Altamont resident: Railroad work sent rats to my home

— From Wendy Stasinchak

The company performing the track work along the old Delaware and Hudson Railway line says that in 25 years of business it has “never had any rat problems with a track rehabilitation project.” 

ALTAMONT — Wendy Stasinchak says that track work taking place right behind her Mountaindale Court home has caused rats to migrate from beneath the old Delaware and Hudson Railway line and into four Mountaindale Court townhomes.

The work, the replacement of damaged railroad ties, is taking place along a 15-mile stretch of railway between Voorheesville and Delanson that is owned by the Norfolk Southern Railway Company and leased by SMS Rail Lines. So far, 4,000 railroad ties have been replaced, according to James Pfeiffer, superintendent of operating practices for SMS Rail Lines. 

The noisy process of replacing the damaged railroad ties has disturbed the ground, which, Stasinchak said, has driven the rats into local homes and driven out any predators of the rodents. 

The first experience, in April, she said, was when she heard something in the wall that she shares with her neighbor. She banged on the wall to try to drive out whatever was inside, she said, and then went to buy a trap. Orkin Pest Control later came to her home, she said, and tore apart a portion of her wall in an attempt to trace the putrid smell; nothing had died. 

Orkin was called again in May, Stasinchak said, adding that she’s been catching rats and mice ever since. She said that she’s had mice before, perhaps, one or two every few years. However, just recently, she claims to have disposed of a sticky trap that had ensnared three mice.

Now, in addition to her rodent problem, Stasinchak is worried about Lyme disease because the carriers of the disease, ticks, use mice as a means of conveyance. 

Stasinchak said that she has caught four rats, and that doesn’t include the two — one died, the other scurried away — that had made their home in the engine block of her van; her neighbor had recently caught two in one trap; and another neighbor has caught four in his home.

Traps have now been set inside and outside of homes, she said. The four townhomes (there are eight in the court), which are connected and owner-occupied, house six children, four dogs, and a cat, according to Stasinchak

Professor Matthew Frye, an entomologist at Cornell University, told The Enterprise that Stasinchak’s story about seeing a recent increase in the number of mice in and around her home is “interesting,” because what will typically happen when rats interact with mice is “muricide,” where the rats will kill and eat the mice.

“So, it’s interesting to hear that they’re experiencing both rats and mice,” Frye said. “Typically, when that happens, it’s because there’s an overabundance of food availability.”

Pfeiffer said that, in 25 years of business, SMS Rail Lines had never encountered a situation like the one described. The company, he said, has “never had any rat problems with a track rehabilitation project.”

Stasinchak said she had been told the same thing by a representative of the company. Additionally, when she reached out to the village and county for help, she said, she was told there was nothing that could be done.

Stasinchak said that, in the 13 years of living in her home, she had never seen a rat. 

Pfeiffer added that the company had received only one complaint about the track project. Explaining the single complaint, Stasinchak told The Enterprise that she had taken on the unofficial role of spokeswoman for her group of neighbors.

Asked if or when the rat problem would become a priority for SMS Rail Lines, Pfeiffer said, “With one homeowner complaining about some rats, and it’s the first time we’ve encountered such a complaint, it seems a bit strange. If it becomes a problem with more [homeowners] we’d look into it, and see where [the rats] are actually coming from and what can be done about it.” 

Professor Frye said there is a lot of speculation about how construction affects rodents, particularly in urban areas. He paraphrased Bobby Corrigan, perhaps the most famous rodentologist in the country, known as the rat czar for his unparalleled expertise in the topic, who says that construction alone does not cause rodents to move into new places.

Had the Altamont track work taken place in specific areas where rodents had been burrowing, Frye said, it’s possible that the rats would have been displaced. “But there’s really no cause and effect between construction and rodent populations,” he said.

Frye said that, as of late, rodent populations in general have grown across the Northeast, a consequence of milder winters and also, the availability of food. Typically, during the coldest winter months, he said, rats will slow or stop reproduction; however, given the recent warmer winters, rats have kept reproducing right through those milder months. 

“My colleagues have observed really severe rat populations in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, and Boston,” Frye said. In New York City, the number of rat sightings reported to the city increased about 38 between 2014 and 2018, from 12,617 to 17,353.

In Chicago, the number of rat complaints received by the city went from 32,855 in 2014 to 50,963 in 2017, a 36 percent increase. And Boston, in 2017, overtook New York City for second place in the nation for the number of households reporting rodent sightings. Philadelphia is in first place with about 18 percent of households reporting a rodent sighting.

Corrigan has said that rats can start reproducing a month after being born, so, for example, take one pregnant rat and let her reproduce for 12 months; at the end of that one year, 15,000 to 18,000 rats would be able to trace their ancestry, as it were, to that one pregnant rat. 

So it’s possible, Frye said, the recent rat sightings and trappings that have happened around Mountaindale Court are just part of a broader trend. 


Telltale signs and what can be done

Frye said that one of the most common indicators that rodents are present on a property is the presence of burrows. For each burrow system, Frye said, there is typically three openings of about three- to three-and-a-half inches.

“So if there was an infestation, there would be an area where there are lots of holes in the ground, sometimes under the cover of vegetation but depending on the environment, they could be out in the open as well,” he said. 

Other signs that rats could be on a property, Frye said, would be the presence of rat droppings, gnaw marks, and “sebum marks,” or rub marks. 

If a homeowner does have a rodent problem, Frye said, the solution “is really an integrated approach.

First, he said, is trying to identify where the rodents are entering the home, which, if it’s a round opening, can be as small as a quarter.

Once the entry points have been identified, Frye said that they shouldn’t be sealed right away, because “if you trap rodents inside, they’ll act unpredictably and could cause more damage.” Rather, he said, traps should be set first.

Traps, in Frye’s opinion, are the preferred method of pest control because, he said, with rodenticide baits the rat could die anywhere, in a wall or other inaccessible area, which could lead to further pest problems. “Also, a really horrific smell,” he said. 

“But,” Frye said, “rats are actually really difficult to trap.”

They have to be trained to visit the traps because they have a behavior called neophobia, he said, where they are afraid of any new object in their environment. So, Frye recommends placing food on the trap and letting the rat take the food three or four times before setting the trap.

“So once you’ve done exclusion,” Frye said, the next step is to look at what food sources are available to rodents, is garbage stored outdoors in open containers? Is there a compost pile? Addressing these issues, Frye said, are important to keeping rats out of the home because they will eat almost anything.

“[Rats] have been described as feeding off the effluence of human societies,” he said. “So, they’re feeding on the garbage that we produce.”

Typically, Frye said, when there is a high rat population in an area, it’s because there is a human food source somewhere nearby.

While rats have been accused of carrying the plague, and, today, in Los Angeles, they are spreading typhus, Frye said that rats in this area are more likely to be carriers of foodborne pathogens like salmonella or E. coli that can be secreted through their feces, which contaminates food sources. 

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