Chicagoans rejoiced over the historically mild winter, but now many are experiencing the downside of no deep freeze: the pitter-patter of tiny feet in neighbourhood alleys; the sound of a city’s rats thriving.
Complaints to City Hall about the omnivorous urban survivors—the bane of those who garden, walk dogs or loathe leathery tails—are on the rise.
Through the end of July, the number of calls to the city’s 311 centre asking for a crew to get rid of rats was up more than 28 per cent compared with last year. The raw figures: 15,895 calls this year, compared with 12,375 over the same period in 2011.
Department of Streets and Sanitation officials say they’ve put out more rat poison and are working more efficiently this year. Teams are responding within six days instead of an average of nearly eight days a year ago, according to city records. And the number of cases where crews put out poison to kill rats was up more than 19 per cent, to 18,339.
One explanation is that brown rats, the area’s predominant species, likely rode out the chilly months with uncharacteristic ease, according to Steve Sullivan, senior curator of urban ecology for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
“Rats don’t hibernate. They have to forage for food year-round, which is much more difficult if there’s a lot of snow and the temperatures plummet,” Sullivan said. “So we usually see a significant die-off between their first and second year. It’s likely that didn’t happen this past winter, though, because we didn’t have that long snap of frigid temperatures with deep snow.”
Combine that with the furry rodents’ tendency to breed like rabbits and eat “anything humans can eat,” Sullivan said, and you have yourself a summer population boom.
The biggest percentage increase this year—a 176 per cent jump—happened in the 2nd Ward, which includes the South Loop. Yvette Morris has noticed the neighbourhood is a little more crowded this summer.
“Just this past week I asked myself, ‘Where are these rats coming from?'” said Morris, who has lived in the South Loop for 12 years.
Out walking her pugs Chloe and Rocco, Morris said she has witnessed some truly brazen rat behaviour in recent weeks.
“I’m out with the dogs three times a day, and I see them at all hours,” Morris said. “Morning or night, they’ll just scamper across the sidewalk. a while back one came out onto the sidewalk and ran toward us. I started screaming. It didn’t seem very scared.”
The rats aren’t the only small mammals flourishing in the South Loop. Bunnies are through the roof as well, Morris said, but their fluffy tails and reputation for carrying Easter eggs rather than the plague earn them more “Awwwws” than “Ewwwws” from locals.
City crews have put out the most poison in the 35th Ward centered around the bustling Logan Square neighbourhood on the Northwest Side. The 941 cases through July 31 are a touch above the 926 in the nearby 32nd Ward, home to affluent neighborhoods like Roscoe Village and Bucktown.
While rodent poison cases are actually down this year in the 32nd Ward by more than 11 per cent, they’re up by 71 per cent in the 35th Ward.
Paul Levin, executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t heard members complaining about an unusual number of rats around the hip bars and restaurants around Milwaukee Avenue and Logan Boulevard. He dismissed the notion that the neighbourhood’s happening night life creates more edible trash that supports more rodents, saying most of the buildings now housing restaurants and clubs have long had businesses serving food.
But there does seem to be “a little more chatter than usual about rats” on online resident forums like everyblock.com, Levin acknowledged.
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne has 15 crews of two people each on rodent duty. The rat patrols drive from alley to alley in response to the 311 complaints, looking for the telltale hole that indicates an underground burrow. Poison goes in the hole, and the workers post signs alerting residents they’ve been in the area. Then on to the next complaint, the next hole.
Byrne acknowledged the warm weather might have grown Chicago’s rat population. But with more than 18,000 cases already this year, the Streets and San teams haven’t had much time to dwell on how meteorological trends are affecting the numbers. “You get out there as quickly as you can after the call comes in, deal with it as best you can—trying to identify the burrows—then on to the location of the next call,” he said.
Byrne is more fixated on the nuts-and-bolts drivers of rodent numbers: food, uncovered garbage, dog feces, bird feeders and backyard gardens. Rats love to eat all that stuff, he said.
“If you don’t get rid of the feces and keep your eye on everything else to make sure they aren’t getting into it, that makes it tougher,” Byrne said.
This year could be a harbinger. Seth Magle, the director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo, said if long-term warming continues, Chicagoans should get used to a city with more critters.
“If we don’t have these (winter) die-offs, we should expect to see fluctuations in all kinds of species,” he said.
Twitter @_johnbyrne ___
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