Rats are sometimes depicted as cute or entertaining. Think Ratatouille or Templeton, the rat in Charlotte’s Web. But in real life they can be disease-carrying and destructive: Ask pretty much anyone who has lived in New York City, including the big apple’s recently appointed rat czar.
Unfortunately, rats are a way of life in Pittsburgh, too. With the increase in infrastructure work in our neighborhood, some have been displaced and have made new homes. Rats are generally nocturnal and if you start seeing them in broad daylight looking for food, it is likely that the population has shifted or grown. Take for example when one Highland Park resident found a rat resting in her dogwood tree (yes, they can climb)!
There are measures we can all take to help keep the population down. Primarily, this involves reducing food sources and shelter.
Birds (and that includes you, chickens!)
Many of us like to feed the birds. However, accessible feeders and bird food that drops on the ground make for easy pickings for rats. If you do feed the birds, keep the amount of seed to only a quantity that will be consumed in one day and keep the ground below the feeder clean. Any feeder accessible to a squirrel is also accessible to a rat. If an infestation becomes severe, it may be necessary to temporarily stop feeding birds to help break the reproductive cycle.
Chickens are birds… so these tips also apply to backyard chickens. Chicken feed and chicken feces attract rats. Keep unused quantities of feed stored securely in rodent-proof containers and keep the ground clean and free of extra food. Rats are not good for household chickens, which should offer strong incentive for chicken owners to do the work required to keep them at bay. A number of online resources are available to chicken owners looking to control rodents near their coops.
Composting can provide a nice home for rodents for obvious reasons: a compost pile can provide both food and shelter for rats. However, many composters find that restricting food composting to sealed compost containers and omitting meat and dairy waste from their compost piles prevents rodents from becoming a problem. But even if you have a plastic bin-type composter, there should be fine mesh chicken wire (holes less than ½”) underneath to keep rats from burrowing into the container.
Again, there are plenty of online resources for how to keep your compost rodent-free. One important incentive for rodent-proofing your compost pile is that any compost that has been invaded by rats should not be used on food crops.
Is your garbage stored securely? Do you regularly remove dog feces from your yard? Are there other locations in your yard that would make excellent housing for rats, such as piles of scrap, branches, twigs or other yard waste? Stacks of firewood? All of the above can provide nice homes for rats; keep your yard clean and you shouldn’t have a problem.
Once established, rat populations can quickly grow and may need professional intervention. The City of Pittsburgh has a Rodent Baiting Program that can be used by calling 311. Sometimes, when an infestation is particularly severe and is not being addressed by a resident, the Health Department is called upon to assist (see A Resident’s Guide to Rat Control on Private Property).