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Owls, rats and rat poison

The following viewpoint about owls and rat poison was written by Liz Reisberg, in collaboration with Carol Band, Dana Cooperson and Peggy Gardiner. In photo, Diane Welch, the town's animal-control officer, at the May Spring Fling, tells kids about owls.
Diane Welch, animal-control officer, shows an owl to children in May 22o

When two Great Horned Owls courted, nested and produced two babies in Menotomy Rocks Park, visitors to the park were thrilled. Many in the neighborhood came daily in the hope of an owl spotting and watched with great pleasure as the fledglings began to leave the nest. Heartbreak followed when three owls were found dead. 

Although this has not been proven, it is likely that rat poison led to this tragedy. Eagles on Mystic Lake and other raptors in our area have been killed after consuming poisoned rats. Other forms of wildlife have been also affected. Poison is bad for the environment, bad for wildlife, and not the best way to control the rat population—just the easiest.  

The recent loss of the owls has provoked a lot of town wide discussion about the use of poisons. Sadly, and ironically, consumption of poisoned rats is killing rat predators, so we are eliminating one of nature’s ways of controlling these pests. 

Ridding rats

Understandably, people do not want rats on their property. If we are to rid Arlington of rats without harm to other critters, we need to work as a community on multiple fronts. This means educating the public about how to make Arlington less welcoming to rats and introducing alternative ways of eliminating them. 

The most immediate and simple steps you can take to discourage rats from visiting you are:

  • Do not compost in your yard. You can subscribe to one of the services (such as Black Earth) to have your compost picked up at the curb or you can dump your compost to the Town Yard for free (I do that, and it’s easy!)
  • Be careful about where and how you store your garbage bins. Be sure that they do not offer an accessible food supply. Remember that rats can eat through plastic.
  • If you see rats in your yard, talk to your neighbors. If they are in your yard, they are visiting your neighbors as well and it will take a combined effort to get rid of them.
  • Finally, and this was the hardest for me, do not put out bird seed. Birds scatter seed and provide a smorgasbord for rats on the ground. 

The Arlington Board of Health has additional information about rat control here >>

Regulation underway

There are multiple initiatives underway to regulate the use of rodenticides and other poisons but there is a lot of work to be done if we are to successfully ban their use in Arlington. Putting dry ice into rat burrows is particularly effective without passing on risks to other wildlife.

The text of a resolution approved by Town Meeting but with no real enforcement power follows:

1) by Jan. 1, 2024, phases out the use and application of certain rodenticides, including second generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs), either by Town employees or by private contractors on all private and public property in the Town of Arlington except as allowed by the Board of Health to remediate a public health condition;

2) requires all licensed certified applicators of rodenticides to provide written notification to the Board of Health whenever certain rodenticides, including SGARs, are used within the Town; provides for both waivers and penalties for compliance;

3) provides for educating the public about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) best practices and the hazards of rodenticides to human health and the ecosystem during but not limited to licensing, permitting, and inspectional activities; and further establishes such definitions and provisions necessary to effectuate such a bylaw; or take any action related thereto. 

In state Legislature

In addition, there is a bill making its way into the review process in the state Legislature:

H.4600, An Act Relative to Pesticides, is a logical solution to the problem we currently face. This bill would (1) broaden pest management approaches for use on public lands, decreasing reliance on pesticides, (2) require the Department of Agriculture Resources (DAR) to record pesticide use in an online database and (3) to create some educational programs on pesticides, and (4) would require pest control companies to discuss alternative pest management options with customers

Neither of these initiatives bans the use of poisons. Rather they try to control their use and make better information available to consumers. Although the town’s resolution proposes to phase out rodenticides in town, Arlington does not have local authority to do this and it will be have to be reviewed by the attorney general and, likely, the state legislature. We need to do some research to determine how best to advance towards a legal ban.

Both initiatives above are a step in the right direction (We can’t let “the perfect” get in the way of “the good”!). In the meantime, although we have the support of our two state reps—Sean Garballey and Dave Rogers—it’s important to let them know that this issue is important to you to get it higher up on their priority list! Also write to Sen. Cindy Friedman. You can send a quick email to:

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Dave suggests contacting friends in other districts and encouraging them to write to their rep. The more legislators hear from people that this issue is important, the more likely it is to make its way to a vote. A statewide ban would be more significant than just accomplishing this locally. Please recruit your friends in other towns!  Finding the name and contact for any representative is easy. Just click here >> 

To ban the use of poisons in Arlington and prohibit their sale in local hardware stores much more needs to be done. We will probably need to submit a Home Rule Petition to the state for authority to do this.

So, as you can see, there is a long road ahead with many steps (and small victories) along the way, and several initiatives already in the works. There are already groups discussing this online but it’s time to create an “action committee”. We’ll need to do some research, pursue multiple strategies, and coordinate with one another.

If you are interested in helping with the work that needs to be done, please let us know (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

June 17, 2022: 3 dead owls in Arlington spark community grief, elevate poison concerns

This viewpoint was published Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

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