Rats usually scurry in the shadows, darting down dark city alleys and across trash-strewn lots. But during the pandemic, the urban pests have come out of hiding, scattered into neighborhoods by downtown closures in search of loose garbage bins and discarded leftovers.
When restaurants closed at the start of the pandemic and people began eating more at home, rodents abandoned downtown and migrated to more residential areas, pest control experts said. With a smorgasbord of kitchen scraps and bird seed laid out before them, the rats have made themselves at home, much to people’s chagrin.
“Every night when I go home, I see like six,” said Yolanda Yang, 23, who lives in Allston. “It’s horrible.”
Across town in Dorchester, Barbara Wilson, 78, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 80s, said she’s never seen so many rats. She sees them in her yard nearly every day and spots them across the neighborhood on her walks. She steers clear and hopes they do the same.
“They have germs on them and they bite,” Wilson said in disgust.
She recently lodged a complaint with the city’s 311 reporting system, one of more than 900 filed so far this year . Rats have found reliable sources of food in neighborhoods and are not rushing to return downtown, said Mike Mackan, principal assistant of environmental sanitation at Boston’s Inspectional Services Department.
“They’ve settled a bit and the residential areas have become their home,” Mackan said. “Pet feces and bird seed are a gourmet meal for them.”
In response to the complaints, yellow-vested city inspectors have fanned out across the city, said Catherine Wilson, environmental health inspector with the Inspectional Services department.
“A lot of places slowed down due to COVID. We did not,” Wilson said. “We’re definitely seeing a little bit more activity.”
Inspectors assess infestation on public property and offer a one-time visit to private residences, Wilson said. Visits result in baiting rat burrows with dry ice or other methods, reminding residents to pick up trash and debris that attract rodents, and recommending pest control when necessary.
While rats seem more abundant than usual, it’s not clear that their numbers have increased significantly, specialists said. But uprooted by the pandemic, they are making their presence known.
“They do a good job of hiding and because so many of them kind of came out of the woodwork to start searching for food, they just became more visible,” said Dr. Michael Bentley, an entomologist at the National Pest Management Association .
Stuart Cody, 78, a resident of Allston for 26 years , agreed the increase was in the eye of the beholder.
“People have been hanging around their houses and are more willing to notice things,” Cody said. “They’re coming out and they’re looking.”
Rats are a nuisance that long predates the pandemic, of course, especially in Boston. Mice or rats were spotted in more than 18 percent of homes in the Boston metropolitan area, according to the US Census’s 2019 American Housing Survey. That was the second-highest figure in the country, just behind the Philadelphia area and well ahead of New York and Chicago.
Weather has also worked in the rats’ favor. The winter was mild, allowing more to survive until spring, and an unusually wet July created ideal conditions for them thrive — pools of water to stay cool and hydrated and overgrown yards protecting them from people and predators, such as dogs and coyotes.
“Big flooding rain creates an overabundance of moisture — ideal conditions for every single pest out there,” Bentley said.
The rain has also made rodents more visible, forcing them to search for drier shelter.
Unfortunately, the rat population is unlikely to decline any time soon, with climate change making Boston’s winters increasingly mild.
“Traditionally when it’s colder outside, there are fewer food resources, populations tend to decline,” Bentley said. “But they really surge back in the spring.”
Some residents are taking matters into their own hands. Ross Miller, Cody’s neighbor in Allston, said rats have scurried in the yard behind his apartment for years. He’s moved his deck away from the building, set sticky traps, and has borrowed a neighbor’s Red Ryder BB gun. But rats are quick.
“They’re really hard to shoot,” Miller said.
“Oh, come on,” Cody replied. “You just need practice.”
Kate Lusignan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.