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An Urban Birders Rat Problem

Some unfortunate people regard mousebirds as pests. The very name “mousebird” seems to conjure images of filth. In truth, we have at least 10 Speckled Mousebirds on our feeder each morning – and they do mess (very big mess!), but they are a daily joy. On the other hand 30 rats are born every second of the day in South Africa!!! (from South African Pest Control Association data). And these are not friendly mousebirds or even Raton Mickey types, these are R Rattus of black death fame. The greatest nightmare is to find that they have “discovered” your bird feeding spot, and are now aggressively helping themselves to your bird food, and moving into the neighbourhood.

So what to do? The immediate impulse is the Schwarzenegger response – and your alarm bells should ring. The caution is in 2 rules:

  • Whatever happens has to be humane
  • Whatever happens has to have minimal impact to the rest of the environment

But something has to happen. You cannot create a bigger problem for your neighbours (and indeed your own family).

South Africa is a traditional “skiet eers, en vra vrae later” society. Thus idea A is to simply blow them away one by one. The problem is that most efforts will use an old fashioned air (pellet) gun, because discharge of a firearm is prohibited in an urban area. Unfortunately it requires a perfect shot, and more often than not, the rat will not die, leading to suffering and conflict with rule 1. As every hunter (should) know, you have to hit your target with more than ample energy to ensure a kill-shot. If your biltong comes from impala, most farmers will insist on at least a 243 calibre weapon, for kudus, a .308 or .303 weapon. For rats, you need to use a .22, and being in an urban setting this is a no-no.

Idea B: poison (more alarm bells!). We have a serious problem with secondary effects of many toxins. It hits our birdlife, but may even cause death to your domestic pets. At the very least you need to use a product without secondary effect (e.g. Bayer Racumin). The concern is whether the death is humane. There are obviously different opinions on this, and perhaps one should err on the side of caution.

Idea C: Use a rat trap. These seem to have varying success, but are worth a try. The thing is – once you have caught one, what do you do. The traditional disposal ground (neighbours backyard) does not work in this case. Believe me, no-one will permit release of your rat on their property – even on their farm land. You will have to dispose of the rat, and you will need to remember rule 1…

Idea D: Get a resident Spotted Eagle Owl! Actually this is by far the best solution. The problem is (my observation), even with a perfect Owl Box (available from Elaine’s Birding and Wildlife Products!), and perfectly fitted in a perfect tree, in what appears to be a perfect location – you probably have a 10% chance to attract a pair. Certainly it is worth a try even for those low odds.

And so we come to the practical suggestions…

Idea E: Clean up the rat breeding and nesting areas. This is easier said than done, because they can live in trees, in roofs, in rubbish dumps etc. Sadly it requires a community response, where everyone cleans up their garden and dumping areas, cuts grass, and generally removes areas that provide cover and support to rats. Sewers are a big problem, but I believe a greater issue in the inner cities. Certainly, one cannot leave food residue open and available around your trash can.

Idea F: Feed your birds only by day, preferably in the morning, and remove all left over food before sundown. This is actually an easy solution, and usually also supports good rationing and control of feeding to your birds – overfeeding is definitely wrong.

Idea G: Reduce the access of rats to the feeder, and reduce defensive cover. This is also easier said than done, rats jump and have prodigious climbing capability. A mechanism with at least part success, is to place a long shepherds hook under a feeding tree where the lower branches are about 1,5m above the feeder. Using a feeder cap such as the terracotta seed bell holder (or preferably a larger similar metal device) to protect the feeder, one can make it more difficult to access. This also forces any intruding rat to egress via the ground with much greater exposure (especially if you have pet dogs). One always thinks that cats would be very effective against rats, but my observation is that they are in general far happier to attack your garden birds. So fit a bell to your cat, and get a couple of Jack Russells!!

And if nothing else works… You may need to suspend feeding your beloved birds for a month or two, until your rat problem subsides. The rat problem in South Africa will never leave, it has to be managed.

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