Back to Nature (Published on - March 6, 2008)
Photo by Karen Mitchell Tremmel
The squirrel: A rodent with large brown eyes, bouncing fluffy tail and excellent PR.
On my return from the mail box at the end of our driveway I sensed something very small fall upon my shoulder. On quick observation I discovered a flea!

Above me upon a large live oak limb scampered a gray squirrel. Although gray squirrels are amusing to watch playing games in the trees, they have often been the source of my irritation. Until we discovered squirrel proof bird feeders, we undoubtedly spent more money on feeding the squirrels than attracting birds.

The squirrel is a fat rat with a fluffy tail the public, in general, likes to love ... a rodent with good PR. I blame them for most things that go wrong in my garden. My uprooted spring bulbs, the planters that are dug and dismantled, the chewed limbs and branches, but when most infuriated, I refer to them as flea bitten rodents.

The goal of my column this week was to expose these vermin to the public letting everyone know these cute little creatures with large, brown eyes and bouncing, fluffy tails are actually marauding villains in disguise.

To my surprise, research revealed that they aren’t the demonic creatures that one might identify them as. The actual culprit responsible for most of the damage to our gardens, roofs, soffits, trees, fruit, flower beds, wiring and so on, is the Roof Rat, referred to in Florida as the fruit rat.

Although gray squirrels are susceptible to fleas, mange, botfly infestation and other diseases, scientific surveys indicate that not all gray squirrels have fleas nor do they all carry a host of diseases. Some do, some don’t. However, roof-fruit rats are notorious for spreading fleas and diseases, and since they live and share the same habitat with squirrels it may be this contact that considerably increases the incidence of squirrels becoming infested with fleas and disease.

Roof rats (Rattus rattus) are abundant in Florida. The Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) familiar to most people is actually rare in Florida. You can easily observe roof rats at dawn or dusk running along power lines, resting upon roofs and snacking upon the fruit of citrus trees.

The University of Florida relates that the secretive, nocturnal nature of rats means that they often go unnoticed in a neighborhood until citrus and other fruit begin to ripen. Roof rats then make their presence known with a vengeance. In citrus, papaya, cantaloupe and watermelon, the characteristic damage is a circular hole about the size of a quarter or half dollar and the whole fruit is hollowed out.

The roof rat (rattus rattus, a.k.a. citrus rat, fruit rat, black rat, or gray rat) is non native to Florida. It is an introduced species of rat native to southern Asia. This rat is the same species that carried the bubonic plague around the world and is also the reservoir host for murine typhus. The UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences dubs the roof rat as the worst rodent pest in the state of Florida and most abundant.

They offer this criterion for identification purposes: Adult roof rats are 12- to 14-inches long and weigh 5 to 10 ounces. The tail of a roof rat is longer than the head and body length: hairless, scaly, and black color. The body is sleek and graceful with prominent ears and eyes. There are three color phases seen in Florida: black back with a slate gray belly, gray back with lighter gray belly, and brownish gray above with a white or cream colored belly.

Roof rats consume and destroy stored animal and human food, attack fruit crops, and take up residence in attics, soffits, hollow walls, and out-buildings. When they invade buildings they chew through wires (potentially starting fires), gnaw through plastic and lead water pipes, make holes in walls and cause other structural damage. William H. Kern Jr. “Control of Roof Rats in Fruit Trees.” University of Florida: IFAS, 24 Feb. 2008.

Fleas and mites often leave dead rat carcasses and may infest the entire house if the carcass is not removed promptly. Always wear a HEPA approved breathing mask and gloves when removing any roof rat droppings or nests around your home.

Although the roof rat is difficult to control, carefully preserving your landscape as raptor and snake friendly will positively assist in maintaining a balance in the roof rat population. Although there are a variety of traps and poisons available on the market for controlling rat infestations, take heed and first contact your local extension office before attempting to bait or trap rats on your own. Improperly baiting and poisoning can largely affect and kill the innocent wild animal and bird populations, as well your beloved pets.

Now, as for that squirrel resistant feeder you’ll be inquiring about: The only one that works for us is a tall cylinder surrounded by an ornate cage. When the squirrel tries to access it the weight of the squirrel moves the cage down thus closing the feeder holes. The top of the feeder is protected by a large metal baffle. We found ours at our local home improvement store. They seem to carry them as a stock item. While maintaining balance in your garden; you can reduce the rat population, feed “only” the birds you want to feed and continue to be amused by squirrelly antics ... back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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