Was it a rat I saw?*

b4646-cleanoutboard002

The cleanout board, quickly cleaned out, as seen from one of its open sides.

Well, yes, actually.

Sunday morning, while Matt was frying up breakfast, I was out tottering around in the back yard, doing my morning chicken chores. I fed and watered the bottomless pits (the meat peeps) and then went to check on the more mature members of our menagerie, the laying hens. In the hen house there was poop in the water dish (as usual) and the feeder was on its side (not as usual). Stewie glowered and growled at me from the dimness of her nest box. But then, just as I was latching the door out of my way, I noticed a twitch of movement where there should not have been any: in the cleanout tray. (Matt designed our coop based on design elements I had picked up from a variety of chicken-keeping books and raved about, one of which was the 1/4” hardware cloth floor suspended over a slanted smooth board that allows poop and other detritus to fall through the wire without accumulating and sweep easily off the slanted cleanout board. When the temperatures started to plummet in fall we stuffed the tray with straw to keep drafts out since the board is open on the sides.) The movement had come from a rather tell-tale 2” diameter hole that appeared to have been neatly bored in the straw stuffed in the cleanout tray. It was ringed with “raisins”. Without any real plan (or apparently, any thought in my head at all) I grabbed my levering-Stewie-off-her-nest stick and jabbed it in the hole. I regret to state that I did, in fact, shriek ever so slightly when the rat reversed course and shot out of the hole in my direction. He made great haste (maybe the shrieking sound was really the rat breaking the sound barrier?) to hide behind the nearby compost bins.

My rat was little more than a blur, but I was able to make out that he was an appropriately mousy brown on top, a little lighter underneath, and about five inches long, not counting his tail. A little internet research tells me that this means he is a juvenile Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus). They are the most common rats in our area and not easily confused with the much darker, longer-tailed, bigger-eared Roof rats (Rattus rattus). He was about four times the size of any mouse I’ve ever seen in this state, but a little less than half his possible future size.

I know from my chicken books that rats will put a large dent in the chicken food and may steal eggs. If they are big enough they may go for the chickens themselves when the girls are asleep at night. I know from Dirty Jobs that they pee wherever they happen to be when they feel the need, so if they get into the chicken feed they’ll contaminate what they don’t eat. (Lots of sources say that rodents actually have no sphincter control at all, but I don’t believe it. I have heard that domesticated rodents can be ‘house-trained’ so I think they can choose when and where to go but that the wild ones choose to go on the run).

So now what do I do? Well, I cleaned out the cleanout tray so that he doesn’t have that straw to hide in, and I will be making a thorough inspection of the coop to figure out where he wormed his way in. If I can find any holes I will patch them. If I never find rat sign again that’ll be the end of it. However, if he is determined and/or goes home to tell his whole family how great my back yard is things are going to get nasty fast. If he continues to get into the coop (by tunneling, I will assume, because anything above ground is going to be tight as a drum) I will excavate around the coop and replace the chickenwire ‘apron’ currently tacked to the ground under the grass with a hardware cloth curtain extending six inches down and a foot outward. I may have to remove the feeder from the coop at night to cut down on some of his temptation. I will definitely place some traps. Traps are preferred over poison because of the chance that the poison causes a long slow death to the rat and the chance that our Boll Weevil cat catches the lethargic rat and eats him and also dies. A carefully placed trap should be accessible only by me (on account of my thumbs) and the rat; the cat and chickens should not be able to get at it. Furthermore, if this guy refuses to shove off or he brings his buddies around then when we get the next batch of pigs their food will have to be contained in metal to prevent the rats chewing through the bags. My online source warns that rats can chew through heavy duty plastic garbage cans.

My online source also says that “rats can have several nest sites. They may spend a week in their primary nest site, and then move for a day or two into an alternate nest site.” Hopefully this was a new or temporary nest site and this will be the last I see of Mr. Rat. I hope so, because I only came up with two rat-related titles when I was writing this post, and the other one was even worse. (You guessed it: “Rats!”)

— Amanda

*I get extra geek points for using a palindrome as a blog post title!

[1] “Living With Wildlife: Old World Rats.”  Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. © 2005. http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/rats.pdf

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