Garden pests that are small, destructive, hard to control and capable of spreading harmful disease can be described as vermin. The term usually implies an objectionable quality associated with the animals along with the actual damage they do. Mice and rats are usually regarded as vermin, since they're capable of spreading human diseases either directly or through the fleas they harbor, and they can harm garden and landscaping plants.
House and Deer Mice
Many different kinds of mice can snack on garden plants. They're nocturnal, so you usually don't see them, but you'll find evidence of their presence. Look for the typical chewing marks made by the two enlarged front teeth, as well as mice droppings. The house mouse (Mus musculus) is present throughout North America and is common around yards and residences. Deer mice and white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.) are more likely to occur in rural settings. House mice can spread some diseases through bacteria in their droppings, such as salmonella, which causes intestinal problems. Other diseases come from bites of fleas that normally live on mice, such as typhus and bubonic plague. Deer mice can carry hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which is transmitted through contacting droppings or urine.
Introduced and Native Rats
Because they're larger than mice, rats can do more damage per animal. They leave larger chew marks, droppings and urine stains. The introduced roof rat (Rattus rattus), which is also known as the black rat, causes harm by not only eating food but by destroying or fouling what they don't eat. Larger than roof rats, Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) also live in association with people. Other kinds of rats, such as different species of woodrats (Neotoma spp.), also called pack rats, occur in most of the United States. In the Southwest, they can damage landscaping cacti as well as garden plants. Because they're common in urban areas, introduced rats are more likely to transmit disease than native rats. With the exception of hantavirus, they can spread most of the diseases mice can transmit.
Other Small Mammals
Other rodents that damage gardens and can transmit many of the same diseases as rats and mice, ground squirrels (Otospermophilus spp., formerly Spermophilus), prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) and tree squirrels (Sciurus spp.) are also widespread. Ground squirrels can build destructive burrow systems, and prairie dogs can set up extensive colonies. Tree squirrels damage structures in addition to plants. Rabbits are related to rodents. Like rodents, rabbits can spread diseases, including tularemia, a bacterial disease spread by contacting dead animals or from ticks or flies that have fed on infected animals and then humans.
Control and Prevention
Most vermin have high reproductive rates and are more difficult to control when their numbers are allowed to build. Rodents such as house mice and rats can be trapped. Other rodents, such as prairie dogs, can be protected by state and federal legislation and cannot be trapped or harmed in some areas. Be guided by local laws and restrictions on how to deal with animals that invade your garden space. One of the best things you can do is to exclude them from close contact with humans by blocking access to your home and outbuildings. Because many of them are good climbers, repair cracks and seal entry points near roof areas and in attics and basements. Cleaning up wood piles, debris and other attractive nesting sites will also help prevent occurrence of vermin near garden areas. Don't leave garbage outdoors and keep in sealed containers. Quit feeding birds or move feeders away from the house and clean up dropped seed from the ground, which attracts vermin to the area as a food source.
- Merriam Webster Dictionary: Vermin
- King County Government: Public Health -- Seattle & King County: Diseases From Rodents, Pocket Pets and Rabbits
- University of California IPM Online: Rats
- Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management: Woodrats
- University of California IPM Online: Ground Squirrel
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: NebGuide: Control of Tree Squirrel Damage
- City of Boulder, Colorado: Inquire Boulder: Prairie Dogs
- Photo Credit MikeLane45/iStock/Getty Images
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