Wondering what that scratching or chattering you hear coming from your chimney is? It’s good you noticed, because sometimes animals in a chimney are in distress—having fallen inside by accident, they may be trapped. Sometimes, though, an animal chooses to enter your chimney, hoping to escape cold weather or looking for a safe place to raise young. If the chattering just began, wildlife babies may just now be getting to a size where their voices or activity are audible through the fireplace. In any case, finding out what’s happening in there will enable you to humanely and effectively attend to the situation.
The most likely occupants are squirrels, raccoons, or chimney swifts. Naturally, you’ll want to approach the situation differently based upon whether the animal is trying to escape or trying to seek shelter. Even among those seeking shelter, your best approach will depend upon whether it is an individual or a mother with young, and current weather conditions.
Helping a trapped animal out of your chimney…
If the animal is still above the damper:
- Close the damper and lower a ¾ inch rope down the chimney—or have a chimney sweep do so for you—making sure it is long enough to reach the shelf.
- Attach the rope firmly to the chimney or another fixed object on the roof, and allow the animal time to exit before removing it.
If the animal falls from the chimney into the fireplace:
- Make noise to encourage him back above the damper and onto the shelf.
- Proceed as above with the rope, enabling him to exit.
- If that isn’t successful, gently place a humane box trap into the fireplace, baited with peanut butter, and close the fireplace door.
- When the animal enters the humane trap, carry him outside to release him.
- Arrange for an approved chimney cap to be installed soon to prevent future mishaps.
If the animal in your chimney enters your room via the fireplace:
- Close all doors to other rooms.
- Open an exterior door and any windows to provide an easy path outside.
- Leave the room so the animal can find his way out with less confusion and stress.
Encouraging a solitary adult animal to find shelter elsewhere…
If there is just one adult animal in your chimney and no nest or young, you may be able to evict the animal, but consider current weather conditions before proceeding with efforts to evict the animal. During cold winter weather, it may be difficult for the animal to find other shelter quickly enough. If weather is not a hazard, try gentle harassment from the fireplace.
- Place a loud radio, bright lights, or a bowl of cider vinegar in there—preferably all three—and the animal will quickly find the space too offensive to his senses to stay.
- Once he has exited, have an approved chimney cap installed to prevent another animal from making use of the vacancy.
- Raccoons are active at night and are likely to be confused and vulnerable if evicted during daylight, so harassment should be done at dusk or later.
Discovering a wildlife mom and her young are in your chimney…
Having a wildlife mom and babies in your chimney is another matter. Chimney swifts nest in chimneys as a result of the shortage of hollow trees they once nested in. They build tiny twig nests, attaching them to an inner wall of the chimney with sticky saliva. Raccoon and squirrel moms use the smoke shelf as a nursery, nestling with their young to nurse, and knowing their babies are safe while they’re out foraging.
Chimney swift young make chattering noises when begging for food. As a species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), chimney swifts and their nests and young cannot be disturbed. They are likely to be ready to leave the nest soon, though, and when the nesting season is over, you can have a chimney sweep clean the chimney and install an approved chimney cap. If you opt to leave the chimney open to help chimney swifts in need of nesting sites—as some people do—it is still a good idea to have the chimney cleaned, removing the old nest, so there is no chance of it being reused and falling during the next nesting season.
Raccoon young make churring sounds as their mother nurses them. At six to eight weeks of age, they’ll be ready to start following her out of the chimney on nightly forays. Gentle harassment as described above can then be done to encourage the mother to choose another den. Once the whole family is out of your chimney, have it capped.
Squirrel babies also need to reach a certain age before they can follow their mother out of the chimney. Give them a chance to mature enough to do that, and carefully check from both the fireplace and the chimney to ensure that they are all out before having your chimney capped.
Never, under any circumstance, use fire or smoke to cause animals to leave your chimney.
Babies will not be able to escape and will suffer a cruel death, and even adults may be burned or perish in the panic that the smoke and fire would cause.
In that rare instance where waiting is not an option…
It is hard to think of a circumstance where waiting the brief time it takes for a wildlife family to mature enough to leave on their own is truly not possible. If you are in such an unusual situation, however, be sure to hire a humane wildlife control service to perform the eviction, because evicting a wildlife family is a complicated and delicate matter.
Select the company carefully, confirming that they will perform the eviction with a reunion box so the family isn’t permanently separated. Again, chimney swifts are protected by the MBTA, so cleaning and capping must wait until nesting season ends.