kitten playing by my pond

See lots more critter cam photos at Santa Fe Critter Cam Gallery

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