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The good, the bad, and the ugly?

Your guide to the natural pest control of birds and snakes plus a couple of tick tips

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Birds good and bad:

Depending on the variety, beautiful birds of the Northeast can be good or bad for your garden. Therefore, you want to know which ones to attract and which ones to detract and how to attract the ones you do want and to discourage the ones you don’t.

Invite bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, orioles, sparrows, swallows, titmice, warblers, and woodpeckers if you wish to rid yourself of grasshoppers, crickets, grubs, beetles, larvae, moths, leafhoppers, stinkbugs, snails, aphids, flies, caterpillars, ants, earwigs, borers, cutworms, aphids and weevils. Coax them by eliminating pesticides and free-roaming cats as well as building or buying appropriate bird houses, gazing balls (most birds love shiny objects) and baths. Dried leaves and twigs left over from last year’s garden will attract nesters.

If inclined, own a chicken or more, and make sure to plant extra crop since they love to eat (and sometimes even scratch up seeds) while roaming the garden. Some will swear by their chickens while others will swear at them but in return, chickens will feed on ticks, spiders, mites, termites, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, and many of the aforementioned insects.

The downside to birds in the garden is that some will eat seeds and berries. They don’t call them a “murder of crows” for nothing. You can make a scarecrow and/or hang wind chimes to deter crows and jays, but those items might also scare the good birds.

Many varieties of birds will swipe all your berries in a day or two. But that’s what bird netting is for. Lightweight and practically undetectable to the human eye, bird netting can be found at most farm-and-garden stores, and it will protect your berries 100%. The best defense against the so-called “bad birds” may very well be to install a birdfeeder near the garden but not in it, and cover the berries with the soft netting. If you’re concerned that a bird feeder might attract bears, then forgo the feeder and perhaps plant extra seeds.

Tick tips:

Sprinkle a lint roller with the essential oil of lemongrass or eucalyptus. While in the garden, periodically roll your clothes. This will do two things: pick up the ticks on the outside of your clothing while depositing a natural repellent. If you need to have a tick checked—from any state—contact Tickchek LLC, 562 Independence Road, E. Stroudsburg, 18301. 866/713-8425, support@tickchek.com. At this laboratory, many times they can identify the tick through a photograph and let you know how if you need to have it further checked for Lyme and/or any other diseases.

Garden snakes:

Unlike birds, there are really no terribly bad snakes when it comes to the garden, and all snakes are beautiful in their own way. Poisonous snakes rarely end up in gardens, so please don’t needlessly kill or maim any snake you might find in your garden. Instead get a book on snakes and become familiar with our region’s slithering reptiles. Remember, the presence of any snake in the garden is in some way good for it.

The most commonly found snakes in gardens are garter snakes, which are often mistakenly called gardener snakes. Small and thin, garter snakes are one of the best snakes to have in the garden as they eat almost exclusively insects. In the Northeast, garter snakes are colorful; checkered or striped with oranges, reds, turquoise, browns, blacks, grays and yellows. Essentially non-poisonous, most garter snakes are incapable of biting humans.

Consider yourself lucky to have a rare visit to your garden from the king snake. This strikingly colorful reptile is immune to rattlesnake venom and often preys on rattlers. King snakes also feed on many of the small and unwanted mammals that will find their way into the garden. The downside to the king snake is that it also eats lizards, birds and frogs. Yet they are still great snakes to have around a garden. These snakes are usually either black and white in striking patterns, or brightly colored with reds, blacks and yellows. When it comes to colorfully banded snakes, avoid any with touching bands. As a rule, when the bands don’t touch, the snake is not poisonous.

Fast-moving rat snakes are most commonly found on farms but can also live in your garden. Their consumption of rodents may very well justify their occasional dining on small birds and frogs. They are completely non-toxic but, if provoked, will bite. When left alone, rat snakes are quite safe and very valuable to the garden.

The peculiar looking hog-nosed snake with its piggish nose eats frogs and toads but also feeds on mice and insects. If disturbed, this dramatist will pull any number of tricks including rolling on its back, hanging its tongue out, flattening its head and hissing like a leaky air hose. But these antics will only last until you walk away from the harmless, non-attacking hog-nosed snake.

The slow moving, shiny black Eastern indigo snake is beautiful, large and docile. They eat just about anything including rattlesnakes. Indigo snakes make an excellent garden species, but are frankly decreasing in numbers because of the pet trade as well as the gassing of rattlesnake dens. They also tend to have very large hunting territories that far exceed the size of most people’s gardens.

About Northeastern poisonous snakes:

All Northeastern poisonous snakes are pit vipers, which have thick, relatively short bodies, narrow necks and wide triangular heads. In the U.S., no nontoxic snakes have this sort of body shape. Nontoxic snakes have heads that are barely bigger than their necks and few have thick, short bodies. Another indicator is that most poisonous snakes in bright light have elliptical pupils. Before you can get that close to a snake in broad daylight, it most likely has already slithered away.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes are both pit vipers. It’s rare to find one in your garden, but if you do, take your pets and children inside the house. Then call the PA Fish and Game Commission at 717/787-4250 or the Bureau of Wildlife at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation at 518/402-8920, depending on what state you live in or where the snake was spotted. You may also call your local animal control. Do not kill it or try to remove the snake yourself. 

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