Oh, rats!

Whidbey Island is a rat’s paradise, even without the human enticements of open garbage cans, pet food on the porch, spilled bird feed, and compost piles.

There’s plenty of food to be found on the mud flats at low tide, a tolerable winter climate, lots of fresh water, and thick brush offering protective cover from predators. But, given the sloppy practices of islanders, most of whom are completely unaware of their contribution to the rat population, Whidbey Island has also become an exterminator’s paradise.

“The biggest problem people have with rats is that they under estimate them,” said Steve Lindsey, owner of Surety Pest Control. “They’re very intelligent. And very bold.”

Lindsey likens the battle against rats to a chess game. “You always have to think two steps ahead if you want to win,” he said.

The rat population on the island is in a constant state of flux, easing in one location while booming in another. The north end of the island is getting hit particularly hard this year, he said, while the southern end is about normal. In places like Langley, however, that’s not necessarily saying much.

“They’re moving Langley on their backs, I’m convinced,” Lindsey said. “We do a lot of work in Langley.”

Whidbey Island will never be rid of rats, but the population is controllable, said Don Meehan, director of the Washington State University Extension Office for Island County.

“Anytime you have a rodent problem, it’s typically about food,” Meehan said. “If you control the food, then you control the beast.”

Anyone who feeds birds should take extra care to ensure they don’t attract unwanted species as well.

“Bird feeders are a great way of feeding birds and rats,” Meehan said.

He advised bird enthusiasts to use rodent-proof bird feeders and include a way to catch the seed dropped by foraging birds. Bird feed or squirrel feed on the ground will almost certainly mean rats will find it, he said.

Accessible garbage or uncovered composting of scrap food are also good rat attractors, Lindsey said.

Disease-carrying rats and their fleas can have very serious consequences, as the bubonic plague once demonstrated. Other health issues involving rats include rat bite fever, the rat-urine ailment leptospirosis, trichinosis, salmonelosis, and murinetyphus fever.

There hasn’t been any recent known cases of rat-borne disease on Whidbey Island, according to

Kathleen Parvin, environmental health specialist with the Island County Health Department. But, it’s a constant vigil keeping people informed to prevent illnesses from occurring. The health department has a web site that includes a list of dos and don’t to help residents deal with rat issues.

According to Lindsey, a rat colony usually consists of a couple dozen animals ruled by an Alpha male and female. They tend to stay in their territory, which is usually no more than 100-200 feet from their nesting site. An adult female can produce a litter of six to nine rats every six weeks.

As long as enough food is available, a colony will continue to grow, with young males spreading out to start their own colonies. This is why any rat problem is a neighborhood problem, Meehan said.

“Rats are very mobile and it means the neighborhood has to work together to keep them under control,” he said.

People also should be aware of the type of “harborage” they provide, which is Lindsey’s term for shelter. Harborage includes the thick brush and blackberry brambles in the yard as well as the ivy growing up against the house, anything that allows rats to move around without feeling threatened. They rarely come out in the open where they are exposed to predators, so an environment that leaves them feeling vulnerable will likely lead to their moving on to safer territory.

A long-ignored wood pile, especially one next to the house, can become a safe haven for rats.

“What you’re doing is setting up a hotel for them,” Lindsey said.

As long as the wood is burned off each year, with intermittent human activity at the wood pile, the rats won’t be comfortable enough to move in, he said.

There are also a number of things to do to keep rats from entering the house, including having a tightly sealed crawl space to prevent rats from accessing a house, fixing any broken vent screens, and sealing off sewer lines and pipes that enter the house.

“I’d say concede the outside to them, but you don’t want them in your house,” Lindsey said.


The Island County Health Department maintains a web site of information about and advice for preventing rats: The following are some tips from that web site.

Do not give food and shelter to these most unwanted guests

• The time to act is before the signs (droppings) of a rat or mouse.

• Stack fire wood 18 inches off the ground and away from all buildings.

• Birdhouses and seed should be on poles and in trays rats can't get.

• Keep garbage can lids closed tightly.

• Plant bushes so they will stay at least 3 feet from your house.

• Keep yards and alleys clean. Take junk to the dump.

• If you feed them, they will stay. Pick up fruit and vegetables in your yard.

• Do not compost any animal products (fish, meat, chicken, cheese, butter). Keep lids tight.

• Use only rodent resistant composters.

• In basements keep any food in closed containers that rats can't chew through.

• Cover all openings to your house. Rats can get into very small places.

• Do not leave your pet food outside. If your pet doesn't eat it, the rats will.

• Roof rats get into your house from tree branches that hang over the roof. Keep trees cut back and cover any openings in the eves.

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