D.C.’s great rat migration — and how they survived during the pandemic

Play this video game to try your paw at surviving as Cheddar the D.C. rat

They burrow in gardens and shelter in nests of shredded cardboard under stoops. In alleyways, they quench their thirst at leaky faucets and snack on liquids oozing from bags.

Rats are a fixture of urban life, but early in the pandemic, their populations in urban cores shrank as restaurants, parks and offices shut down — and their access to trash did too. But many adapted, desperate to survive. They ate off the bottom of restaurant doors in search of food, alpha male rats ate weaker ones, and a large number, to residents’ frustration, migrated.

“They’ve gotten into places where there were no rats, and now people are calling and saying, ‘I’ve lived here for 20 years and never seen a rat until now,’ ” said Gerard Brown, who oversees rodent control at D.C. Health.

Now with offices and restaurants opening up again, the rats are back as well.

“There’s a rat resurgence,” said Bobby Corrigan, among the world’s best-known rodentologists. “They may be bouncing back with larger families in both the urban core and in the more residential neighborhoods of D.C.”

Known formally as Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat is the species found in D.C.’s streets and many major cities. Most people agree that rats are gross and that they can cause health problems and property damage. They chew through wires in the walls of homes and cars. They can bite pets and humans, and if a person eats food contaminated by rat saliva, urine or feces, they can fall sick with diseases.

[Rat-catchers share tips and videos of their rodent showdowns]

It’s tough to accurately count rat populations because the four-legged fiends are nocturnal and live among the shadows of alleys and sewers.

Orkin, one of the biggest pest control management companies in the country, ranked D.C. fourth in its annual ranking of the top 50 “rattiest cities,” placing it behind Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

In D.C., reports of rat sightings are up: The city service hotline has fielded more than 13,300 complaints in the 2022 fiscal year — compared with roughly 6,200 in the 2018 fiscal year, according to the city’s health department. Despite this increase, health officials said they haven’t seen a surge in rat-related illnesses.

More complaints mean more work for rat catchers: Before the pandemic, Scott Mullaney and his wife, Angie Mullaney — who run a business that uses Patterdale terriers to catch and kill rats — used to average about 25 rats at a job site. Now as people return to life and business as usual, their dogs catch closer to 60 per site some nights.

“They’re coming back with a vengeance,” Corrigan said.

Meet Cheddar

To survive as a rat, you must be clever. Think you have what it takes to scavenge for something to eat or find a safe place to sleep? We built a video game to show you how rats live — and thrive — in the city.

You’ll play as Cheddar, a D.C. rat whose name was picked by readers. Try your hand (or paw) at survival by finding food, water and a spot to nest in different environments throughout this story.

Level 1

The house

Help Cheddar find food, water and a spot to nest.

Level 1 complete!

Each night while taking out the trash at his home in Columbia Heights, Lachlan Markay sees rats darting through his backyard and sometimes chewing holes in garbage cans. It’s a chore his wife won’t stomach after she spotted a few vermin in the bins.

“My wife flipped out … so I take out the trash,” Markay said. “I just brace myself every time.”

Rats are smart. They know that they can reliably get food and water from fountains, birdbaths, pet bowls, dripping sprinklers and trash cans and that some decked-out yards offer bigger bounties — including pet poop, which Corrigan calls a nutrient-filled “energy bar” for rats.

Brown thinks rats know the days trash trucks come and plot to feast before all the good garbage is picked up. “You don’t survive this long by being dumb,” he said.

FAST FOOD: Rats typically travel as far as about 150 feet, nearly half the length of a football field, from their burrows in search of food and water. Test your knowledge.

Redevelopment creates prime real estate for rats: Home and apartment renovations leave stray pipes that can provide a path from the sewer into buildings and into the walls.

Jake Rosen was living in Petworth when he repeatedly heard rats inside the walls of his home. He believes they worked their way in through gaps in the concrete under a porch when construction started on a nearby house, where he thinks the rats were probably nesting. It takes only one house on a block to draw rats in, and then suddenly they’re everyone’s problem.

WHOA, BABY! A female rat gives birth to an average of eight babies, or pups, at a time. The gestation period is 21 days, after which it can immediately get pregnant again. Test your knowledge.

“They don’t respect property lines,” said Brown, the head rat guy for the city’s health department. “They’ll run from the alley and into your yard if there’s an opening. They live where the food and water are found.”

Rosen hired an exterminator, but the rats persisted. He couldn’t sleep hearing them at night. Eventually, he moved.

Level 2

The apartment building

Help Cheddar find food, water and a spot to nest.

Level 2 complete!

Tucked away in an alley off Ward Court NW, in Dupont Circle, rats were scrounging for their meals among a cluster of trash cans and dumpsters by several apartment buildings. They fled pedestrians and their dogs, sprinting under bushes and other plants.

UNSIGHTLY PESTS: Rats are nearsighted. They can see only about seven feet in front of them. Beyond that it is blurry, experts said. Test your knowledge.

Michael Beidler has lived on the block for more than three decades and sees rats scavenge in trash bags left outside, often on the ground spilling over from dumpsters. For rats, it’s the perfect setup. They get their food from the dumpsters and then burrow in his yard. Beidler spent about $3,000 on rat traps and had a contractor pour as much concrete as he could to cover up his garden to try to keep out the rats.

“It was so bad that at one point you’d come out and they’d literally run across your feet,” Beidler said. “It was just ghastly.”

Apartment buildings offer rats a trash feast. From a dumpster, they can jump onto and scurry up the outside of a trash chute, squeezing into holes behind the brackets to get inside. They also get inside trash rooms through open doors or gnaw through the mortar between bricks in a foundation.

A rat can fit its head through a hole about the size of a marble. Its rib cage has a “collapsibility function,” and once it gets its head in, a rat uses its vibrissae — long whiskers on its nose and face — to feel to make sure it’s safe. Then it does what Corrigan calls “squeeze-wiggle gymnastics” to get the rest of its body through, bringing in feces, lice, fleas, bacteria or viruses that cling to its fur, tails and feet.

CHEW ON THIS! Rats grind their incisor teeth while they rest during the day to keep them sharp for getting into food with hard shells, such as acorns and walnuts, and for gnawing into trash cans, under doors, or through walls or electrical wiring in cars. Test your knowledge.

Once inside, they squeeze through holes in the walls, ceiling or floor, gnawing through wood and drywall. They use electrical wires and cables to travel between units, experts said, adding that they’re also adept at shinnying up from sewers, through pipes and up into toilets. They get comfy in the space between apartments where pipes and wires lead to each unit from the basement. Dark, safe and hard to reach, it’s a rat haven.

Level 3

The garden and the park

Help Cheddar find food, water and a spot to nest.

Level 3 complete!

Hanna Hickman grew tired this summer of coming to her carefully tended garden plot at Kings Court Community Garden, in Hill East, only to find her tomatoes and strawberries violated. “They gnaw a little bit out of each one,” she said. “They’re a bunch of disgusting, disease-carrying jerks.”

Gardens and parks are easy pickings for rats: verdant spaces with fencing that’s easy to squeeze through or nonexistent. “You grow organic vegetables because it’s healthy and wholesome, and it’s connected to the Earth,” Hickman said. “But, unfortunately, connecting to the Earth includes rats.”

LEAPS AND BOUNDS: Rats are excellent jumpers. They can leap as high as three feet. This comes in handy when climbing a tree, the outside of a trash chute, a windowsill or a dumpster. Test your knowledge.

Tom Schehl suffered the same problem. For 14 years, he said, he never saw a rat near his home on the edge of Wesley Heights, in Northwest D.C. But when the pandemic hit, Schehl started noticing the brown rodents munching on his wife’s tomato plants. Beyond irritated, he put out snap traps. In a few months, he caught seven rats.

At a two-day “Rat Academy” in D.C. this summer, Corrigan showed about three dozen exterminators, apartment managers, city health officials and residents how to spot rats in a park. He pointed to a narrow, worn path in the grass — a “rat runway” from their burrows under low-level plants to nearby overflowing trash cans. Because rats have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell, he said, they follow paths like this, lined with rat feces, urine and sebum, an oily substance secreted from glands in their skin.

A FULL FRIDGE: A rat family of 10 needs about one pound of food a week. Test your knowledge.

“Other rats smell its perfume or pheromones, and it’s sending them a signal: ‘Yes, you’re in a good spot for food,’ ” Corrigan said. He gestured to a park bench. Even though it looked relatively harmless, he pointed out black spots that could have been mistaken for dirt or gum stains. They were rat sebum trails, he said: “There should be yellow caution tape around park benches.”

Level 4

The restaurant

Help Cheddar find food, water and a spot to nest.

Level 4 complete!

A viral video last fall captured an alarming scene: In the kitchen of a Popeye’s in Barracks Row, the lights went on, and rats scampered across the floor, up the wall and behind pipes. D.C. health officials shut down the restaurant for improper temperatures in its freezer and refrigerators — not for rats.

No restaurateurs like to admit they’ve got rats. A spokeswoman for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington referred questions on rats to a pest-management company. But rat experts say it’s quite common.

FAT RAT: The biggest rat that Corrigan, the rodentologist, heard of was a 1.87-pound rat in Missouri. He keeps a $500 check in his pocket for anyone who finds a two-pound rat. He’s never had to pay out. Test your knowledge.

Restaurants often put bait boxes outside their dumpsters but then make the mistake of leaving dumpster lids open, giving rats easy access to climb in and chow. Garbage bags dragged across the ground and slung into dumpsters may split open and leave rats a delightful trail of sauces, crumbs and grease drippings.

Restaurants also hire pest-management companies but don’t check to see whether they’re rebaiting the traps — and rats, like humans, turn up their nose at stale food.

“Restaurants are famous for not spending what it takes to get rid of rats,” choosing low-price rodent control instead of hiring a company that’s got a plan to catch, kill and prevent rats from getting in at all, Corrigan said.

To check whether a restaurant is clean enough to eat at, he recommends that customers peek at its alley.

If restaurants have good sanitation practices there, experts said, they generally have good sanitation throughout.

Never-ending game

Rats will never be eliminated — and play an important role in the ecosystem as food for foxes, coyotes, snakes, hawks and owls.

Yet for the D.C. rat-control crew, the end game is to reduce their population in areas where humans live, work and play.

WHERE IN THE WORLD? Even though brown rats are also called Norway rats, the geographical name’s not accurate. They’re not from Norway. They’re from Mongolia and got to North America in the mid- to late-1700s. British naturalist John Berkenhout dubbed them Norway rats because of incorrect rumors that they had come over on lumber ships from Norway, Corrigan said. But the name stuck. Test your knowledge.

Out on a job one recent afternoon in Northeast D.C., the city’s crew came armed with snap traps, bait boxes, tracking powder and poison pellets. They sprayed repellents around burrows and trash cans.

“You see them every day,” said Roosevelt Carter, 60, a resident on the block for four decades. “When the sun goes down, it’s crazy. It’s like people getting off the subway at rush hour but with rats.”

As the crew moved trash cans near his yard, out popped a rat. The workers swung a shovel at it as it dodged them. But swinging again, they smashed it.

Brown watched as his crew picked up the dead rat. Shaking his head, he said, “It’s a never-ending problem.”

Got rats? Here’s a list of tips of how to deal with them, what to do if your pet catches a rat and other pest control advice.

About this story

We tried a different approach to storytelling with this rat project. We did on-the-ground reporting, going out a half-dozen times with rat-control teams in the city, talking to residents, interviewing rodent experts and attending a two-day “rat academy” with about 80 rat catchers, apartment managers and residents to learn about rodent behavior. With that information, instead of writing just a traditional text story, we integrated the reporting with a video game and fact boxes to give the reader a fun experience.

Editing by Alisa Tang and Ryan Bacic, design and development by Joe Fox and Irfan Uraizee, illustrations by Shelly Tan, design editing by Matt Callahan, additional design editing by Junne Alcantara and Christian Font, copy editing by Ryan Weber.