Q: I keep hearing noise coming from upstairs and am fairly sure that a family of squirrels has taken up residence in my house. Short of setting traps, what's the safest way to tell that there are squirrels in the attic and get rid of them?
A: They might make cuddly cartoon characters and leave your backyard feeling like a magical forest, but squirrels that move into your house are a little less whimsical. Left unchecked, these real-life pests can poke holes in your siding, damage insulation, and even chew through electrical wiring.
First, find out what you're dealing with. If you've heard skittering, scratching, or rolling noises from your ceiling, there's a good chance you're harboring some kind of wildlife in your attic, but it may not necessarily be a squirrel. To pinpoint the type of pest, pay attention to when you're hearing the commotion. Generally, squirrels are active during the day, so noises in the evening hours are more likely to come from nocturnal animals like rats and mice. If the strange sounds have occurred between the months of March and October, it might even be that a mother came to nurse her newborn squirrels in the attic and out of the elements. In that case, you may find that the family leaves on their own within a few weeks.
If you're still uncertain, check the tracks. You can capture paw prints with the help of a pantry item or two. Spread a dusting of flour over a piece of cardboard, and place it inside the attic's entryway or near the suspected access point. Leave it there for a day or two, and then inspect the surface for the prints. Most squirrel tracks look like small feet and are around 1 to 1 ½ inches long. (Alternatively, footprints double that size might belong to a raccoon, while mice prints are far smaller and rat tracks feature fine points created by their claws.) A foul smell or droppings littering the floor could signal a longstanding infestation, so it's important to move quickly once you've identified the type of critter you're dealing with.
Don't supply their snacks. By reining in their food supply, you'll eventually send these freeloaders off in search of a more comfortable crash pad. And if you have a bird feeder in your yard, stop stocking it with squirrel favorites like corn, sunflower seeds, and nuts.
Try a one-way door. If you've managed to track down the critters' access point, consider installing a one-way cage door or funnel just outside of it. Secured to the home's exterior, these additions can catch squirrels on the way out of the attic for food or, in the case of funnels, allow them to leave but prevent return through the same hole. After setting up a live-catch trap, check the contraption twice daily and be prepared relocate it to somewhere at least 3 miles away should it prove successful. All in all, this is one of the more effective and humane ways to send squirrels scurrying away for good. That said, check your city, county, and state's wildlife ordinances before proceeding with one of these measures to make sure you're adhering to local laws and protocol. In California, for example, it's illegal to trap gray squirrels without a permit.
Close off any roads that lead back to your place. Send the visitors a strong message by spraying a liquid taste-based repellent on your lawn, soil, and trees to make the yard less inviting, and double down by sprinkling a granular version around the perimeter of your yard to light up the proverbial “No Vacancy” sign. If you have a garden, consider planting daffodils around your home's foundation, since they're a natural deterrent. Likewise, if you have a tree branch that hangs over your roof (or within 8 to 10 feet of it-remember, these little guys are talented jumpers!), cutting it back can make it harder for other squirrels to crawl into your attic while you work on solving the problem from within.
Know when you've lost the battle. If you've inspected your attic, removed any possible food sources, and tried the store-bought remedies without ousting your unwanted guests, pick up the phone and call in a professional for backup.