An Uninvited Guest

As a sophomore in high school, I almost flunked my first semester of biology because I just couldn’t bring myself to undertake the requisite insect collection.

Every freshman graduate knew this assignment was coming, and the dedicated sophomores-to-be started their collections even before the school year. I tried to be one of those students, but watching an insect die a slow death in a jar with a cottonball soaked in rubbing alcohol mostly did me in, and I was finished when I pushed a pin through the tiny exoskeleton and heard it crunch.

I gave up on hunting insects and turned to my specialty, writing my way out of the situation. Without discussing it with the teacher, I submitted a report on insects instead, and got a D, since that wasn’t the assignment at all. But the D was a better deal than subjecting insects to tormented death.

So 40-some years later, when an overhead vent pipe in our laundry room started rustling in earnest Sunday afternoon, I knew my skill set for dealing with this wasn’t going to be very good. Lynn, who perhaps never had to turn in an insect collection but probably would have managed just fine, first accused me of hearing things but finally decided I did in fact know what I was talking about: we had an uninvited guest trapped in the vent pipe.

Without any sort of protective gear whatsoever, she bravely opened our heat recovery ventilator (HRV), but found nothing other than some lint that she thought looked like the beginnings of a nest. Taking a tour of the exterior of our house we found two vents, one over the back garage door and one directly above the corner where the HRV is located.

When someone like Dusty builds your house, it is so tightly constructed that the inside air can become toxic. (Unlike older, drafty houses that do the exhaling for you.) One solves this by installing an HRV, which in some fashion I don’t understand any better than high school biology pulls stale air out of the bathrooms, then magically removes the heat before sending the cooled air on its way out through a newly-discovered vent, and infuses air being pulled into the house from a second newly-discovered vent with that warmth before wafting it into the bedrooms.

But Lynn and I were not the only ones to newly discover these outside outlets, as we could clearly hear from the frantic scratchings from something trying but not succeeding to get out the way it had come.

No one should have been able to get into the vent. Dusty informed me Monday there was mesh across those vents at one time, adding — in the phrase I’ve come to love so much from service professionals coming to the house — “I’ve never had that happen before.” Lucky us, yet once more.

There was no mesh Sunday when we needed it, but there must be some sort of flap, one we’ve often heard in the wind, and it turns out to be an effective animal trap. Thus we found ourselves with a houseguest who could neither come into the house proper nor exit it. It was starting to sound like an insect in a jar all over again.

We had no idea what this guest might be. Lynn thought chipmunk; I thought bird, even before we discovered the vent locations, because we have no trees touching the house anywhere to get a chipmunk up high. Although I have since been informed that mice and packrats will have no problems scaling our exterior walls.

I learned this from Al and Fae Davidson, local pest control folks who specialize in catch and release. But the real lesson I learned Monday: one should always keep his laundry folded in case unexpected rescuers need to come into your house and stand on your laundry counter. Because if you don’t, you could find your clean underwear splashing down into a bowl of water stored nearby for cat medicating purposes.

[Na Ki’o update: he appears to be on a recovery trajectory, although we are jabbing him with ever more needles, giving him twice-weekly subcutaneous fluids and IV meds like anti-naseau, anti-diarrheal and pro-vitamin. It all seems to be working.]

Mr. Davidson, called “Trapper” by his wife, at first thought the uncooperative creature was mice, then maybe a packrat, then a magpie. He couldn’t feel it at all in the vent, which is made of that squishy plasticky stuff you find behind your clothes dryer. But after he scouted the attic, where he assured me he saw droppings even though he later said the house was “very tight” (which ought to be a compliment but which in this case was the root of the problem), then examined the exterior, where he saw scratch marks in the vent openings indicating animal ingress, he went back inside and heard the critter.

Ultimately he was leaning toward magpie, and he pulled the vent out of its socket and duct-taped a trash bag to the end, intended to hold whatever it was. But then it wouldn’t come out, finding some other spot along the tubing to hang out. Instead of waiting for the creature to do its part, the Davidsons headed home to make a better mouse, or magpie, trap.

Lynn and I had just sat down to a later-than-planned lunch when the rodeo began. Somehow — and none of us, including the Davidsons, can figure out how — a bird not a magpie managed to shoot out of the vent tube, completely bypassing the trash bags securely duct-taped to the end. A cat not Na Ki’o made an unprecedented leap to the top of the dryer as I dashed into the laundry room.

Lynn, much more suited to the occasion than me, informed me I was at the entire wrong end of the house, because a bird was now perched by the south windows. We tried to open both front and back doors, to give it Options, but that created a wind tunnel that sucked both doors closed, totally defeating the purpose. Then, as if it divined where it belonged, the bird headed for the guest room, settling on a table.

With a broom, Lynn prodded the poor exhausted creature gently along the floor toward the back door, the only egress option provided, as I stumbled across Marrakesh trying to get both of us out of the non-flight path. The bird, with a greenish cast to its back with some tiny yellow spots, made it to the deck, where it rested before hopping down off the deck and then disappearing.

Looking at my bad photo (but what photojournalism, huh? Pausing in the midst of commotion to snap a picture?) when they returned on Tuesday, the Davidsons assured me our guest was a woodpecker, probably working its way along the stucco until it found a fun little hole to inspect. Although it wasn’t so fun for any of us, except maybe Marrakesh.

Now the vents have mesh, like they maybe once did; the woodpecker has been banished and didn’t die an excruciating trapped death above our HRV; and we have made the useful acquaintance of the Davidsons. All in all, I think this biology assignment rates at least a D (for Davidson, if nothing else).

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