5 Tips for DIY Critter Detection | Part 1
This happens with some regularity: My business phone rings and the voice on the other end announces, “There’s a raccoon in my attic.” With piqued interest I inquire, “What leads you to conclude that there is a raccoon in your attic?” Sometimes their evidence seems pretty solid: “A striped tail brushed my face when I peeked into the attic.” Other times, the evidence is a bit flimsy, “Well, I saw a raccoon under my neighbor’s bird feeder last week.” Gathering evidence to make an accurate identification can be tricky: sometimes there is so little to work from. Perhaps you were awoken by something that seemed to be coming from the ceiling. But you were half asleep. And heard it only once. Or perhaps the amount of commotion is bountiful, but you’re nowhere in an actual identification. Rest easy, dear reader, this two part article will equip you with five tips on gathering and interpreting evidence to help identify your culprit.
Want some tips on identifying outdoor critter activity? Check out Is There a Critter in There?
TIP 1 | Recordkeeping
“This is the third time this week that I’ve heard the noise,” ponders the caller over the phone. This frequency of sounds certainly establishes a pattern. But with only this information, we’ve hardly narrowed down the culprit. When you hear a suspicious noise, make a mental note of the time of day and location. Better yet, write it down. Be descriptive. To see why, consider the progression in these statements:
I heard a noise in the wall.
I heard a noise in the wall in my bedroom.
I heard a noise in the wall at 10:30pm in my bedroom.
I heard a scratching noise in the same bedroom wall location at 10:30pm three nights in a row.
The difference between the first and last description is significant. The last description provides several valuable pieces of information. If any one of these pieces of information would have been different (for example, the noises were heard at 10:30am, not 10:30pm), the culprit may be an entirely different species.
BONUS TIP 1B: If you hear a noise through a wall or ceiling, place a sticky note on the wall nearest where you heard the noise. This can help with both identifying the critter and be useful if a retrieval is necessary.
TIP 2 | Distinguish the noises
One’s perception of sound is very subjective. Technically, it is the conception of sound that is most subjective, but let’s not go off on a tangent. I frequently hear from customers who hear noises in the ceiling, and based upon the volume they think it is a squirrel or raccoon. Certainly sometimes they have accurately identified the species, but with some regularity they are wrong. Sometimes the misidentification stems from the fact that they are startled by the sound and play up a worst case scenario. There is a rhinoceros in my attic! Are rhinos native to Iowa? The second notable reason is that the acoustics in a wall or above the ceiling can play tricks on you. Tight voids can really amplify the sound.
For this reason, volume alone may not be enough. The signature of the sound is also both relevant and valuable. Here are some questions to help guide distinguishing and cataloguing the sounds you hear:
What time(s) of day do you typically hear the noises?
Would you describe the sound as a vocalization or mechanical (scratching, scampering, etc.)?
Does the sound seem to stay within a particular location, or does it move?
Do you ever hear the same sound in two locations? If so, how much time passes between when you hear those sounds at different locations?
You might recognize how these questions help to build a profile of possible culprits. Notice that I didn’t ask about the volume of the sound. This can provide useful information, but often creates a misdirection. More on that when we talk about false positives.
TIP 3 | Look in the right spots for more evidence
With the first two tips you may have enough information to rule out some species. In fact, you may think you know the identity of the critter. But not so fast! There may be additional evidence that is there and waiting to be discovered. And it may be valuable. You just need to know how to retrieve it. Let’s look at two examples:
Walk the exterior of the house, paying close attention to the eaves and roof. Critters don’t try to conceal their entry points, so look for any obvious damage that may indicate entry points. For example, raccoons and squirrels often make their entry directly into the attic. Look for dislodged soffit, an exposed chimney flue, or damaged trim.
While still outside, look at the ground along the foundation and lower siding. Bigger animals that have entered into the attic will sometimes knock bits of insulation to the ground. You might also find chips of wood or soffit. Inside your home, the attic is a tempting place to look. However, it is typically best to reserve inspecting this area toward the end of the process, if at all. One of the main concerns is that if your intruder is a squirrel or raccoon, you may have just revealed that you are hot on its trail. This can make the animal less apt to respond to trapping.
These first three tips are helpful in the gathering of information when you suspect wildlife activity. The second article will continue this theme, and help hone your skills. Read Part 2 of 5 Tips on DIY Critter Detection.