Rat Poison Kills A Hell of a Lot More Than Just Rodents


The dead mouse.

I inspected the tiny creature closely. It must have died recently, its brown and white furred body still soft and supple. Was it an outdoor cat that killed it? It certainly could have been. Free roaming cats have left quite a number of birds and small mammals for me over the years. But there didn’t appear to be any signs of trauma; no puncture wound and no blood. Hmmm. I dismissed the thought that this animal was poisoned—surely my immediate neighbors know that rat bait is a wretched solution? I left the mouse where it was, figuring it could be food for some other critter. Unfortunately, this was a mistake.

The Big Lie

It turns out a neighbor did have a rodent bait box on his property. He explained that he had mice entering his house and insects that needed controlling which prompted him to hire a pest control company. When I mentioned the effects of poisoned rodents on our foxes and other wildlife, my neighbor, who equally enjoys our wildlife, insisted the bait used wasn’t poisonous—the exterminator told him so. Hmmm?! Evidently some pesticide companies tell customers only what they want to hear, no matter how big the lie.


A rodent bait box stationed outside a nearby Chipotle. Little thought is given to the other animals that live in this mixed-use development.

Second-Generation Killers cause Secondary Victims

Today’s most widely used rat poisons are second-generation anticoagulants: highly toxic not only to the rodents that directly consume the bait but also to the non-target animals that eat the contaminated rodents.

Although the EPA has prohibited the sale of products containing brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum and difethialone directly to consumers, pest control companies and farmers are still allowed to use these second-gen anticoagulant rodenticides.

Like the first-generation of anticoagulants that preceded them, the “superwarfarins” prevent blood from clotting, induce internal bleeding and inflict a prolonged, painful death. However the newer poisons are many times more potent. “Second-generation anticoagulants,” the EPA explains, “are more likely than first-generation anticoagulants to be able to kill after a single night’s feeding. These compounds kill over a similar course of time but tend to remain in animal tissues longer than do first-generation ones.” This means that by the time the rodents die—five to seven days after consuming the bait—they can have up to 30-40 times the lethal dose in their bodies. Meanwhile, they stumble about and are easy prey for predators and pets.


How many poisoned meals have our resident hawks had?

Collateral poisonings of carnivores and omnivores alike are widespread wherever bait boxes are being deployed. The affected wildlife are more likely to get hit by moving vehicles, crash into structures or be killed by other animals. These non-target animals are also more susceptible to disease and vermin. In California, most coyotes, bobcats and cougars that die from mange—a skin disease caused by parasitic mites—also test positive for rodenticide exposure.

Some Fast Facts:

  • Rodenticides are indiscriminate killers that attract and kill all kinds of animals, not just rats and mice.
  • Second-generation anticoagulants are persistent and bioaccumulative; they remain in the victim’s bloodstream and accumulate in the liver.
  • Non-target predators like foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks, and scavengers such as vultures, raccoons and opossums, suffer lethal and sub-lethal poisoning when they feed on poisoned rodents.
  • Where second-generation anticoagulants are used, entire food webs are contaminated.
  • By killing off the predators that would otherwise control rodents, anticoagulants actually generate rodent infestations.
  • In one Canadian study of dead raptors, nearly 100 percent of owls had at least one anticoagulant rodenticide in their livers.
  • The Centers For Disease Control receive about 15,000 calls per year from parents whose children have eaten rodenticides.

  • Cats and dogs are also harmed from eating poisoned rodents.

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How to Control Mosquitoes Without Killing Pollinators and Other Important Wildlife

Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that can spread viruses like Zika and Dengue.

Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that can spread viruses like Zika and Dengue. Photo courtesy USDA.

by Susan Gitlin.

Warm weather and mosquitoes will be here before you know it, leading many of us to look for ways to enjoy the outdoors without being pestered by those annoying little—and sometimes disease-bearing—biters.

There is a lot of information being disseminated by health organizations about health risks to humans from mosquito bites (see CDC links, below). But besides protecting ourselves from being targets, we need to work at eliminating mosquito habitat and controlling their numbers. There are a number of ways we can do this safely and effectively.

Because mosquitoes have no trouble flying from yard to yard, the best way to combat them is to work with our neighbors to collectively identify and implement opportunities to reduce mosquito populations. Below is a set of approaches that are suggested by entomologists, public health organizations, and agricultural extension programs.

1. Eliminate potential mosquito-breeding grounds. Mosquitoes can breed in any water that stagnates for just 2 or 3 days. Actions to remove potential mosquito habitat include:  

  • Unclogging gutters
  • Covering, turning over, or moving indoors any equipment, containers, or toys that might collect water
  • Straightening sagging tarps or other covers
  • Filling in areas under outdoor faucets or air conditioning drains
  • Repairing damaged screens on rain barrels
  • Removing English Ivy (The dense nature of ivy allows it to hold in pooled water where mosquitoes can breed, provides a humid area that mosquitoes like, and protects mosquitoes from pesticide sprays.)

2. For areas of uncovered water, like ponds or bird baths, consider these approaches: 

  • Changing the water regularly
  • Using Mosquito Dunks ® (deadly to mosquito, blackfly, and fungus gnat larvae, but harmless to other living things), or
  • Keeping the water moving (e.g., with a fountain)
Our bees need to be protected from pesticide spraying.

Our bees need to be protected from pesticide spraying.

3. Treat mosquitoes like foes, but treat bees and other beneficial insects like the friends they are! The pesticides used to kill mosquitoes also kill other invertebrates, including pollinators and other insects—insects on which birds feed and insects that eat mosquitoes. Mosquito-spraying companies typically use pesticides of a group of chemicals called pyrethroids, many of which are highly toxic to honeybees, fish, and small aquatic organisms.

4. If you spray pesticides or hire a company that provides such services, please consider taking the following precautions and/or asking the pesticide spraying company to do the same:  

  • Spray only in the early morning or early evening. Most pollinators are not out and about during these time periods.
  • Do not spray flowering plants. (One company that provides pesticide spraying services says that before spraying flowers they “shoo” away bees with bursts of air. It is doubtful that this truly protects bees, as the majority of native bees are less than ¼” long and therefore difficult to spot. Moreover, bees will return immediately to those flowers, either into the path of the spray or to the flowers, where there may be pesticide residue.)
  • Make sure that no spray enters your neighbors’ yards, and notify your neighbors before you spray so that they can take any desired or necessary precautions to protect any bees or other insects that they have in their yards.
  • Consider using nontoxic repellants in lieu of the toxic pesticides. Some mosquito-spraying companies offer such alternatives.
Many mosquito-spraying companies use Bifenthrin which is highly toxic to bees, fish and aquatic organisms. It is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.

Many mosquito-spraying companies use Bifenthrin which is highly toxic to bees, fish and aquatic organisms. It is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.

5. If you use sprays, do so only when needed, and not on a preemptive basis. (Spraying on a predetermined schedule can waste pesticide product, and therefore money, and may also contribute to the development of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes.)

By taking these steps, we can work together as a community to fight this annoying pest while protecting our other precious environmental resources.

Useful websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Westnile Prevention & Control
Avoid Mosquito Bites 

Help Control Mosquitoes that Spread Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika Viruses Fact Sheet

Mosquito Control—Environmental Protection Agency

Avoid Asian Tiger Mosquitoes—Maryland Department of Agriculture

Backyard Mosquito Management—Beyond Pesticides

Honeybee Love: Keeping Honeybees Safe While Using Pesticides

Mosquito Dunks ® Fact Sheet

Much thanks to Susan Gitlin for allowing me to post her article. How to Control Mosquitoes Without Killing Pollinators and Other Important Wildlife originally appeared on the Arlington Regional Master Naturalist site. Susan is a Virginia Master Naturalist and enthusiastic pollinator advocate.

Zika Virus Threat: Don’t Double Down on Trouble

Editorial by Miles Benson.

First responders to any Zika virus threat in this country had better be careful. Very careful.

The worst consequences of exposure to the disease itself are scary. But those fighting Zika should avoid tactics that risk piling on collateral damage. Elected officials charged with protecting public health and also those appointed to similar positions in the numerous local, state and federal agencies whose job it is to combat health emergencies on the ground should also recognize and try to limit an additional problem. That concern is whether, and how much, any new chemicals employed widely against Aedes aegypt, the mosquito that carries the virus, will add to the toxic chemical brew that has been building up in the environment over the past 50 years of agricultural and industrial commerce.

1940's nostalgia. A time when we were encouraged to spray neurotoxins indoors.  Actually, I think we still are. Photo: Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. (03/09/1943 - 09/15/1945)

We’ve come a long way, baby? 1940’s nostalgia.
Photo: Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. (03/09/1943 – 09/15/1945)

The public currently is exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals deemed “safe” mainly by people making and selling them. A rising chorus of concern is being voiced by environmentalists who question the safety of these chemicals, particularly when they become mixed with other toxins the public encounters daily. Many fear that a half century of exposure to environmental contaminants is associated with neurological defects, including autism, memory loss, mood changes, disorientation, infertility and genetic anomalies throughout our population.

Horror Story

Today, Americans are watching a horror story unfolding across Central and South America where women infected by the Zika virus are giving birth to children with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly, that is associated with incomplete brain development. While the public may expect that massive spraying of pesticides would prevent outbreaks here, the New York Times reported that the Aedes aegypti mosquito is “relatively impervious” to outdoor spraying. That might mean more reliable and perhaps more lethal chemical formulas will be deployed by manufacturers if Zika outbreaks here begin to occur and trigger public panic.

We live in a sea of uncertainty. Zika could spread to the continental U.S… or not.

In Florida, the Aedes aegypti mosquito has been around for several years and experts in and outside of government believe existing pesticide spraying practices, including what are called “adulticides,” pose no unreasonable major threat to public health. But a 2009 report by the state’s Coordinating Council on Mosquito Control, funded by the University of Florida, described in cautionary terms the trade-offs we may be facing: “Since it is currently impossible to predict the long-term consequences of human exposure to synthetic compounds, including mosquito control agents, a prudent strategy is for society to reduce all unnecessary chemical applications.”

CDC Zika Virus Prevention

CDC Help Control Mosquitoes that Spread Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika Viruses Fact Sheet

CDC Mosquito Bite Prevention Fact Sheet

Mosquito Control without Pesticides!

Leaf Litter: Nature Knows What She’s Doing

Forest with lots of gorgeous, beneficial leaves.

A forest with lots of gorgeous, life-supporting leaves.

It’s that time of year already.  Autumn… or fall, if you prefer, a bittersweet season when summer heat retreats and leaves begin their graceful descent to the ground.  So it’s also time for me to cast a watchful eye on my neighbor down the street.

Every fall “Neighbor Joe” mulches his fallen leaves with a lawnmower.  He then piles the mulched leaves at the curb for the county’s Snuffaluffagus contraption to vacuum up and cart away.  As soon as I notice Joe’s heap of freshly chopped leaves I tip-toe over with my wheelbarrow and seize the gold (and brown and rust) treasure, and quietly steal away with it.  Sure, I’ve got leaves falling on my own property but I rescue Joe’s because his are perfectly prepped and primed for tossing into my garden.  One simply cannot have too many leaves.

Joe could, of course, let his mulch-mowed leaves remain on his lawn to slowly feed his expanse of turf, and reward his plant beds as well with a decent layer of the bounty.  But Joe is like almost everyone else in my neighborhood who rakes or blows their leaves to the curb.  They all want the outward appearance of a tidy yard.  If they were aware of the multiple benefits of leaf litter, might they instead decide to keep their leaves on their property?  Possibly.  Perhaps.

Ready for collection. The fate of our leaves many years ago.

Ready for collection. This was the fate of our leaves many years ago, before we understood their value.

Nature’s Original Intention

Leaves, twigs, logs and other plant material positively affects what’s above and below ground.  They’re an integral part of a complex food web.

Decaying leaves feed, protect, and insulate plant roots.  They provide food for essential decomposers like earthworms, bacteria and fungi — and decomposition naturally contributes to the creation of rich topsoil.  Leaf matter also makes life better for all kinds of animals like insects, amphibians, small mammals and birds.  I’ve often observed our sparrows and robins scratching through layers of leaves in search of tasty treats and eastern red-backed salamanders lounging under the moist leaves in early spring.

Leaf litter as shelter. I accidentally disturbed this giant leopard moth caterpillar early one spring.

Leaf litter as shelter. I accidentally disturbed this giant leopard moth caterpillar early one spring.

Doubly disheartening. Discarded leaves indignantly stuffed in plastic.

Doubly disheartening. Leaves discarded and stuffed in plastic.


Throughout all seasons leaves are the perfect provider of food and habitat for insects in various stages of their life cycles: insects such as butterflies, moths, bumblebees, beetles and leafhoppers.  And who wants to deny leaves to leafhoppers?

All these leaf-exploiting creatures are needed to feed higher links in the wildlife food chain.

Why Forest Trees Are Healthy

Perhaps the single most important reason to let nature do things her own way is to support the magnificent trees that shed those leaves.  Trees and turfgrass don’t play well together — the competition between the two is fierce.  The nutrient-absorbing roots of trees and grass occupy the same space and studies begun in the 1960s show that trees don’t grow well when their roots are covered over with lawn.  Those pristine lawns devour the nourishing food and moisture trees need to survive and thrive.  Leaf litter gives it back.  Applying a large area of decaying organic material (from all parts of a tree) is a must-do gardening task and more recently an American National Standards Institute recommendation for arborists.  How’s that for an endorsement of the dead stuff?

Want to see what happens when leaves are allowed to do what comes naturally?  Check out this timelapse video of our backyard one spring.

A few good reads offering more information on leaf litter:

MyMotherLode.com: Leaf Litter is an Environmental Windfall

University of Florida: Leaf Litter: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Work?

National Wildlife Federation: What to do with Fallen Leaves

Many thanks to Miles Benson who helps edit my blogs and co-wrote this with me.

Update July 20, 2016

Push Power! Making Our Native Garden Greener


Achieve a zero carbon footprint
while mowing your lawn.

I have been mowing the lawn since I purchased my first townhouse in the 1990s.  At the time I owned a manual reel or push mower.  The lawn I tended was as small as two king size bedspreads laid side by side so it wasn’t a whole lot to cut.  But after mowing, the little green patch never quite looked like the other lawns in the neighborhood.  Typically, multiple passes were necessary to get the grass height slightly level.  An uneven lawn in suburbia?  Oh the shame!  And these were the days when I was single and would rather be doing anything but lawn maintenance and certainly my garden was not a priority.  So when my neighbor asked me if I wanted to go in on a gas powered mower with her, I eagerly agreed.

gas mowers are environmentally unfriendly

Since I married and moved into our house on .24 acres 9 years ago, we’ve been using this same ol’ faithful noisy, toxin spewin’ mower.  I’ve always known the gas mower was environmentally unfriendly but like everything else that’s just plain bad, it takes time for me to decide to make a change.  (Hey – it’s only been two decades).  Now in our more experienced years, Marc and I have become, well, somewhat earthy crunchy.

Recently poking around the web for info, I found that the volatile organic compounds emitted by mowing with a gas powered engine for an hour  — compared to miles driven in an automobile — ranges from 45 miles to 350 miles to 1300 miles and all the way up to 3400 miles!  (Naturally the EPA, who has sold their soul to the devil multiple times over, gives the 45 mile stat.)

High CO2 emissions are the evil effects of using an engine without a catalytic converter.  According to Ecomowers, “One type of pollutant emitted by lawn mowers is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are classified as probable carcinogens by the CDC.  In an hour’s mowing, twenty-six different PAHs were found in the exhaust of the mowers.”  An unfathomable 54 million machines are roaring during an average weekend in the U.S. alone… you get the picture.

Do you know where your electricity comes from?

Marc and I then discussed the option of purchasing a rechargeable battery powered mower.  But the darn thing needs to be plugged in — like in, it uses electricity.  Do you know where your power comes from?  Our provider, Dominion Electric, supplies power to our area with a combination of five sources, coal and nuclear being the bulk of them.  Coal, according to Greenpeace, is THE dirtiest form of power, and nuclear is neither cheap nor safe says the Physicians for Social Responsibility — no matter what the pro-industry ads may try to sell you.  Also, the rechargeable battery could live a short three years.  Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are not likely to be recycled and could end up in a nearby landfill.  Ultimately, it’s all about the conservation of our resources.

So… we opted for the only green solution — a push mower.  I guess I’ve come full circle.  We’ve reduced our lawn quite a bit to plant native trees, shrubs and perennials so there isn’t a whole lot of area to cut compared to other typical properties.  A turf path was created in the front yard with an island habitat of critter and pollinator-attracting plants within its borders, but the back yard, although very much reduced, still has a decent chunk of turf.

When mowing, the blade height is set to four inches to help grass roots grow a bit deeper – an important function in times of drought or heavy rain.  We are also letting the clover thrive while we slowly reduce more of the grassy area.  The clippings that are flung from the quietly spinning blades are left to lie where they fall and they will ultimately feed the lawn.  Naturally, we never water and turf finds a way to survive.

The push mower’s cut still isn’t perfection but it’s just a lawn after all.  I no longer need it to look manicured.  We do need to keep on top of the mowing but now this usually distained ritual is actually kinda fun since we just grab the thing and go.  I can even lift it.  No noxious, cancer causing fumes, no noise pollution and no ear plugs needed.  What is necessary is some muscle.  So when it gets hot, Africa hot, 90+ degrees with what feels like 100% humidity, it makes me want to reduce our lawn even further.  Power to the push mower!

Man up!  The Art of Manliness sings the praises of the reel mower.

The Straight Dope has fun with the EPA stats.

More fun lawn care facts: EPA’s Green Landscaping: Greenacres


Mosquito Control without Pesticides!

canstockphoto12546487Many folks are tempted to use any means necessary to control the annoying swarms of mosquitoes that infiltrate our yards in the heat of summer. We can get frustrated in our attempts to use the natural but seemingly inadequate citronella candles and are easily tempted by marketing messages touting conventional pesticides. These pesticides are dangerous and not just to mosquitoes.

Most commercial pesticides contain toxins that can kill beneficial insects such as bees, lady bugs, and praying mantises, and they also leave residues that run off into streams, get on pet’s paws, or on children’s shoes or feet. Many of these pesticides are considered “probable carcinogens” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some pesticides are safer than others but they all have their risks.

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An American Tradition

We all embrace customs, some silly and small, some big and important.  Summer barbecues.  4th of July parades.  The Superbowl party.  Pumpkin pie.  An aversion to the metric system.  Ours is a culture with many traditions, some born of social habit, others shaped by our response to technological innovation.  All of them contribute… something to the patterns of civilized life in society and by now we automatically, unconsciously accept these habits as good.  But that’s not good.  Some customs, by intense over-practice, outgrow their benefit.  Here’s one screaming for modification: our vast over use of pesticides.  The United States accounts for roughly 22% of all pesticide use worldwide and an astounding 78 million households apply nearly 66 million pounds of these chemicals annually.  And it’s not just for suburban turf care.  It includes the fungicides that keep our ornamentals glossy, herbicides that so easily eliminate unwanted weeds, and the insecticides that terminate the insects we often unfairly judge as loathsome.  We’ve been taught that a perfectly lush lawn flanked by pristine shrubbery is a more essential part of the American dream than the white picket fence.  And these ideas can be passed from generation to generation.

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