When you think of wild rats, you might think of dirt, disease and the dump. They’re used to signify the spooky and the gross – graveyards, sewers, dungeons. They’re the unfortunate scapegoat that carries the burden of the black plague.
Perhaps I’m slightly biased, having kept pet rats for about a decade, but I think our rattus norvegicus (AKA, the brown rat) has had a bad rap. Far from being pests, these fascinating little mammals are a vital part of a thriving ecosystem – and they, as well as the animals who prey on them, are the unfortunate victims of human prejudice.
The reason rats are so popular in behavioral studies is because of their metacognition. This means they’re capable of assessing a situation they’re in, and making decisions based on the information they have. Metacognition is an ability they share with humans – and wild rats are no different to their domestic counterparts!
And in case you didn’t think that was amazing enough, rats are also highly empathetic. Domestic rats are incredibly affectionate towards their humans and cagemates. Wild rats live in colonies of multiple generations, able to recognise one another and gauge their companions’ feelings.
Studies have shown that rats, when offered the choice between getting a tasty treat or freeing a confined friend, will often choose to rescue their pal! Us humans have a lot to learn from these furry friends.
They Like to Keep Clean
This is one I’ve witnessed myself as a rat owner. They groom themselves almost as much as cats do! In addition to grooming themselves, they will often groom elderly and poorly cage mates to help them stay fresh. Some of my rats even used to tidy their own cage by cleaning up after messy littermates and bringing stray poop to the litter tray.
Of course, wild rats are associated with mess because they gravitate towards what humans dump. Discarded food is a nutrition source; they find shelter and nesting materials in dumped furniture and litter. Keeping the environment clean and secure discourages rats from entering nearby homes.
They're Accidental Gardeners
They’re demonised as seed predators. However, the food-hoarding habits of wild rats can give rise to the spread of plant life!
Burying food is a common behaviour amongst many animals, including squirrels, foxes and many species of birds. They do this to store extra food for lean times.
This behaviour isn’t limited to wild rats. I would often watch my domestic rats go on a stashing frenzy after feeding time. They would gather food in a corner or in their favourite hammock. It makes less sense in an environment with guaranteed daily food, but instinct is powerful!
So what happens when a rat buries fruit, nuts and seeds, and then doesn’t go back to them? The seeds and nuts germinate, of course!
Their Place in the Food Chain
And, as much as I adore these little guys and wish them no harm, it has to be said that wild rats make a good meal for some of our other stunning wildlife. Because the rat population is so massive, they are a plentiful food source for our larger carnivorous mammals, many of whom are under threat. Birds of prey, foxes, badgers and weasels all eat rats and do their part to keep populations under control naturally.
And if Scotland goes ahead with the proposed reintroduction of the Lynx, this will mean wild rats have another natural predator.
Control Methods Do More Harm Than Good
Of course, because so many animals prey on rats, it means that many of the methods that people use to control the rat population has an unfortunate knock-on effect.
Poison, as well as being inhumane, does not stop at the animal which has been poisoned. A poisoned and sickly rat is easier to catch, meaning that the poison affects whichever unfortunate animal eats it. Rat poison has many unintended victims: birds, hedgehogs, bats, domestic pets, and even young children who accidentally get into it.
Similarly, glue and snap traps don’t discriminate, injuring unintended victims and even larger animals such as dogs and cats. These traps are as cruel as poison, often leaving an animal suffering for a prolonged amount of time.
If you find an animal stuck to a glue trap, you can rescue it by using vegetable oil to loosen the glue. If possible, cover the animal’s head with a towel to keep it calm, then gently massage the oil into the area stuck to the trap. Remember, trapped animals are distressed animals – always wear gloves, and contact a rescue.
Deterring Rats the Natural Way
Figuring out what attracts wild rats goes a long way. Are they after food or shelter? Once you’ve worked that out, get rid of the incentives! Remove food sources such as loose pet food. Secure gaps with steel wool and caulk – rats and mice have flexible skeletons and can get into a space the size of their skull, so pay attention even to small gaps. Then, follow up with deterrent measures.
Fortunately, there are many ways to deter rats without harming them, other animals, or the environment. These little guys have a keen sense of smell, and there are some scents they despise:
used coffee grounds
the urine of predator species (fun fact: you can buy wolf pee on Amazon!)
Wild Rats: Brainboxes, Gardeners, Socialites, Cleaners
And there you have it! Though they’re often portrayed in a bad light, rats are actually highly intelligent and empathetic little mammals who have an important place in the ecosystem. Though they can cause trouble when they get into a place where they aren’t wanted, it’s possible to deter them and coexist peacefully.
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If you want to be a bit more green around the garden, why not learn about bug hotels and how to build one? And speaking of using coffee to deter rats, here’s an article on 10 easy ways to get the most out of your used coffee grounds.