SO WHAT DO THESE three topics have in common? It’s time to start cleaning up the excess in the yard, raking leaves and giving the grass that last cut of the season, and time to put out the winter feeders as the migrants settle into your area. By taking care of a few extra details with the first two, you can manage the third, fleas, much more easily through the dormant season and into next year. Don’t be fooled after that first frosty morning when all fleas seem to be gone—there may be no more adult fleas, but there are plenty of eggs tucked all over your yard just waiting for spring.
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Where Do Fleas Come From?
Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and don’t think that simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, that fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop amazing distances to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even at the veterinarian’s office can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.
As I discovered, my deck was infested from animals who’d overwintered there and the fleas were jumping in through the door and riding in on me, so I infested my own house!
Fleas live in moist, shady areas in the yard, in the thatch in your lawn, debris piles, leaf litter, cord wood stacks and even under your deck or porch unless it’s completely dry. They’ve often overwintered in these areas and with the moisture of spring eggs start hatching as soon as it’s warm enough and shady after trees and shrubs have leafed out, about when temperatures rise above 60 degrees at night or 70 degrees during the day, so these are the areas you need to focus on in your fall cleanup.
Integrated Pest Management
I’ve always taken one or more of my cats into my back yard, so I’ve always included fleas in my pest management. Adult fleas are very particular about moisture and temperature, but flea eggs can live through a lot of punishment and still hatch and carry on the next generation so they need to be managed from year to year, not just for the summer.
It’s obvious that species have been kept in balance for millennia by some means outside of human controls. I am a Master Gardener and began years ago to start my own plants, identify seedlings, diagnose pests and diseases and build soil. I manage my little yard as a wildlife habitat, friendly to all native species as well as the plants I choose to grow and have always called on the forces of nature to manage the populations as an ecosystem, allowing it to find its own balance, and this has worked for managing fleas as well as other insect pests in my lawn, vegetable garden, flower beds and natural areas.
The two basic steps in managing any pest that outgrows its controls is to find out where it lives and destroy that habitat to any extent possible, and then find its natural predators and encourage them to inhabit and flourish, forever if possible.
Cleaning Up the Debris
In the fall, I use my mower to shred all the leaves on my lawn, but let them fall elsewhere, and I pretty much leave all the plants standing in the garden for the birds to feed on and insects to nest on until spring. I rake and ruffle but leave the mulch and debris under shrubs and in protected spots because wildlife will use this throughout the winter for cover.
But I remove any planters or large objects, piles of lumber or plant stakes, bricks and blocks, emptying the soil into the compost, cleaning them and putting them away. I move everything out from under my deck, rake the dirt and gravel surfaces, clean everything off, and place it back underneath when I put away my porch furniture. Other objects I’ll simply move around. This little shuffling disturbs the nests and overwintering sites and displaces a heck of a lot of fleas at a time when they can’t easily find a new home, and when the weather is inhospitable to them. I’ll even flip over the bricks on my pathways and patios when it’s cold to displace anything that might be living underneath (usually slugs).
Next spring, you can remove all the standing stems of plants in your garden, now empty of seeds, and rake off the leaf cover long before it’s warm enough for fleas to hatch and survive but while their predators can survive and thrive and be ready for any flea infestations later in the spring. In the meantime, you’ve simply eliminated a lot of adults who won’t be able to nest and lay eggs or jump on your dog or cat or you if they are still alive on a cold morning.
You can read more about what to do in the spring in Fleas, Part 1, Controlling Them Where They Live: Outdoors.
Modify Your Lawn and Attract a Flea’s Natural Predators
You can also encourage the flea’s natural predators to come and live in your lawn and garden. Insect predators include ants, spiders and ground beetles, other species include amphibians such as toads and salamanders, reptiles such as garter snakes, and even birds that feed on the ground.
Focusing on fall cleanup and overwintering, you want to welcome them to nest in your yard by incorporating native plants and herbs and allowing your lawn to grow a little taller. Two inches is the minimum height to encourage ants and spiders, the main predators of fleas. Cutting the grass taller and less often helps the predators develop habitat and do their job on the fleas.
My lawn is only about half grass, while the rest is a mixture of short native plants and ground covers, plus opportunistic peppermint, pennyroyal and marjoram escaped from my herb gardens and the seedlings for next year’s forget-me-nots, daisies and other biennials and spring ephemerals. This diversity of flora encourages a diversity of fauna and eliminates large areas of one type of habitat so nothing has a chance to overpopulate.
In addition to the migrant birds, the aforementioned insects, arachnids, amphibians and reptiles will be looking for homes for the winter as well. Allowing overwintering sites for them will have them in place and ready in the spring when they awaken, hatch and start doing their thing long before the fleas even begin to stir so they stand the best chance of keeping them under control.
The beneficial nematodes you applied in the spring will also be preparing to overwinter and will be working full time until the soil freezes. In southwestern Pennsylvania I’ve not had much luck with a good population overwintering mostly because of the spring freeze/thaw cycling that heaves the soil, and there isn’t anything you can do to help them. I just plan on ordering a new batch in the spring.
This is Where Bird Feeding Comes In
I feed birds year-round, partly for enjoyment and partly for pest control. American Goldfinches are the only truly vegetarian birds, eating no insects or animal protein at all. All other birds eat insects of some sort and derive a large portion of their diet that way, which is why bird feeders will never make birds entirely dependent on humans and lazy about finding their own food—seed alone is an incomplete diet and birds would fail to reproduce and likely not survive winter without a certain amount of insect/animal protein. If you attract them to your yard with seed in feeders or on native plants for one portion of their diet, they will stay to eat the insects at all stages, adult, larva, eggs, etc., that also live and feed on those native plants. It’s how nature keeps a balance.
While I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control, I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas. Those starlings and grackles who march around on your lawn? They’ll happily eat fleas. Robins in the spring? Fleas don’t stand a chance. Songbirds that eat insects? Fleas are a natural part of their diet.
So put out your feeders early, while the migrants are arriving and food is still plentiful so they’ll settle in more readily. If they aren’t finding your feeders try adding a suet cake to the display, though you’ll want to leave most of these for later in the winter when the birds will need the protein and fat more than now. Then in autumn put the suet cakes out again to catch the migrants who would settle in your yard for winter, and they’ll also eat the fleas still living and breeding in your yard so they don’t have a chance to reproduce and eggs overwinter to hatch next spring.
A water source is just as important as the food and even more of an attractant, since flowers and seeds and insects are everywhere, but water sources can be scarce. You can keep your birdbath going until the temperatures drop below freezing, or if you have a special watering station you use in winter you can set it out now so they become accustomed to it.
Don’t worry that feeding birds will take away their interest in their natural diet—most studies show that birds get about 10% of their total food intake from seed feeders. If insects are their diet, they’ll still happily devour any insect that visits your yard, including those that hatch on a warm day!
To attract more of the bird species who eat insects, put out suet cakes or make your own treat cakes, and don’t forget you can also save the seeds from your Halloween pumpkins, and even unused flower and vegetable seeds from your garden. Information about feeding birds abounds on the internet. My favorite resources are: The National Audubon Society’s Audubon at Home website; Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch website, which includes not only bird feeding information but also bird identification information plus you can sign up as a citizen scientist and count the birds at your feeders to help track bird populations; and BirdWatcher’s Digest Magazine online where you can read dozens of articles about feeders and feeds and placement and personal experience. These are just the three I reference most frequently, but hundreds of others can teach you more about birds and bird feeding, as can the people you’ll met when you visit the places that sell bird seed and feeders.
Plus, they’ll provide lots of winter entertainment for your cats, which might sound like a luxury but it’s a very important element in an indoor cat’s daily life.
It’s good to welcome wildlife to your back yard, and even to visit your deck, but not to come and live on your deck or even too close to your house if you’re concerned about fleas. Most wild animals harbor a few fleas, and some species are typically infested. That darned squirrel that hangs out on your deck, or the groundhog that’s burrowed underneath it, or the little field mice and voles who sacrifice themselves to your cats in the basement, all leave behind fleas in their nesting spots. Trust me, we know.
My squirrels spend about half their time scratching, and wild rabbits, chipmunks, gophers, mice and voles are also heavily infested with fleas.
Normally every spring I clean off my deck, sweep, wash and apply water-based waterproofing to the wood, then move things back, but this spring’s schedule didn’t allow the time. I really did have a few squirrel nests and an opposum, plus the groundhog who excavated all along the wall under my deck (I moved him to a vegetated area near the creek, still within his territory, and rolled a bunch of nice, sweet red apples around the area). Once I cleaned off the deck, swept and washed it as well as hosed down all the items that were there, my constant re-infestation stopped, but it reinforced the importance of fall and spring clean-ups for controlling fleas!
Some Resources for Chemical-Free Outdoor Flea Control
No one product or technique is going to control fleas outside or inside your house, but a combination of activities that don’t require chemicals, usually referred to as “Integrated Pest Management” or IPM, can help to reduce numbers so that you can possibly reduce or eliminate the chemicals you use outdoors.
You can get ten pages of results or more in an internet search on flea control, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrins and so on though much of it is from manufacturers and sellers, but I try to find studies or information from non-commercial sources to cite.
Yardener.com has a series of articles about dealing with fleas in your yard, and the article about preventing fleas in the future is especially informative—plus the site is a great resource for dealing with all sorts of pest problems in your yard.
Even though this article is from 1986, it gives a brief history of the use of diatomaceous earth from a study project at McGill University that is still applicable today about the effects and usage of DE.
CDC Report on pyrethrins and pyrethroids: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp155.pdf.
Read other articles in “Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat” and also in about “Living Green With Pets” and in the category of “Health and Safety”
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