How to avoid rats when feeding birds

Rat eating bird seed
A rat eating bird seed. Photo by Alex O’Neal/Flickr (Creative Commons)

One autumn morning a few years ago, when I was birding at the “Magic Hedge,” a rare-bird magnet in Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, I found a lovely collection of birds feeding on the ground in a flower bed. Panning with binoculars, I identified one Song Sparrow, several White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, a pair of Mourning Doves, a Harris’s Sparrow, more doves, a rat, and…a rat! I almost dropped my binoculars in shock.

My own city, Duluth, Minnesota, has longstanding rat problems in the harbor, where grain is stored and transported and in the heated subterranean world beneath downtown, but neighborhoods like mine have been rat-free thanks to frigid winters and well-sealed houses.

But with milder winters, rats are spreading. Last spring, one Duluth elementary school became so infested that the building and grounds were closed all summer for extermination. Improper kitchen waste disposal was blamed. Compost bins should always be covered tightly, with rodent-proof screening on the bottom and all sides; dumpsters and outdoor garbage cans holding food waste should be sealed well.

Late last summer, rats started appearing on my own block, and I’m afraid my bird feeding may have contributed. During migration, I’ve always scattered sunflower and white millet for migrant sparrows, juncos, and other ground feeders. As the season progresses and sparrow numbers dwindle by late October, I stop ground feeding. But in the middle of November, a large flock of juncos suddenly appeared. I scattered a few handfuls of seed, and later that day when I scanned the area with my binoculars, I saw two rats — an adult and a weanling — scurrying under my fence into a tunnel beneath my neighbor’s shed. When I told my neighbors, they said they’d killed a couple this summer with snap traps. Had I realized rats had been seen next door, I would not have been putting any food on the ground all season. Keeping a whole neighborhood informed about pests is important for everyone.

Fortunately, I hadn’t scattered much seed, and my abundant squirrels and those juncos had already eaten virtually all of it. Now that I know that rats have invaded my neighborhood, my ground feeding has come to a permanent end.

I’ll still be feeding birds in feeders set on poles with large squirrel guards, which must now serve more generally as rodent guards. I’ve also added seed catchers to prevent spillage.

I usually hang one or two feeders from tree limbs in the winter, but rats are excellent tree climbers, so I won’t be doing that anymore. Bread is a rodent magnet, but I don’t feed that anyway.

Rats eat eggs and nestlings from nests on or near the ground; cardinals, catbirds, and other birds nesting in low hedges are vulnerable. Rats can also be disease vectors, harming birds as well as humans. So subsidizing rats in any way is harmful to birds. If we love birds, when feeding them, our mantra should be “above all, do no harm.”

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This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of BirdWatching.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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