- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

Health officials in Montgomery and Fairfax counties are recording an unusual increase in complaints about rats, which are feasting on the carcasses of cicadas.

The Montgomery County Health Department fields about 100 complaints about rats each June but has already logged 136 such calls this month, said Stephen Haynes, an environmental health specialist for the county.

The Fairfax County Health Department received 43 rodent complaints in May 2003 but recorded 74 last month, said spokeswoman Kimberly Cordero.

“I’ve been working here for 16-plus years, and we’re getting [rats] in places we’ve never gotten before,” Mr. Haynes said. “The only thing we can attribute it to is the cicada population.”

Mr. Haynes said he and co-worker Richard Lefebure concluded that cicadas are behind a spike in the rat population after they observed the rodents munching on the red-eyed bugs and found half-eaten cicada carcasses near rat holes.

But Ms. Cordero said there is insufficient evidence to prove cicadas are responsible for the increase in rat sightings.

“We don’t want to necessarily make a connection with cicadas,” she said, “but it is very interesting to see the spike.”

Officials in other jurisdictions said they have not seen an unusual increase in complaints about rats but could not provide figures about the number of calls they had received.

Officials in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties and Alexandria said rat complaints typically increase during late spring and summer, when warm weather and fresh food sources — such as berries and picnic scraps — lure rats from their lairs.

Even in the District, where rat infestations in 2002 prompted Mayor Anthony A. Williams to declare war on the rodents, complaints have remained at a normal volume, said spokeswoman Vera Jackson of the city health department.

Mr. Haynes speculated that other jurisdictions have not noticed an unusual rise in rat complaints because their health specialists do not make house calls or track calls, as do officials in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. He also said the rats apparently have gathered in the suburbs for good reason: Where there are more trees, there are more cicadas.

The Brood X cicadas burrow near tree roots, only to emerge by the millions every 17 years to mature, mate, lay eggs and die over several weeks in areas in the Eastern United States. Over the past few weeks, the thumb-sized, winged insects have reached the peak of their emergence and have been dying off.

Their decaying husks have produced a distinctive odor in some parts of the metropolitan area while providing food for dogs, fish, birds — and now rats.

“Rats are going to go where the food is,” Mr. Haynes said. “And just like any insects, there’s a food value in [cicadas].”

Silver Spring resident Laura Barriere, 46, said she had lived in Northeast near Catholic University for 11 years without ever having a rat problem and was shocked that her first encounter with the varmints happened outside the Beltway.

“You just think of the suburbs as being cleaner,” said Ms. Barriere, a senior manager at Fannie Mae Corp. “Rats are a thing you find in the city.”

She said she has not seen any rats devouring cicadas but has seen them lurking amid the carcasses in the garden in her front yard.

Ms. Barriere’s next-door neighbor, John Moyer, had lived in his home 40 years without ever spotting a rat — until his wife, Barbara, found eight of the critters scurrying around their lawn last week.

At first, the couple was “mystified” by the sudden invasion, he said. But after closer inspection, they had a clue about the source.

“They were eating all the cicadas down under our maple tree,” said Mr. Moyer, a retired satellite engineer for NASA. “Oh sure, they were having a picnic. We had had nothing out there to attract them. Mother Nature put the stuff out there to attract them.”

A few days later the Moyers placed packets of rat poison in the network of holes in their back yard. As of yesterday, the couple had not seen any rats in six days.

“We don’t like Mother Nature playing tricks on us like that,” Mr. Moyer said.

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