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A few years ago, one fall morning, while viewing the “Magic Hedge”, a rare bird magnet at the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago, I found a beautiful collection of birds feeding on the ground in a flower bed. Panning with binoculars, I identified a Song Sparrow, several White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, a couple of Mourning Doves, a Harris’s Sparrow, other doves, a rat and… a rat! I almost dropped my binoculars in shock.
My own town of Duluth, Minnesota has had longstanding rat problems in the port, where grain is stored and transported, and in the heated underworld beneath downtown, but neighborhoods like mine have been rat-free. thanks to freezing winters and tightly sealed homes.
But with milder winters, rats are spreading. Last spring, an elementary school in Duluth was so infested that the building and grounds were closed all summer for extermination. Improper kitchen waste disposal has been implicated. Compost bins should always be tightly covered, with rodent screens at the bottom and on all sides; Dumpsters and outdoor bins containing food waste must be well sealed.
Late last summer, rats started showing up on my own block, and I’m afraid my birds’ diet played a part in that. During the migration, I always scattered sunflower and white millet for migrating sparrows, juncos and other terrestrial feeders. As the season progresses and sparrow numbers dwindle in late October, I stop ground feeding. But in mid-November, a large herd of juncos suddenly appeared. I scattered a few handfuls of seeds and later that day when I scanned the area with my binoculars I saw two rats – one adult and one weaned – scurrying under my fence into a tunnel under the shed from my neighbor. When I told my neighbors about it, they told me they had killed a couple this summer with carabiner traps. If I had realized rats were seen nearby, I wouldn’t have put food on the floor all season. Keeping an entire neighborhood informed about pests is important to everyone.
Luckily, I hadn’t spread many seeds, and my abundant squirrels and those juncos had already eaten almost everything. Now that I know rats have invaded my neighborhood, my floor feeding has come to an end for good.
I will continue to feed the birds in perch mounted feeders with large squirrel bars, which are now to serve more generally as rodent bars. I also added seed catchers to prevent spills.
I usually hang a feeder or two from tree branches in the winter, but rats are great tree climbers, so I won’t do that anymore. Bread is a rodent magnet, but I don’t feed it anyway.
Rats eat eggs and nestlings in nests on the ground or near the ground; cardinals, catbirds and other birds nesting in low hedgerows are vulnerable. Rats can also be vectors of disease, harming both birds and humans. So subsidizing rats in any way is harmful to birds. If we love birds, when we feed them, our mantra should be “first, do no harm”.
This article from Laura Erickson’s “Attracting Birds” column originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of BirdWatching.