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Rats Attracted to More Than Birdseed

Dear Bird Folks,

Last week the Cape Cod Times printed an article saying there’s a rat problem in Sandwich. One of the reasons given for the rat increase is that people are feeding birds year-round. They said birds should only be fed in winter. Surely you don’t agree?  Any tips on feeding birds while avoiding rats?

– Lida, Yarmouth Port, MA


Swell, Lida,

Just when I was feeling good about surviving another Cape Cod summer, I find out there are rats in Sandwich. To make things worse, someone is blaming the problem on birdseed. As you might imagine, I’m not going to take this lying down. The people who made these statements will soon be hearing from my lawyers…and if any group knows about rats, it’s lawyers.

I too read that story in the CC Times and believe it or not, I actually agree with it…well, some of it. Yes, of course, rats will eat birdseed, but they also come to a huge variety of other things humans have to offer. Take gardens, for example. For years people have blamed squirrels and chipmunks for damaged fruits and vegetables, but I’d bet much of the time rats are the real culprits. And since they are nocturnal, their raids often go unnoticed. And what about those compost piles? Composting organic matter is a great idea, but rotting mounds of vegetation are also appealing to rats. Raising chickens has become trendy in recent years, but along with fresh eggs comes buckets of grain, which are an open invitation for you-know-what. One other thing attracts rats to our yards, and it may be the number one attraction of them all. Wanna know what it is? Okay, I’ll tell you, but you might not like it.

Rats enjoy birdseed, compost, chicken food and gardens, but the thing they may actually love the most is our good old pal, the family dog. Yes, the dog, the one creature that just about everyone on Cape Cod considers sacred, may be the ultimate rat magnet. Why the dog? It’s no surprise that rats will come to spilled dog food, but one of their favorite menu items is (get ready) dog poop. When I first read about this poop thing I did a double take. But then I discovered endless websites that supported this weird factoid. These websites include one from the State of Indiana, another from a Rhode Island newspaper and one site called (and this is true) Mr. Dog Poop. Now I have to believe it. After all, Mr. Dog Poop has never steered me wrong.

A big problem this summer has been the drought and rats need to drink regularly. As smaller ponds and vernal pools dry up, rats are venturing into new territories. In other words, keep an eye on your watering cans, chicken waterers and dog bowls. And keep the cover on your hot tub closed, or you might not be soaking alone.

What can be done to prevent rats from becoming a problem? I can’t really do much about this recent drought; even I don’t have that kind of power. I also don’t want to speak on behalf of the Cape’s gardeners, chicken lovers and the ever-growing number of dog fanatics. But I have no trouble suggesting to bird people that they should take a common sense approach to feeding birds. Oh, sure, I like selling birdseed, but I worry when some folks overdo it. My concern isn’t so much about attracting rats, but if the areas underneath bird feeders aren’t properly maintained, they may become unhealthy for the ground-feeding birds. You’ve heard me say this before, but people really should think twice about using the dreaded “mixed” birdseed. I don’t know who invented this awful stuff, but I’ll bet his name was “Willard,” because if any seed is rat-friendly, it’s that stuff. No matter what the package says, most ingredients in a mixture end up on the ground, where all kinds of furry creatures are waiting to feast on it.

It’s important to point out that this rat thing isn’t nearly as bad as the newspaper suggested. Each day I talk with hundreds of people who feed birds and so far this year, I have had exactly two (dos, numéro deux) customers who have mentioned rats. If you do the math, it comes out to roughly .000001% of my customers who have seen rats, or .999999% who haven’t. In other words, the Cape isn’t exactly Europe during the Plague.

BTW: Rats are active year-round, so the notion that only feeding birds in the winter will deter rats is just an old wives’ tale. It’s like saying toads give us warts or we shouldn’t eat before swimming. (You know, I never understood that last one. I mean fish don’t come out of the water after they eat and they do okay.)

I don’t think the rat invasion of 2016 is really that big a deal, Lida. You can continue to feed your birds, but just don’t be sloppy about it. Keep your seed secure and off the ground. I have no suggestions for people with gardens or chickens or even for those people with pooping dogs. For assistance with that last one you’ll have to ask a different expert, like Mr. Dog Poop. I was going to make a joke about inventing “dog diapers,” but it turns out they are actually a thing already. (And they say bird people are nuts.) I think the only way to properly dispose of dog poop is to do what I do. I just toss it over the fence into my neighbor’s yard and let him deal with it. Oh, calm down; of course, I’m just kidding. My neighbor doesn’t have a fence.