For the Birds Radio Program: Rats

Original Air Date: Aug. 20, 2003

Laura spotted a rat under her feeder. (Date verified)

Audio missing


Sometimes I spend way too much time indoors, writing and looking longingly out the window at hummingbirds and chickadees, warblers and nuthatches, crows and doves. I have quite a few squirrels and a few chipmunks—they’re very entertaining. And every now and then a lovely little white-tailed rabbit turns up to munch on dandelion leaves and clover. My work desk is right by a window. Even when I have a lot of stuff to work on, I often find myself looking out. I see the usual backyard birds, and every now and then something unexpected turns up. In the past two weeks, a catbird has been calling most of the day long, orioles came down for a few days to feed on our cherry trees, and the first hawks have been flying overhead.

And then, this week, for the first time in 20 years, I looked out back and saw, scrounging on the ground not far from one of my chipmunks and a pair of doves, something utterly unexpected: a rat! A Norway rat was right there in my backyard. Back when we were new on Peabody Street, I once saw a rat in the winter scurrying under my dining room feeder, which scared the daylights out of me. Fortunately, that was the only rat I’ve ever seen in my neighborhood.

I have family in Chicago, and often see rats when I’m birding there. Sometimes they even feed in flower beds side by side with Mourning Doves or pigeons. And I sometimes see them in my sister-in-law’s alley, climbing in and out of garbage cans. Rats are not unexpected in big cities, but they sure are in my neighborhood in Duluth.

I like most animals, and I’m inordinately fond of rodents, but my Dad was a Chicago firefighter, and he used to come home with horror stories about rats that gave me nightmares. In the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, a rat made a very believable villain. Of course, one of the best pets my kids ever had was a rat, but somehow a wild rat in my own backyard isn’t at all the same. And if it wasn’t bad enough having a rat in my yard, it suddenly lunged for my chipmunk, who barely got away in the nick of time.

So I won’t be scattering seeds on the ground under my spruce tree for a few weeks. I borrowed a live trap, figuring even if the best solution was to kill the rat, I didn’t want to risk killing one of my chipmunks. I set the trap out right where I saw it, but so far haven’t caught anything and haven’t seen the rat again. Rats do enjoy sunflower seeds, but they need a more varied diet than just bird seed, and with luck this one will figure out that Peabody Street isn’t the place for a street smart rat that belongs in the harbor with the pigeons. I’ll keep the trap out for another week or so, but my fervent hope is that it will be empty every morning. I don’t have a clue what I could do with a trapped rat. As scared as I am of rats, somehow a death sentence seems harsh, though releasing it anywhere would be unethical and wrong-headed.

Bird feeding is a lovely pastime with not much of a dark side. But sometimes critters other than the birds we love come to our feeders and become a problem. I don’t at all mind feeding squirrels and chipmunks, but many people do. Raccoons are a problem for many people, but up here, pale as nuisances compared to bears. The only bears I’ve ever seen in my neighborhood were eating in people’s apple trees, and we’ve never had one in all these years try to climb over our fence to visit my feeders. So in 20 years, I’ve had only two nuisance animals—not a bad record. But I sure hope that it’s at least another 20 years before a rat shows up on Peabody Street.