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What's eating LI: How to keep those pesky rodents away

When the pandemic hit, many Long Islanders, at least temporarily, lost their favorite restaurant. Humans weren’t the only ones who have felt the impact of closures — rodents also lost a stream of food previously found in the trash. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Rats! There’s no getting away from them.

Cities or suburbs, rodents love them all — for the piles of food in trash cans and dumpsters. When we're done, they've just begun.

"Urban and heavily populated areas and rodents go well together like peanut butter and jelly," said Tamson Yeh, extension educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead.

But, experts say, supplies may be running short in the year of the pandemic.

"Restaurants shut down, rodents went to feed," said Michael Deutsch, technical director at Lynbrook-based Arrow Exterminating. "They couldn’t find anything. They moved out in search of food in other neighborhoods that normally wouldn’t have an issue."

While there is only anecdotal evidence of this on Long Island, Deutsch said rodents have been on the prowl, sometimes in residential neighborhoods. "They were showing up in areas where they weren’t common in homes and businesses," he said. "We have seen an increase in calls about mice and rats."

Amid the pandemic, pest proofing may matter more than ever, since people are spending more time at home and are likely to generate more trash, experts say. Not following best practices on pest prevention doesn’t mean you’ll have a problem, but it does make it more likely, Deutsch said.

"That doesn’t mean you’ll get mice or rats," Deutsch said. "But if there’s activity in the neighborhood, they may move."

Here's what Long Island homeowners should know about the infestation and how to deal with it:

Old-timers from afar

Rodents are not new to these parts, and not all of them are alike. The most typical on Long Island and New York City is the Norway rat, aka the brown rat, sewer rat and wharf rat, believed to be named for rats found on a ship from Norway in the Middle Ages, Deutsch said. "European colonists brought European and Asian mice and rats with them," said Russell Burke, professor of biology at Hofstra University, "and these species are now spread across the continent."

Pandemic perceptions

Exterminators report doing brisk business. "Those doing residential pest control have been extremely busy," said Leonard Douglen, associate director of the New York Pest Management Association.

This could be because people are storing more food at home to reduce shopping trips, or not cleaning up often enough. Barbecues can draw unwanted guests: "If you don’t clean the grill, that grease attracts rodents," Deutsch said.

Restaurants may be generating less trash, sending rodents running in search of new hunting grounds, experts say. It could also be that people are noticing the problem because they’re home.

"People are in their yards more, which makes it more likely they’ll notice rodents that might have been there all along," Burke said.

Rodents can be a concern all year long, but fall and winter traditionally bring more pests into homes as, Deutsch said, they head indoors "to look for better shelter as it gets colder," taking refuge in homes, garages and sheds. Rodents infest about 21 million homes in the United States each winter, according to the National Pest Management Association, based in Fairfax, Virginia. Warmer winters could delay rodents’ rush indoors, but might also extend their breeding season. "That’s a concern," Deutsch said.

Keep ’em out

Some people wait to act until a rodent gets in the house but that’s not ideal, said Steve Gehrke, president of Advance Pest Control, in Patchogue. "We try to attack the problem from the outside before they get inside the structure," he said. Exterminators typically use rodenticide in pet-and-child tamper-resistant bait stations or snap traps inside protective boxes. A snap trap acts quickly, if it operates correctly, while rodenticide takes three to five days, he said. He does not recommend using glue traps. Traps outside must be secured to the ground.

Feathered friends

What’s good for the gander — or at least birds — can be good for the mice. "People may be feeding birds more and gardening more, which can create favorable conditions for rodents like mice and rats," said Burke. "Whatever the birds don’t eat, any other animal can feed off," Gehrke added. Bags of grass seed and bird seed should be secured out of the reach of rodents.

Safe storage

Store food, pet food and seed in airtight containers with fitted lids, suggested Kari Warberg Block, chief executive of Mooresville, North Carolina-based Earth Kind, a plant-based pest repellent maker. "Protect all food sources," Burke agreed. "Don’t leave garbage out, clean up any spills quickly and thoroughly, don’t feed wildlife or at least not on the ground." Yeh said residents also should seal linens, books and papers in plastic (not cardboard) storage containers elevated off the floor and away from walls.

Get tough

Most residents use plastic garbage cans, but they’re not ideal to protect food from rodents, which derives from the Latin "rodere," or gnaw. Rodents can chew through plastic, but not galvanized steel cans, Burke said. "Put them in a metal container," Gehrke said of pet food and bird seed. "Keep everything as clean as possible," Deutsch said. "When garbage is supposed to be picked up, get rid of it, even if it’s only one bag." Rodents sometimes chew through Sheetrock and wiring, "putting buildings at risk of electrical fires," according to the National Pest Management Association.

Seal those cracks

A mouse can slip through a hole the size of a dime and a rat can squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter, Deutsch said. Yeh suggested residents caulk or seal window frames, doors, foundation and clothes dryer vents, crawl space access doors and holes for heating/AC and plumbing lines. Weatherstrip or install door sweeps beneath house and garage doors. The National Pest Management Association suggests you screen vents and openings to chimneys. Stand in your basement with the lights off during daylight and look for light entering from the outside, Yeh said. "If you can see daylight through a crack, it must be sealed with caulk to keep bugs and other unsavory things out," she added.

‘Police your property’

While removing food can be a good start, rats can thrive on debris. "You have to police your property," Deutsch said. "Manage your trash. It doesn’t have to be edible garbage. It could be litter, debris, cardboard boxes, discarded furniture these animals use to nest." Firewood piled on the ground can be an invitation to rodent infestation. Stores such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s, Deutsch said, sell metal stands where you can stack logs off the ground. Store firewood outdoors at least 3 feet from the house, Yeh said.

Whom to call

If you want an exterminator, there is no shortage on Long Island with more than 70 companies from the region in the New York Pest Management Association, nwsdy.li/NYPMA, 877-521-7378 .

You can go to the association website and click the Find A Pro feature to search for pest control companies by ZIP code or go to this direct link to search by ZIP code. nwsdy.li/exterminators

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