Rats Wipe Out Seabirds on Alaska Island

Mary Pemberton in Anchorage, Alaska
Associated Press
November 29, 2007

More than 200 years ago, rats jumped ship for the first time in Alaska.

The muscular Norway rat climbed ashore on a rugged, uninhabited island in Alaska's Aleutian chain in 1780, after a rodent-infested Japanese ship ran aground there. (See map.)

Since then Rat Island, as the piece of rock was dubbed by a sea captain in the 1800s, has gone eerily silent. The sounds of birds are missing.

That is because the rats feed on eggs, chicks, and adult seabirds, which come to the mostly treeless island to nest on the ground or in crevices in the volcanic rock.

"As far as bird life, it is a dead zone," said Steve Ebbert, a biologist at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Rats for Birds

State and federal wildlife biologists are gearing up for an assault on the rats of uninhabited Rat Island, hoping to exterminate them with rat poison dropped from helicopters.

If they succeed, it will be the third-largest island in the world to be made rat-free.

A visitor to the island 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) from Anchorage doesn't have to look far to find evidence of vermin. The landscape is riddled with rat burrows, trails, droppings, and chewed vegetation. Certain plants are all but gone.

"You go to Rat Island and there are hardly any chocolate lilies," said Jeff Williams, another refuge biologist.

The same for songbirds and seabirds.

Rats have all but wiped out the seabirds on about a dozen large islands and many smaller islands in the refuge, which is home to an estimated 40 million nesting seabirds.

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