One of the things that puts people off feeding birds is attracting vermin, in particular rats. Although it’s unlikely that you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat, with anything from 80 to 120 million rats estimated to live in the UK – that’s about 13 rats for every 10 people – it’s not unusual for a rat to take up residence in your garden.
If you’ve planned your garden to attract wildlife, then unfortunately you can’t be too discerning about the types of wildlife you attract. To set up home rats need food, water and shelter – or harbourage as it’s known in the rat-catching trade – and a well-designed wildlife garden will tend to have at least one or two, if not all three, of these features.
Food is the main requirement needed to support a rat population, but rats are not usually directly attracted to the food that is provided in a bird feeder. Rather, they are attracted initially by food on the ground nearby a bird feeder, either food that you have provided, or seeds, shells, or husks that birds have dropped as they feed.
To prevent rats finding food in this way there are some precautions you can take. Rats are most active at night so if you put out food on the ground for birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, and wrens, only put out enough food that they can eat during the day and clear up any leftovers before dusk.
Birds will discard husks and other fillers found in bird food so use a no-mess, high quality bird food in your bird feeders to stop them dropping unwanted food. No-mess bird food has been hulled, flaked, or kibbled, and has the added benefit of not sprouting so you won’t end up with an unsightly patch of weeds on the lawn below your bird feeders.
Another way bird food can end up on the ground is from using the wrong types of bird feeders. If your bird feeders have feeding ports that are too large for the seeds, then the seeds can easily fall out if the feeders are knocked or tipped. Birds’ beaks are well adapted to accessing seeds through tiny holes so choose bird feeders with small feeding ports to minimise spillage. You could also fix a seed-catching tray to your bird feeding pole which will help prevent any food ending up on the ground.
At the end of each day check the ground below your bird feeders and sweep up any fallen seeds or husks that could attract rats. Give your bird feeders a wipe around the ports to get rid of any accumulated seed and remove any debris in your seed trays.
If, despite all this, a rat has discovered you are feeding birds then you’re going to need to implement a new defensive strategy. Because rats, like squirrels, can climb. And once they have realised that the food in your bird feeders is more tempting than the scraps on the ground, they’re going to do all they can to get at it.
You can use many of the same techniques you would use to prevent squirrels raiding your bird feeders such as positioning your bird feeders well away from branches or anywhere else a rat can jump from.
You could also use baffles to prevent rats accessing your bird feeders. These are plastic domes or cones that are fixed to bird feeding poles and will stop a rat climbing up a pole or jumping down to access the feeders.
If your garden doesn’t have a readily accessible supply of food, then water alone in your garden probably won’t be much of a problem. But unlike mice, rats can’t survive without water so in very dry spells they may enter gardens looking for water sources from ponds, bird baths, dripping taps, water butts, or drainpipes.
It can be hard to remove all water sources from your garden but emptying bird baths at night, and fixing any leaky sources can go some way to reducing the risk of attracting rats.