I write from bitter experience. Rats chewed a water line and I found birdfeeder seeds stashed in the wall cavities when the repairs were made. The incident caused a lot of damage and we were without water for several days.
I knew that birdfeeders were known to encourage rats. I thought that having the bird feeder hanging six feet from the ground was rat control enough. What a fool.
I now know that rats can virtually run up a wall that has any texture at all. They can access a roof by tightrope walking along power lines. They can climb trees like squirrels and are not afraid to hang on to tiny end branches and drop down on a target birdfeeder. Rats can also jump several feet up and across a space.
The Dilemma-Rats or Birds.
The water line chewing also presented a dilemma, a problem faced by many people who want to get rid of rats but continue to feed birds. I wanted to keep my bird feeder but the more research I did on rat control the less possible it seemed.
There is a well developed concept that once you begin feeding birds you must be sure to maintain a constant food supply. The birds become dependant they say, and you wouldn't want to be responsible for starving a chickadee flock would you?
It's a great birdseed marketing idea. But this idea of bird dependency is probably a root cause of rat related bird feeder problems so lets take a second look. Do birds really become dependant on your birdseed and, if so, do you really want to make them dependant? What happens if you move, get sick or for some other reason are unable to stock the bird feeder?
It is quite likely that if wild birds have a constant food source they will lose the ability to forage for their natural food especially if the birdseed supply has spanned several generations. Wild birds teach their young the skills they need to find food. If the only required skill is how to hang onto a birdfeeder, it's easy to see how dependency could be developed.
So what to do? Well I've discovered that I can still get a lot of enjoyment out of the bird population without encouraging rats. You can too, but first you must rid yourself of the theory of dependency. If your birds are birdseed addicts, you must put them into remedial therapy.
You must stop being Birdseed God with a flock that worships and relies on you. You must also lose another idea that seems central to birdseed and birdfeeder sales. The idea that feeding birds can be an easy, hands off process providing the birdseed container is large enough to satisfy all the hungry beaks without being regularly filled. In fact successful bird feeding without encouraging rats requires daily attention. You can skip a day or two. But you cannot leave food out overnight.
In doing the research for this article I looked at a lot of commercial birdfeeder designs. Most of them are variations of a hopper. A birdseed container with some small holes designed to release small amounts of food into a feeding trough. Some of the larger hopper style bird feeders hold ten pounds of birdseed. If birds were nice civilized and orderly creatures such a hopper full of seeds might be a good idea. But they are not. Birds are uncivilized, disorderly and very messy with their eating habits.
When birds have a continuous supply of food they often become choosy and select only the choicest of their favorite seed type. They learn that moving the food away from the hole brings more food with a chance of a jackpot, a prime specimen of a seed. They learn to shovel the food out with their beaks or scratch it away with their feet. Some of the food that is spilled gets eaten by other birds. But much is also left on the ground as an easy meal for rats and mice after dark.
People who enjoy the birds from a distance and are not paying close attention might simply think that the birds are eating a lot. Maybe they should get the larger size next time. After all they are Birdseed Gods with flocks to protect from starvation. Better get the jumbo size, the ones next to the rat traps.
You can enjoy feeding birds without accidentally feeding rats. It simply means putting out less food and making sure that none is left after dark either in the feeder or on the ground. If you have developed a large crowd of dependant birds, reduce the amount gradually. The aim is to have at least two hours at the end of the day where birds are searching for remaining seeds.
Recommended Bird Feeder Design
The bird feeder style that works best makes it unnecessary and difficult for birds to scratch food out on to the ground. Fortunately it's also a birdfeeder that allows a very good view of the birds. It's simply a small cup sized open container placed centrally in a tray. The tray should be positioned in a larger tray. Place a 2-3inch rock in the central container before adding the seeds. The rock prevents small birds from getting into the seeds and scratching them out. They can stand on the rock or the edge of the bowl to feed. Any seeds that are spilled end up in the next tray where they are available to the birds that are lower in the pecking order. None of the seeds are tantalizingly inaccessible. Birds can select their choice seed without scratching other seeds out of the way. They will choose their favorites first but come back for the rest when it's all that's left. If there is food left at the end of the day, you should put out less the next day.
Birds will not starve or fly away for ever if the food runs out. More likely they will move from searching for remaining seeds to searching for their natural food, something any truly benevolent Birdseed God would want! Birds are as interesting when doing what comes naturally as hanging on a feeder. They will return for daily treats. Your birdfeeder does not need to be a 24 hour seed dispensing machine.
Hanging Bird Feeder
Many people prefer a hanging birdfeeder especially where there are cats around. You can place the seed bowl on a simple hanging tray type bird feeder. These can be made easily by any handy person but are also a relatively inexpensive bird feeder to buy. There are also hanging birdseed nets designed to prevent birdseed reaching the ground. If squirrels are a problem, (or even rats in the daytime) funnel shaped cones can be added. If you do need to add a squirrel cone be sure that it's diameter is larger than the biggest tray or the squirrels will simply drop onto the tray or net.
If you are a bird watcher you might be interested in my article on Finding and Photographing Owls in Daylight.