If the word “rat” makes you squeamish, then you might want to move on over to the comics. Today we’re going to cover a topic that affects everyone, whether you realize it or not.
First, a story. A friend came over with questions about growing onions. Not that it has anything to do with today’s topic, but onions got us out to the garden. As we were discussing the daylength preferences of onions, she suddenly looked at me and said, “Marion, a rat just ran across the lawn.”
Because we live in a coastal community, rats are an insidious problem. Rats to get into bags of pet food, consume carrots right in the garden, and frequent the waterfront by the thousands. I remember talking with a harbor officer years ago who said he’d shine his flashlight on the rocks at low tide and see dozens of pairs looking back at him.
But it hasn’t always been like that. Until the late 1700s, Alaska was considered rat-free. Around 1830, though, Norway rats traveling as stowaways on Russian ships began to infest islands in Southwest Alaska.
And then, in the early 1940s, hundreds of U.S. military ships began routinely visiting coastal Alaska. Today, rats arrive on boats, ships, barges and inside freight.
Though you might think last year’s winter would have put a dent on the rodents’ population, not so. “Some years are worse than others,” says B.J. Johnson of American Pest Management. “Cold years tend to contain the population. Their systems slow down and they go into their burrows.”
During mild winters, though, “They’ve had nothing else to do but eat and propagate.”
Most of B.J.’s customers are business owners with warehouses or canneries along the waterfront where a year-round eradication program is necessary because, in spite of intensive efforts to reduce the rat population, things are not getting better.
“In my 20 years of being in business, I’m finding rats in places I’ve never seen before, including homes,” he said.
The natural characteristics of the Norway rat account for much of the problem. It has been an opportunistic sea traveler for centuries. It is incredibly adaptable, surviving and flourishing anywhere humans do. With good eyesight, keen hearing and a sharp sense of smell, these small mammals adapt quickly to our harbors and rocky coasts, where nesting birds, eggs and hatchlings provide an excellent source of food.
Rats are agile, curious and amazingly prolific breeders. They are short-lived (about a year), but they are productive. A single female can have up to 40 nestlings in a year.
Rats are also destructive. In the 1950s, rats devastated the bird population of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Two types of auklet and two types of petrels entirely disappeared from the locale. Tufted puffins, which had numbered in the hundreds of thousands, are now rarely seen.
Rats are infesting and breeding beyond the waterfront. Local gardeners have reported rats decimating crops inside hoophouses, and homeowners are finding rats in their entryways.
Remember, rats are curious. Their gnawing and chewing can cause significant property damage. When rats chew on cables or electrical wires, explosions, fire or fatal accidents can occur. Rats also pose public health risks by carrying parasites, pathogens and infectious diseases.
J.B. offered some tips for dealing with rats:
1. Eliminate hiding places:
“It’s important to clean up excess debris inside and outside your greenhouse as well as around your house and yard. Rats and mice love to hide in debris,” he said.
J.B. also recommends moving wood piles away from the house and mowing down tall grass and weeds. “Rats love to tunnel and hide in tall vegetation. You’d be amazed at what travels around your property, night and day.”
2. Remove food sources:
“Bird feeders are the worst,” he said. “So are chicken coops. When people call to say they have a rat problem and they maintain a chicken coop, I just shake my head.”
What about dog and cat food? J.B. said pet food is an attractant, but it turns out that it’s also an antidote to rat poisons. “People tell me they’ve been setting out d-Con bait but they still have a problem. That’s because their pet food contains Vitamin K, which neutralizes the effect of the poison.”
3. Plug entry holes:
You’d think plugging up holes would solve the problem. Not so. “Rats have flexible skeletons,” said J.B. “If they can get their snout in a hole, even it’s the size of a dime, they can get the rest of their body through.”
4. Set traps:
There a many ways to trap a rat. Go online and you can find all sorts of commercial and do-it-yourself designs and schemes: “Stairway to Heaven” rat traps, bucket traps, snap-traps. Or you can call American Pest Management at 907-942-1132.
Whatever method you choose, it’s important to place traps in high-activity areas such as dark corners, along fences or walls, and near compost bins and wood piles.
“A commercial property owner called me one day, saying he had a rat problem,” said J.B. “I went out there to inspect the place — my consultations are free — and as I walked around the property I noticed a small hill behind the building.”
As he walked toward the hill, the vibrations of his footsteps must have caused some sort of alarm, he said, because within seconds, a hundred rat faces were peering from their burrows.
One more story: Once upon a time, I got a phone call from a gardener in Bells Flats. She’d been looking at her vegetable garden from her kitchen window.
“I could see carrot tops shaking here and there,” she said. “I just thought it was a bird scurrying around the plants.”
Here’s where it gets interesting.
“All of a sudden,” she said, “carrots just disappeared into the ground, one after another. And then I saw them: rats!”
To eradicate rats from Kodiak, we need to be on the offensive. If you have a rat invasion, take action to eliminate them. Once is not enough. Constant vigilance is needed, for the sake of our public health and the survival of our wildlife, seabirds and carrots.
Continue to hill up around potatoes with compost, seaweed or shredded leaves.
Hose off spitbugs and be on the alert for slugs, cabbage moths and aphids.
Tap tomato flowers daily to encourage pollination and fruiing.
Keep cucumbers well-watered and fed.
Discover new recipes for kale, Swiss chard and spinach.
Thin carrots, radishes and beets.