Tell-Tale Signs Pests Leave Behind

A skunk in grass.

When we think of pests, most of us think of the ubiquitous presence of ants, roaches, poisonous spiders, rats, mice and, of course, termites. On top of that, there are many other critters that are considered pests depending on your environment and your attitude.

In the desert, for example, we have had rattlesnake problems, scorpion infestations and even geckos. In cities, certain birds such as pigeons and starlings are considered pests. In some places of the country, pests include alligators, bats, geese, coyotes, deer and rabbits.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your home looks from the outside if it could be threatened from the inside. But given that hardly all-inclusive list of pests, how do you know what’s bugging you? Obviously, we often know what pests are invading our homes by sight—that is, we see them, recognize them and know we don’t want them around. but sometimes it’s not that simple. For instance, many pests are nocturnal and we don’t see them but we do see what they leave behind—their droppings.

Attitude at Issue

Bees and wasps are frequently considered pests because their stings can be very dangerous should you have an allergy. However, they typically do not attack unless their nests are disturbed. Despite the concerns raised by scientists about the shortage of bees and their importance to our agricultural industry, these very beneficial insects are in danger because of some misguided fear and the use of insecticides.

Recognizing that every critter has a role in nature, we should separate those that are a threat to our health and safety from those that are simply annoying.

Termites vs. Carpenter Ants

Both are bad for your wood construction, but they have to be treated differently, so without seeing the actual insect, how do you know what’s eating your house?

Termites - Termites can damage the structure of a house by nesting in and eating the framing. In fact, termite inspections are required before the sale of a home almost everywhere. We have all seen mounds of sawdust in the corners of rooms or windows, which are not the work of any project we started. Of course, this isn’t really sawdust. The termites are actually eating the wood so these are piles of droppings. The holes and tunnels they make are ragged and dirty. Termite wings fall off pretty easily, so there may be piles of them outside a hole. Only termites build mud tubes, so if you see these little constructions, you know you’ve got a termite problem.

Telltale Signs Pests Leave Behind, termite droppings

Carpenter Ants - Carpenter ants can also take up residence in a home and cause structural damage, but unlike termites they go for wood that’s already wet, rotting or otherwise compromised. Look for a small hole in the wood and a pile of sawdust. This really is sawdust because the ants really are carpenters. They don’t eat the wood--they carve it out to make their homes, so the woodpiles look more flakey and irregular than the piles from termites. Carpenter ant holes and tunnels are tidy, clean and smoothly finished. Since they’re not eating the wood, you’re more likely to see them as they forage for food.

Spiders - Many of us are creeped out by spiders, but they are mostly harmless and can even be beneficial. Of course, certain kinds of spiders can be dangerous: the black widow and the brown recluse.

Brown Recluse - As the name suggests, brown recluse spiders are generally shy and nocturnal. They hide and build their webs in out-of-the-way places such as under sinks, in piles of firewood, in garages, and even in your shoes. These webs are messy and disorganized and don’t have a classic spider web pattern. The spider hunts for its food, so the web isn’t built as a trap, but as a home, so they’re more hidden and sheltered. The brown recluse’s reputation is much bigger than its actual range, which is limited to the Mid-West and Southern United States, but their bites are poisonous and very dangerous.

Telltale Signs Pests Leave Behind, brown recluse spider

Black Widows - Black widow webs are traps for food, so though they also like wood piles, outhouses and other similar spots, they tend to build in more strategic locations for snaring prey. Their webs are also messy and don’t follow the classic pattern, but they’re less globular than a brown recluse web, tending to be horizontal and stratified. Since the spider is waiting for its food, it’s typically in the web or in a nearby hidden retreat. They have a dangerous bite and a much wider range than the brown recluse, but they are much easier to identify.

Telltale Signs Pests Leave Behind, black widow spider

Little, Black Droppings

Nocturnal pests may rarely be seen, but when you find those little black droppings left behind, you know you’ve got some night visitors. But what kind?

Mice - These critters reveal their presence not only by their small black droppings, but also by the partially eaten food and paper we may have left out on the counter. They also give themselves away by making noise as they scamper inside the walls. I have used humane traps baited with peanut butter and then released the mouse outside, but it has to be several miles from your home because they have been known to make their way back.

Cockroaches - The American cockroach, an unwanted home invader, is typically nocturnal and leaves droppings frequently mistaken for mouse droppings. Some also produce clicking and chirping noises and can emit an unpleasant smell or odor. If you see one there are usually many more. In fact, one exterminator warns that if you see one during the day that can be a sign of an overcrowded infestation.

Geckos - Recently, I was mistaken about what I thought was the presence of mouse droppings, only to have an exterminator tell me they were gecko droppings. Not feeling threatened by the fact that a gecko sometimes visited my home, and knowing they consume large amounts of annoying insects, I chose to do nothing.

Telltale Signs Pests Leave Behind, gecko

Outside Pests

To some folks, maintaining a beautiful garden or landscape is as important as a beautifully designed room. Moles, gophers, rabbits, squirrels and deer can wreak havoc on landscaping.

Moles and Gophers - The signs of moles and gophers are multiple small holes in your plant beds. They dig their never-ending tunnels in your yard, they multiple in their burrows very quickly, and they are very difficult to get rid of, requiring trapping and proper disposal.

Telltale Signs Pests Leave Behind, gopher

Rabbits - Rabbits love to eat vegetable gardens, but they don’t dig holes like you’ve seen in the cartoons, which is why you can use a fence to keep them out. If you find your garden’s been nibbled on, but there are no gopher holes around, you may have a rabbit problem.

Deer - Deer can also make a delicious meal of your favorite plants. They are most often seen at twilight, so as to maximize the difficultly of predators to see them. They’ll get at your taller plants and leave behind distinctive pellet droppings and two-toed footprints. Get a taller fence. For me, these critters fall into the annoying category.

Squirrels - Squirrels can fit both the dangerous and annoying categories. While they are cute outside the home, they have been known to take up residence in attics. They can chew on wiring in the attic, causing significant damage. Ground squirrels, as the name suggests, dig burrows in the ground. Their burrows are typically open and large, with many entrances and exits. Ground squirrels can ravage plants and gardens.

Moral of the Story

There are pests and there are annoyances. From my perspective, I rid myself of pests and try to live with the annoyances. However, doing so is not always a matter of spraying something. Often it is a matter of hiring a professional exterminator, many of whom undergo continuing education on removal techniques.