On the Outer Banks, rats are a growing problem

By on January 22, 2024

This photo of a four-legged rodent is from a local resident security camera.

The Outer Banks is witnessing a surge in population, but this time it’s not the human variety.

In Nags Head, a family opening their grill for a barbecue discovered that a rat had taken up residence. In Manteo, a woman faced repeated plumbing issues as rats chewed through her piping, requiring three repairs in recent months. Nearby, her sister-in-law observed a disheartening scene through her kitchen window—rats had ransacked her greenhouse, leaving it devoid of plants. The rodent influx is causing car troubles and electrical failures, and vacation realty companies in Duck and Corolla are conducting extra inspections to ensure guests don’t find their kitchens invaded.

Roof rats, true to their name, are known to scale trees, invade roofs, and squeeze through the smallest of cracks to infiltrate homes, causing thousands of dollars of damage in the process. Typically known as city dwellers, these four-legged rodents have been making their presence known from Corolla to Ocracoke.

While the roof rat population has been growing in for years, local exterminators and experts at the NC Department of Agriculture agree that the problem has exploded in the past three to four years. The reasons given range from an increase in Outer Banks development and the trash left by visitors to the reduction in numbers of their natural predators.

There are rumors that rats arrived on the Outer Banks in the past few years by hitching rides on trash trucks from other communities. Bruce Love, Operations Manager at Pro1 Pest Control in Kill Devil Hills, says that may be the case, but rats have a history here. According to him, roof rats, which originated in Southeast Asia, are an invasive species that have been in the region since the Seventeenth Century, when the first ships landed in Jamestown.

But this has left local residents questioning why they are only now becoming aware of them. Through various local groups on Facebook and messages submitted to the Voice, residents are recounting sightings of the rodents running through the trees outside their kitchen windows, discovering them lifeless in their yards, and encountering serious damage to their homes and cars.

According to Victor Lennon, Deputy Director for NC Department of Agriculture’s Structural Pest Control and Pesticides Division, his Outer Banks inspectors have confirmed that the rat issue has gotten significantly worse in recent years.

“I just spoke with our Inspector Gary Bostock for the Outer Banks area and Gary confirmed that the rat issue has gotten worse the last few years. Local Pest Control companies have relayed this information to him as well,” says Lennon.

Bostock reports that the population has been increasing in the area for years, but really began to explode three to four years ago, according to Lennon. He cites the increase in tourist population from April to October and the associated trash/food sources available to rats during this time. He also mentions that a lot of homes are vacant during winter months along with restaurants being closed, thus increasing harborage areas for rodents during those months.

Michael Waldvogel, Associate Extension Professor Emeritus Urban Entomology at NC State, expanded on that notion to the Voice, adding that visitors to the area don’t realize they are contributing to the problem with the waste they are accumulating.

“Not everyone is tuned into being aware that their seemingly harmless actions can have consequences,” says Waldvogel,” adding that he experienced a similar rat issue in his research of another coastal town. “Part of their problem was that some tourists were tossing food scraps, like watermelon rinds, remnants of hamburgers and hot dogs, etc. down under elevated decks or into nearby vegetation figuring that “something” will eat it.  Unfortunately, that “something” was often rats.”

As the rats get access to more and more food, they begin to thrive, and multiply, with incredible speed. According to Love, one female rat can have three or more litters annually and five to eight infants per litter. A female rat can become pregnant again within 40 hours of having babies.

“So once they’re known to establish themselves in a particular geographic location, unfortunately, there’s not much reversing that cycle that can take place no matter how many pest control companies you have in a given area,” says Love. “They reproduce at such a quick rate that they quickly grow out of control.”

The NC Department of Agriculture and Waldvogel agree that another advantage rats have is adaptability. They thrive in our marshlands, but once they populate and take over an area, they expand their homes to houses and vacant vacation rentals, especially in the winter.

“As development expands, rats can more readily adapt to these changes in habitat, but many potential rodent predators” (such as owls, hawks, and other birds of prey, as well as foxes, snakes, feral cats and occasionally raccoons) “may also be displaced and move elsewhere or be eliminated,” says Waldvogel. “That leaves the rodent population unchecked except for human intervention.”

According to Love, rat populations are affected by efforts to control their predators, pointing to programs across Eastern NC to control feral cats, and a reintroduction of coyotes, who prefer cats as prey. He also notes that people’s affinity for feeding feral cats makes them less motivated to hunt and kill rats.

Love says recently he had a customer in Corolla that had to pay $40,000 in damages to their plumbing and electrical as a result of damage done by rats. He knew of another case in Virginia Beach where the rats ate through the electrical wires causing an electrical fire that burnt the entire house down.

“The damage can be catastrophic,” says Love.

According to Love, the most effective means of mitigating some of the damage rats can do to property is to effectively block them from the premises. That means identifying potential entry points into the structure and effectively sealing them off with products and devices that prohibit them from gaining entry. He also mentions eliminating low-hanging branches close to your home that rats can crawl onto.

“When rodents are a significant problem, I believe that it is best to contact a pest control professional who can help build a community-wide plan as opposed to a patchwork of small and potentially ineffective participants,” says Waldvogel, who adds that a plan for solving the problem has to be multifaceted and include trapping and habitat modification. He also notes the importance of doing it in a way that does not endanger other wildlife, pets or children.

But Love says the problem won’t be fixed until officials take measures to reduce their numbers, explaining that once these rats establish themselves in a particular geographic location, there’s no reversing that cycle no matter how many pest control companies you have in a given area.

“They reproduce at such a quick rate that they quickly grow out of control,” says Love. “They’re very intuitive little creatures, and they will find their way into new areas. And once they’re there, if there’s plentiful food source, enough harborage, and not enough natural predators, they’re going to establish themselves. And they’re likely not going anywhere anytime soon.”



Comments

  • Obxer

    I saw a rat run across the street from speedway to manteo coa this week. First I thought it was a squirrel but definitly a rat in the middle of the day lol

    Saturday, Jan 27 @ 8:59 pm
  • Wanda

    Feral cats need regular food too not just rats! Treat your outside cat or cats good and they will be good to you and take care of those rats …

    Sunday, Feb 4 @ 7:47 pm