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Pesky mice seem to be everywhere; rodent boom raises Lyme fear

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Posted on August 23, 2018 |
By Christopher Ross



AubuchonCat8085.jpg
GREYSON THE CAT keeps watch over the aisles in Aubuchon Hardware in Middlebury Tuesday morning. Greyson, a rescue cat, lives in the Middlebury store 24/7 and catches the occasional mouse. Below, Greyson in the box where he snoozes most of the day; at night he actively hunts mice in the store. County residents and pest control professionals say it’s been a particularly bad year for mice around here.
 Independent photos/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — It may be the height of summer, but mice and other rodents in Vermont are acting like it’s autumn, or even winter.

Months ahead of schedule they’ve begun to nest in cars, lawnmowers and houses, where they settle into the walls and crank out babies. At night they skitter through the rafters, clickety-click, gnaw on electrical wiring and creep through kitchens, leaving trails of droppings.

And county residents have had enough.

“I’ve never gotten this many rodent phone calls,” said Josh Pockette of Pockette Pest Control in Brandon. In July he serviced all of his existing accounts and added many new ones. “I’m picking up two new potential customers a day. And I’m catching more mice than I usually would during the winter.”

But why?

Maybe it was the hot and dry weather, he offered.

Robert Shortsleeve of Family First Pest & Wildlife Service in Ferrisburgh has been busy this summer, too. “Even the rodents have been a big problem, which in the past is something that has been a cold weather issue,” he wrote on his website.

Regionally, it’s been the same.

“There’s been an unbelievable increase in rodent control sales,” said Kevin Moran, a Boston-based entomologist with Foreshaw Chem, a supplier for pest control operations from Maine to Connecticut.

Though he couldn’t cite any particular reasons for this increase, Moran did wonder if perhaps fewer people are willing to tolerate mice.

“Older people are used to living with mice, setting traps, cleaning up after them. Maybe younger people don’t want to put up with it as much,” he said.

Business is booming at local hardware stores, too.

Sales of rodent control products are up 30 percent this summer at all three Martin’s stores (Bristol, Middlebury and Brattleboro), said company president Martin Clark.

“Typically it’s not until September that we start selling this stuff,” he added.

The same is true at the Middlebury AGWAY, especially for mouse control products.

“It’s like we just never stopped selling the stuff from last year,” store clerk Andrea Labonte told the Independent.

Across town at Aubuchon, Diane Smith, who’s been with the company 42 years, reported a similar phenomenon.

“It seems like a customer comes in every two hours to buy traps and other products,” she said. “All summer mice have been an issue. Chipmunks and squirrels, too.”

Smith related the story of one customer who was live-trapping mice because his wife didn’t want them killed. Convinced he was catching the same mouse over and over, he painted the creature’s tale with fingernail polish before releasing it. Sure enough, the same mouse showed up again in the trap.

The Middlebury Aubuchon, itself, has a “rodent control specialist”: Greyson the cat, a permanent resident of the store.
“A couple of times a month we’ll open in the morning and find a mouse on the carpet,” Smith said. “He doesn’t eat them, just catches them.”

He’s customer-friendly, too, she added. Sometimes people come by the store just to say hello to Greyson.

Even if it’s unclear why mice and other rodents are moving indoors this summer, there is environmental evidence to suggest why their overall numbers may be increasing: more food.

“I did notice that last year the oak trees produced a lot of acorns,” said David Allen, assistant professor for biology at Middlebury College. Allen is studying the ecology of Lyme disease, an infection caused by bacteria that is spread to humans by ticks. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics, but untreated infections can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. White-footed and deer mice are almost solely responsible for passing the bacteria to ticks in New England, which is why abundant acorns — a favorite of mice — could prove worrisome.

Mice also feed on beechnuts and other seeds and fruits known as “masts,” many of which also had a banner season in 2017.

“Last year was definitely a big year for masts,” said Scott Darling, a Rutland-based wildlife program manager with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, which conducts annual beechnut and acorn surveys to determine bear ranges.

“We don’t objectively track mice and other rodents, but anecdotally I can tell you that there’s been a lot of evidence of them in Rutland this summer, including in my own house,” Darling said with a laugh.

Scientists have made a connection between food sources and rodent populations.

“When acorn production is high, rodents feed on the seeds and are more successful at overwintering and reproducing,” wrote Richard Ostfeld and his coauthors in a recent article in the journal Ecology. “The spring following large acorn crops, rodent numbers increase.” A disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., Ostfeld has been studying Lyme disease ecology for nearly two decades.

Science is still trying to understand mast production in such trees as oaks and beechnuts, but weather and climate are definitely a factor.

Oak trees, for instance, may go several years without significant acorn production, and then will suddenly — in a “mast year” — dump a hundred times the usual number in one season. This is natural. But the lack of a late spring frost in Vermont in 2017 was not. Warmer temperatures and increased moisture can super-size a normal mast year, which can then super-size rodent populations.

Climate change is also affecting New England forest composition, favoring mast-producing trees like beechnuts at the expense of others, such as Vermont’s beloved maples. In February the Boston Globe reported on a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology that found warmer, moister forests are to blame. The dominance of beech was especially notable in the Green Mountains of Vermont, among other places, the study said.

More beechnuts and more acorns could mean more mice, more ticks, and more Lyme disease.

A similar cycle of acorns-mice-ticks was most recently seen in the Hudson Valley of New York, where a mast year in 2015 produced a “mouse plague” in 2016. By the spring of 2017 the region, which already struggles with Lyme disease, was bracing for a tick explosion.

Whether or not Addison County or the rest of Vermont will experience a similar pattern remains to be seen.

Last November bear biologist Forrest Hammond, also with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, told the Associated Press that with abundant food supplies for rodents, the tick population would be expected to grow this season (2018) and then reach its height in 2019.

In the meantime, in the absence of vaccines for Lyme disease, giving people the right information at the right time is essential to reducing cases of infection, wrote Ostfeld and his coauthors.

“Issuing warnings based on specific predictions, rather than broad-stroke (public service announcements), will hopefully counter ‘warning fatigue’ and encourage people to become more proactive in taking self-protection measures.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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