Let’s Talk About Raccoons

Every now and then, photos of videos of raccoons will appear on my Facebook Newsfeed, talking about how cute or impressive the little buggers are. I have to admit, I used to agree. Raccoons can be little chubby balls of fur with masks and human-like grabby paws.

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Do you also like to rip feathers out of panicking chickens?

But ever since I got my first pair of chickens back in 2013? Ugh. Rarely have I felt such malevolence toward another living thing.

Recently, Toronto spent millions of dollars on “raccoon-resistant” trash bins, only to have some “uber-smart” raccoons still break into the garbage like it ain’t no thang. I wasn’t surprised. While memes might paint raccoons as chubby, lazy little critters, anyone who’s experienced them as a pest will tell you the opposite is true (okay, they’re probably still chubby, but they sure as heck aren’t lazy).

And they’re everywhere.

I live in the middle of a residential area, where lots are about 60 feet wide. Although houses are raised (thanks, sea-level elevation and flood potential!), the openings are fenced or bricked up. And yet, there are hoards of raccoons that are able to find someplace to sleep during the day so they can wreak havoc at night.

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Sneaky, sneaky.

Some of those masked grabby-bears are ballsy!

One night, my chickens started making concerned coos. I went outside with my hefty Maglite to scare off what I assumed was a single raccoon, or maybe a pair. When I round the corner, four pairs of eyes gleamed back at me from on and around the coop. There was a rustle overhead, and I shined the flashlight into the branches of the oak tree to find several more raccoons staring down at me. In total, there were more than half a dozen.

I inched closer to the raccoon gang, made noise, and threw sticks. None of them moved. Whenever animals don’t behave as expected, rabies is a concern. However, I’m more of the opinion that this particular gang was used to people and empowered by their numbers. Whatever the reason, I decided to put faith in the strength of my coop and go back inside. Fortunately, they eventually left without breaking in.

Other memorable raccoon run-ins include:

  • A raccoon chasing one of my hens and pinning her down. I caught them in time and she was able to get free, minus a few feathers.
  • A raccoon sneaking into my coop every afternoon for weeks to steal eggs and feed. It was pretty skinny and probably only out during the day due to desperation for food. I borrowed a trap and relocated the bugger.
  • A raccoon breaking the door of my nest box to try and grab my hen, who spent all night and day in the box due to a strong broody spell. She got away, and on the positive side, the attack broke her broody spell. Even though it was after midnight, I immediately repaired the nest box because…

Raccoons will always return.

Unless you physically relocate the animal beyond its reasonable travel distance, or you make whatever “treat” completely inaccessible, raccoons will keep coming back. They are persistent, surprisingly clever, and occasionally malicious.

A friend recommended I get an airsoft gun and pop the critters. I’m preeeetty sure that’s not legal within city limits, but even if it is, I have terrible aim and would probably hit a hen…or a neighbor!

Therefore, for current and would-be chicken owners, I have one major piece of advice:

Build a fortress.

When installing your coop and run:

  1. Cover all “open” sides and the roof and any windows in galvanized hardware cloth. Secure the hardware cloth onto your frame with exterior screws and washers (the hardware cloth holes are too big for the screw heads, so the washers hold everything in place).
  2. Bury hardware cloth or heavy pavers all around the perimeter of your coop and run, extending out at least a foot. This will prevent digging (and raccoons will dig).
  3. Invest in a treadle feeder that “hides” the food in a closed container when the birds aren’t actively eating.
  4. Place your nest boxes inside the coop and off the ground. If you include an “easy access” door that let’s you collect eggs from the outside, make sure it’s secure enough that raccoons won’t treat it as an easy-access door too.
  5. Secure doors with screw links/carabiners or actual locks. Raccoons can squeeze and work out rods, so simple carabiners or slides won’t keep things secure.
  6. If you feed your birds table scraps, don’t leave them out overnight.
  7. If your birds free-range during the day, put them up half an hour before the sun fully sets. I’ve caught raccoons prowling around my yard well before twilight.
  8. Realize that despite your best efforts, you might still lose a bird. Following all of the steps above should minimize your risk, but anything that lives outside may become a predator’s meal. Losing a bird sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.

Remember that you can always rebuild. I learned about 40% of what I know about coops and predators from research and 60% from failures and near-misses. The important thing is that you pay attention, learn from what went wrong, and immediately take action to remedy the misstep.

Although I prefer prevention as a way to eliminate painful situations before they arise, it’s not like I can eliminate raccoons from my neighborhood. Sometimes, all you can do is make yourself a more troublesome than everyone around you.

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The Project Just Started and I Already Screwed Up

Ya know, I guess it’s nice to get mistakes over with in the beginning. At that stage, work can be undone – or at the very least – it can be easier to revamp the rest of the plan.

Before the Great Shed Revamp really began – as in, before I started the fun building stage – some prep work was required. Part of this entailed setting up a temporary shed for equipment like my lawnmower that needs protection from the elements. The other big – huge – MASSIVE part involved moving the shed.

A few years ago, an ex-boyfriend and I used a jack, 2x4s, and poles leftover from a chain link fence to roll my shed back about ten feet. My initial plan involved moving it forward, thanks to an oak branch that had so delightfully decided to prop itself on the back corner of the shed.

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Ya jerk!

I was a little worried about the stability of the shed after moving it and then however long the branch was propped up there. Also, just moving a shed is definitely a two-person job (not to mention, I couldn’t jack it up like last time, thanks to Mr. Branchenstein up there). Therefore, I decided to dissemble the shed and rebuild it. Bigger. Faster. STRONGER.

Or at least more stable and scooted forward about four feet.

Step one of disassembly involved removing the roof and OH MY GOODNESS Y’ALL, that was not easy. I mean, it’s great that the roof was on there so securely, since south Louisiana is prone to hurricanes and storms, but not so great when I was trying to pry the plywood away from the rafters. But I finally popped piece free!

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Yaaay! Don’t look at the hastily propped up window! Stop looking at it! Stop!

Before I got too much further, I realized I should go ahead and trim some of the smaller branches above the shed so that I didn’t have a future of leaning branches ahead of me, no matter the shed’s location. Previously, on smaller limbs, I’ve tortured myself by using a handsaw. Not this time.

A few years ago, my dad got me a circular saw and a drill from Ryobi’s ONE+ line. They’ve held up well and are my go-to tools. On his advice, I bought several batteries, so I never run out of juice. I was all too happy to see that the ONE+ also had a pole saw, and it was cheaper than most I’d looked at, so yay for that.

Once I got back to my house and set up the pole saw, I…well, I went a little wild. Slicing through all the irritating, half-dead limbs that had bugged me for months was exhilarating. Within half an hour, I’d created a small mountain of detritus.

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Destruuuctioooon.

Then an idea occurred to me, and the icy flames of excitement and dread licked my neck.

I walked around to the back of the shed to check out that branch, that core reason for shed disassembly and pain…

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Sweet Sally May.

Sure enough, my enthusiasm with the saw removed enough weight for the branch to lift off the shed.

Overall, this is fantastic. I no longer plan on moving the shed (one of the downsides of the move was that the new shed would eat up some of my precious, tiny yard). However, groan, I have to scrabble all around the roof and nail it back down.

At some point, I will probably tackle the rest of the branch and trim it back down to the main trunk, but oh man, do I wish the idea of the trimming the tree would’ve occurred to me earlier. Oh well. Better now than after I’ve taken the whole shed apart.

I still plan to reinforce the inside of the existing shed, just in case there is hidden structural damage. I’m also replacing the roofing. My plans have changed slightly (more on that coming soon), and shingles aren’t really viable for my long-term plans. Also, I hate shingles. I used them on my first chicken coop – never again.

Alright, I have a roof to nail back on…

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Weak? Puh-lease.

This started as a side note on my tilling post, but it quickly grew too large to include on that. It won’t be lighthearted and fun. This post might even sound complainy. But I need to get something off my chest: I am not weak.

The home improvement store is where people have tried to tell me that I’m not strong enough.

I’m 5’4″ and female. While I’m not visibly stout or hulking, I regularly (and easily) carry 50-pound bags of chicken feed or landscape rocks. It’s not uncommon for people to force – yes, force – help on me when I’m loading my cart or car at the home improvement store. They’ll either step in without asking, or they ignore the several times I say, “No, thanks; I’m fine” and step in anyway.

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My Victorian sister and I share facial expressions.

While dismissing my consent* is not an unimportant problem, the unstated issue here seems to be: I appear weak, and therefore, I must be weak. No questioning. No watching me demonstrate my capability (or perhaps, watching but not accepting the demonstration).

Is there a solution when others assume you’re weak?

A man started loading my retaining wall blocks into my car after I said “no” three times. Afterwards, I drove off and left him to deal with the unwieldy cart. This was a big deal because I always replace the cart. Frankly, I feel like the next step’s going to involve kicking someone in the shins. However, getting banned from the store for violence will put a serious damper on my ability to complete yard projects.

An appearance thing? A regional thing?

Interestingly, a good friend who is several inches taller, a bit stouter, and wears her hair short and brilliant purple hasn’t dealt with the “helpers” I’ve faced. She also lives in a Mountain state. Unwelcome help might, in part, be a southern thing.

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“Jim, I know being a southern gentleman is a core part of how you see yourself, but doesn’t it seem like trampling all over a woman is the opposite of that idea?”

As a lone woman tackling larger house and yard projects, there is one problem I continually face: underestimation of capability.

“Oh, you poor thing,” some may be say. “Your huuuge problem is people are trying to help you.” And sure, on the one hand, it’s nice to reveal a finished chicken coop or garden and have friends and family gush their amazement at what you single-handedly created. However, it’s frustrating – and sometimes extremely discouraging and disheartening – to hear at nearly every step before that, “you’re too weak to do this.” Even though I may, at that very moment, be performing the physical labor, onlookers say, “No, you can’t.”

This post serves a few purposes. As stated in the beginning, it’s an issue I wanted to get off my chest. But also, if you’re a woman who wants to build sheds or paths on your own, don’t be surprised if you face what I’ve described too. You aren’t alone, and you’re strong enough.

*an older acquaintance also argued that these men were raised to help women, and they just “didn’t know any better.” This comment, while well intentioned, really got under my skin because it erases my personhood and makes me, instead, a tool or object in the life of the “helper.”

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Tiller Mania: How (Not to) Till Your Lawn

As a refresher, we’re in the midst of Operation: Chaos into Beauty, which consists of totally revamping the front of my teeny little city property. Last time, we watched my driveway turn from a narrow, broken strip of concrete and weeds into a spacious, organized set of turfstone pavers. The next step is, “The grass is getting ripped up and/or smothered,” so that’s where we are in this post. My lawn-annihilation tool of choice was the tiller.

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Get ready to go underground, you blades of nuisance.

There are a few different methods for getting rid of a lawn. I’m not keen on herbicide, not just because I have to be careful about what might get into my chickens’ and ducks’ systems (even though they stay in the backyard), but because I didn’t want to kill off the dichondra seedlings in my driveway or the new plants I’d be sowing in the garden. Smothering and decomposition would work, but I would’ve had to start that last fall. Finally, I’ve tried solarization (laying a clear sheet over grass and “cooking” it) in the past with no success. That method also requires several weeks, which I didn’t have. So that leaves . . .

TILLING!

A few days after the driveway demolition and installation, I took a Friday off of work (I was originally planning to work outside all of Saturday, but the forecast called for storms). I’d spent all week researching tillers on the local tool rental website and had found the perfect one.

My requirements:

  • The tiller needed to cut through tough sod and heavy clay soil.
  • I needed to be able to operate it by myself (I run and strength train, but I’m no body builder).
  • The tiller had to fit in the back of my Toyota RAV4 (and I had to be able to lift it in and out by myself).

And of course, when I rolled up to the tool rental counter, the employee informed me that my carefully researched choice – the Mantis XP – would not suit my needs at all. A key factor in selecting the Mantis XP was the claim of heavy-duty power in a lightweight (35-pound) model. Apparently that wasn’t quite true. She suggested the lightest of the heavier duty tillers, the Honda F220.

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Or as I like to call it, “The Tined Terror of Tremors.”

I enjoy trying new things and working outside, but the closest things to a tiller I’ve operated is a lawn mower. I was so anxious about using the tiller that, after picking it up, I decided to run errands for the next hour. When I finally returned to my house, the day was starting to get niiiice and hoooot.

Safety nerds, unite!

If an activity requires a helmet, you bet I’ll have one strapped on. So I dug my old composite-toed boots out of my closet and wore thick jeans, gloves, long sleeves, glasses, and a ball cap to keep the sun off my face. I fancied myself a real landscape pro.

The finally, finally, I wheeled the tiller onto my lawn and started it up. Very little happened. Guys, at 53 pounds, this thing was way too lightweight.

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I might as well have been smacking my lawn with this feather.

Most of my yard sits in direct subtropical sun, so the grass that has survived has grown in thick, tough mats. Combine that with hard clay soil (which I thoroughly wetted leading up to TillerMania), and you have a yard that reeeally doesn’t want to change.

Tiller Trial and Error

I started out by letting the tiller mostly propel itself forward, while I tugged back on the handles to provide some resistance. I figured I’d let the machine do most of the work. Well, in order to do any work, the tiller had to make about 20 passes over a patch of ground. Ugh.

Finally, I figured out that to really get the tiller to dig in, I had to either pull it backwards or dig in my heels and just let it sit in one spot until it chew up that sod. My front yard is, oh, a thousand or so square feet, and I spent about five hours tilling, only stopping for short water breaks. The funny thing is, while I was tilling, I didn’t feel tired at all. It was only when I took a break that I realized my arms hung by my sides like dead lengths of rope. And all that work led to this result:

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Welp, that’s disappointing.

As you can see, I did not end up with the fluffy, luscious soil that the internet said I should have. But at least most of the grass is dead. This is not ideal, but it is workable. My plan already included laying down thick brown paper and several inches of mulch, which should take care of the surviving grass and anything that tries to sprout.

If I ever have to till another yard, I’m getting the next size up in tillers, even though it’s 70 pounds heavier. I will find a daggum way to get it into and out of my car.

Side note:  A few days after tilling, I learned that rotting grass stinks, particularly if you have huge clumps of it all over your yard. Before I realized the source of the smell, I was afraid I’d nicked an unreasonably shallow sewer line. The dead grass does not just pleasantly decompose into the soil to create rich nutrients. Sooo keep that in mind if you plan to annihilate your yard anytime soon.

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< Step 1:  Demolishing & Installing a Driveway

Step 3:  Installing a Fence: the First Step (also, tearing out bushes!) >