Monday, April 8, 2013

Just a bit Ratty

I can thank Kenneth Grahame's wonderful children's book 'Wind in the Willows' for setting me off, early on in life, with a relatively fond view of rats, because my favourite character in that captivating book was Ratty. Good old Ratty, he was the sensible, hospitable one, although he did let fools know what he thought of them. (In descending order I liked Badger next, then Mole, but I could barely tolerate acknowledging Toad of Toad Hall as a friend at all, I'm afraid.)

However, I'm not really here to discuss children's lit today, but rather to discuss rats, and rats in backyards in particular. I just thought an image of Ratty and Mole (the classic original image drawn by EH Shepard) rowing on the river would be a much nicer way to start things off.

Ratty: "There is nothing, absolutely nothing so much worth doing
 as messing around in boats." Apparently, Ratty was a water
rat – and there's more on his Australian cousin later on.
Enough of fond memories of Ratty for the moment... yesterday I had a huge day in the garden simply weeding, and weeding, and doing more weeding then mulching. Cup of tea around 3pm, feet up with a book overlooking the newly laid mulch... and out from the shrubbery prances a young brown rat, exploring the smell-rich mulch, sniffing, pawing at it. At that point I think I twitched a nerve fibre and Amateur Ratty (as I'll call him/her) zotted back into the thicket of gingers in a flash. Why do I think Amateur Ratty was a Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)?  Well, there are ways to tell rats apart.

The main way to tell a Brown Rat (above) from a Black Rat (below) is
the tail length. A Brown Rat's tail isn't as long as its own body...

The tail of a Black Rat (Rattus rattus) is thin and long, much longer
than its body. Their ears are different, and colours vary too, but
given that you often just get a glimpse of them, keep an eye on the tail
length and you'll have an idea who is visiting your backyard.

What, no other possible contenders? Well, not in Australian suburbia. Any rats you see in city and suburban backyards are almost certainly either introduced Black or Brown Rats. Yes, native Bush Rats do exist, but they stay in our bushland areas, in dense forests in fact. They are nocturnal creatures for starters, so if you see a rat in broad daylight in your garden, it's very unlikely it's a Bush Rat, even if you live near bushland. In gardens, you could see either Black or Brown rats, but inside houses any rats you see are most likely to be Black rats, which like being indoors much more than Brown Rats do. The Australian Museum has some great fact sheets on rats, if you're interested. Here's the one on Brown Rats, and the one on Black Rats.

Now, as it happens, one native rat is fairly regularly seen in Sydney, and it's this person pictured below, the Water Rat, Hydromys chrysogaster. Sydney Harbour and its foreshores is where you see them, and they're wonderful creatures.

For starters, these are whoppers compared to Black or Brown
rats, much bigger. They also have that white tip on their tail,
and they have webbed feet at the rear.
In the water they zoom along, with those webbed feet doing all
the hard work. Several times I have been at the water's edge
both Harbourside and on inland lakes, and spotted a water rat
making its way to the bank. I love to watch them: they leave a very
good wake behind them as they confidently swim to their
destination. If you ever see a rat in the water, stop and watch,
as it's almost certainly this marvellous native animal.
This is who so many nature-loving Aussie gardeners secretly
wish is visiting their backyards – the native Bush Rat,
Rattus fuscipes. A shy person of nocturnal habits, it would
never dare go near a house. You can read more about it from
the Australian Museum website listing on it, from which I
'borrowed' this photo, you might also notice. There is a pilot
project in suburban Mosman in Sydney to re-release bush
rats into bushland there, so I guess you could say there are
Bush Rats in Sydney, but most likely not in your garden.
This other native animal is seen in backyards and mistaken
as a Black/Brown rat or a Bush Rat, and it's none of the above.
It's not even a rodent, it's a Brown Antechinus and it's a
marsupial. The big giveaway is the feet: count the digits on
the Antechinus' feet and there are five (four 'toes' and an
extra thumb-like one). Check out the rat photos higher up
and they have just four tootsies. So, next time you see a little
furry person in your backyard, ask it to hold still while you
count its toes. Count to five, go "ahhhh". Count to four, scream!
Just kidding folks, but that's the easiest way to spot the difference
(although the Antechinus is kinda pointy-ended, isn't it?)
By coincidence, only yesterday one of my favourite blogs, Lanie's 'Edible Urban Garden' featured a posting by Lanie on the topic of rats visiting her backyard. She spotted her rat in her persimmon tree. Classic confident Brown Rat behaviour most likely — out there, in the open, good climber, enjoying the fruits of all of Lanie's hard work. What a rat!

I prefer it that my rats go boating with their friends, actually, but rats are just another creature visiting our garden, and no matter where you live in urban areas worldwide there's a probably a rat that regularly visits your backyard, whether you like it or not.


Louise Glut said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Johnstone said...

We had rats in our garden a few years back. The advice was to remove bird food before dark but no one told the rats who covorted on the lawn in the middle of the day. We resorted to rat poison as rats are a real problem here. Having said that I havent seen one since we got the cat apart from the one she brought back as a trophy!!!

Lanie at Edible Urban Garden said...

Thanks Jamie. It certainly makes me feel better, knowing that I am probably feeding a native rat (albeit with non-native food) rather than an introduced species. Fantastic post.

Sosae said...

Goodness - Jamie, I LOVE your blog! I discovered it just today, and it's such a pleasure to read and peruse. (Incidentally, 'Wind in the Willows' is still my favorite book.) I'm going to have great fun reading your many past posts... Many thanks for sharing!