According to experts, more than 50 million Americans actively participate in feeding birds. That's a whole lot of potential bird food that's either spilling onto the ground when the birds feed or are easily accessible for rodents such as rats directly on the feeder.
Best ways to stop rats climbing your bird feeder
There are a few ways you can stop rats from climbing your bird feeder. The simplest solution is by purchasing a rodent-proof bird feeder, this makes it much harder for the rats to climb and actually reach the food. You can also try greasing the pole to make it harder for rats to climb up. You could also try an anti-climb dish or tube-baffle around the pole. This will stop all rodents including squirrels and raccoons from reaching the food.
Reduce food build-up on the ground
Easy pickings are usually found on the floor around the feeder as birds usually toss aside anything they don't want. This build-up of food and birdseed will eventually attract rats and other rodents. Many people have devised ways to stop the food and seed from falling on the floor and attracting rats. This includes using a dish below the feeder however, this can fill with rainwater. One of the best and cheapest solutions is to buy a kitchen sieve and use cable ties to attach it to the feeder, this way the sieve will catch the bird seeds but let the rainwater through. You can then put the collected bird seed back in the feeder.
Buy a rat and squirrel proof bird feeder
Sharp teeth can easily gnaw through plastic bird feeders, so I always recommend buying metal feeders. They are more expensive, but they will last much longer. Usually, I'd go for one with a metal top, bottom, and access holes. This will prevent squirrels from chewing around the access holes to get to the seed. There are also squirrel-free bird feeders with clever weighted technology which closes the access to the seeds when a squirrel or larger bird climbs onto it. See this Squirrel-proof Bird Feeder on Amazon as an example.
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Bird feeder location
The position of your bird feeder in your yard is also important and can make a big difference. Rats especially like the dark areas near the edge of your garden so always make sure you put it in a light and clear area if you're using a pole. Another tactic would be to tie a line of wire or string across the yard from two poles and attach the bird feeder to this making it inaccessible from the ground. Always make sure the feeder is at least 8 feet away from trees so squirrels can't jump across to it.
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Pause your bird feeding
If all else fails you could try pausing feeding the birds for a while until all the seed is gone. Rats are creatures of habit and will stay close to an easy meal. If there's no more food they eventually move on, especially in Spring when they will seek a mate and new territory for breeding.
Keep your bird feeder clean
It goes without saying that you must keep your feeder and area around it clean. This includes sweeping up any birdseed that has fallen on the ground. This is relatively easy if the bird feeder is on your patio but on the lawn, this can be tricky. Try to keep the grass short as mice in particular like to hide in amongst the blades of tall grass. You can use a vacuum outside to collect any spilled seed.
Keeping the feeder clean will help stop the spread of disease. Salmonellosis is one of the most common bird feeder diseases found at bird tables. Infected birds shed the salmonella bacteria in their droppings and via bird-to-bird contact. Always protect yourself when cleaning your feeder. Wear rubber gloves and use a combination of bleach and water to remove rodent droppings and urinated areas.
Use a rodent repellent
Rats and mice dislike strong flavors so you could mix chili flakes or cayenne pepper to your birdseed. This won't put the birds off as they don't have taste receptors for capsaicin but it will help deter rodents. Another solution would be the Shake-Away rodent repellent granules. This product uses non-toxic granules to trick rodents into thinking there are predators in the area.
Buy a rat trap
If you have not been successful in repelling rodents from your garden you could try trapping or bait boxes. There is a wide range of rat traps available from the straightforward Victor snap traps to rat zappers (delivers a high-voltage shock to the rats). For outside rat traps, snap traps are one of the best ways to quickly kill rats. Alternatively, use a humane trap or cage and free the rat a long distance away from your property. Bait boxes and traps will keep poison safely away from pets and other animals.
I'd actually recommend against using poison around your bird feeder to get rid of the rats. Other animals that feed on the rats may be in danger of secondary poisoning although the chances of receiving a big enough dose for it to have any serious effect is relatively low. Rats that have been poisoned will usually go back to their burrows and die underground so other animals or pets won't get to them. If you're planning on using rat poison you must stop feeding birds during this in order for poisoning to be successful. Remember, using poison causes a slow and painful death so always try to go with a quick death by using a rat trap.
Natural pest control
You could try attracting owls to your backyard. These raptors are a fantastic way of controlling the rodent population. Owls are nocturnal and only hunt at night and don't eat birdseed so they won't impact the local bird population during the day. Owls prefer natural dark backyards with large trees and dense vegetation for nesting. Avoid using floodlights and exterior lighting with motion sensors.
Store your birdseed away from rodents
Rats will always be attracted to where you actually store your birdseed, especially if it's in a shed or outbuilding. Make sure you use a sturdy and strong container, preferably not plastic as sharp teeth will chew through it. Use a container made of glass or plastic with a tight lid.
Use hulled birdseed
Rats are omnivores and eat just about anything, but they are very partial to peanuts and suet. Filling your bird feeder with hulled seed will help limit the amount of seed that falls to the ground. Try not to use mixed seed. If you are attracting a range of birds use multiple feeders with different seeds such as sunflower, safflower, or thistle.
Birdseed rats won't eat
Nyjer is a tiny seed that rats generally are not interested in and won't eat. Nyjer seed is available to buy on Amazon and is ideal for attracting songbirds such as Finches which have smaller beaks. You can use this birdseed in a finch sock, station, or tube feeder to try and stop rats from eating it.
For serious rat infestations always contact a professional pest control company. Make sure they are aware of the birds and other wildlife in your backyard and they do not cause harm to these with their methods. If you do have a rodent infestation then act quickly, the chances are they will be spreading to your home, more so in the winter months when they will seek warmth and shelter.
What problems do rats cause on bird feeders?
Rats are well known for carrying horrible diseases such as Hantavirus which can be transmitted to humans by inhaling particles from their droppings. Rats can also spread illness to birds and carry over 35 diseases ranging in severity.
With the correct planning, care, and maintenance it is straightforward to reduce and eventually stop rats and other rodents from being attracted to your bird feeder. Taking the necessary precautions such as keeping your pole feeder clean, placing a tube-baffle around the pole, using hulled seed and a way of catching falling seed will all start to deter rats.