Two reflections on rats

Reflection 1: fury at the roof rats that have taken up residence on my patio and are now devastating the plants there.

Reflection 2: a recent Economist story about Cambodian farmers trapping rats to sell for food in Vietnam.

(Some may see a possible thematic connection between the two reflections.)

The evil of the roof rats. First, the creature, in a compact characterization from the Sunrise AZ site (roof rats have been increasing in the greater Phoenix area):

Roof Rats (Rattus rattus), sometimes called black rats, fruit rats or house rats, are aerial, very agile climbers and usually live and nest above ground in shrubs, trees, and dense vegetation such as ivy.

(They are also vectors of many diseases, including plague.)

The neighborhood roof rats mostly nest in the tangles of vines over the arches at the entryways to the condos in the Ramona Townhouses complex — in particular, in those vines right next to my condo. However, when we started feeding the birds (a great many of them, mostly little ones) and squirrels (four of them, two with gray fur, two with black), the roof rats descended from their aerial nests to re-locate in the ivy that covers the front wall of my patio, darting out at dawn and twilight from the front ground corner to steal food from the other creatures (and occasionally to engage in aggressive confrontations with the squirrels).

A report from 8/9/20 (in “August flora and fauna”, on this blog):

… on a Tuesday a rat [appeared], darting out repeatedly from the same space at the bottom of the ivy-covered wall on my patio to consume huge amounts of birdseed (and utterly ignoring a baited rat trap, which was inside a box; we’d been warned by Palo Alto bird people that a trap out in the open would snag peanut-loving birds, but unfortunately the rat shunned going into that enclosed space. But it did seem to be gaining weight rapidly from all the birdseed it was eating.

The next day, a second rat, of ordinary size, appeared, with the larger rat, and it was clear they were a mated pair and that the larger one was a pregnant female, nesting somewhere in the ivy covering on the wall. We decided to risk putting the trap out in the open, right in front of the spot the rats issued from. I spread peanuts on the ground around it to seduce the rats to the trap [but to no avail]

Now the three rats (the original pair and one offspring) swagger and swarm all over the place. And, despite the glut of food of many kinds available to them, the wicked rats have taken to devouring some of my favorite plants, plants I’ve neen nursing along. Specifically, a hydrangea and a bed of callas.

— the hydrangea. From my 6/9/20 posting “The June flora and fauna report”:

I decided, from looking up web pages on the depredations, that that Night Demon killing off my red-pink [Hydrangea macrophylla] plant was indeed snails.

(#1) The hydrange in bloom on my patio (the last time it flowered, in 2017)

However, while I was contemplating turning the plant into compost, the February drought set in, and snail damage disappeared completely, presumably from lack of moisture. The hydrangea perked up and started leafing out properly. When the rain came back, the snails did not; the plant once again had leaves dropping from mildew (a moisture-driven disease), but on a fairly small scale, so what I have now, as of 6/8, is this:


The plant’s foliage flourished through the summer and fall. It didn’t blooom, because it flowers only on old wood, so I was looking forward to flowers this coming spring.

But then in recent days Kim Darnell and I noticed that something was once again chewing on the leaves. And then Kim went out a little while ago to put out seed for the birds and found two huge sleek rats in the planter, finishing off the last hydrangea leaves; apparently, rats find them irresistibly delicious.

Even if we could think of a scheme to keep the rats away from the hydrangea plant — very dubious — it would be two years before there were flowers again. So when it’s warmer and dryer, maybe in April, I will, with great sadness, turn the barren stalks and roots of the plant, plus the soil in its big pot, into compost.

— the callas. It came as a single gift plant in a fairly small pot. A handsome purple calla lily.

(#3) The original calla, from 2017

Then, from my 6/9/20 posting:

Calla bulbs are given to dividing on their own, so that where I once had one … I now have six, which I separated and replanted last fall. Now they have shot up — they burst from the ground and grow measurably from day to day — and will soon bloom. (A single bulb often sends up two shoots, as below, in a photo from yesterday.) Probably in various shades of purple, but who knows what plants will do

(#4) But no blooms. Apparently, the plants don’t always bloom the first year after division. So the foliage just died back last year, and we’re now seeing new shoots coming up.

Well, a few days ago, Kim noticed that the shoots were being eaten off to the ground. By the damn rats. We have elevated the planter they’re in, to make it harder for the rats to get at the shoots. But it may be that they’ve killed off these plants as well.

What to do? It’s hard to see how to get rid of the roof rats. Putting out poisoned bait or drenching the rats’ home territory with bleach would do great harm to the squirrels and birds as well as the rats; and we haven’t been able to get the traps to work.

I had some hope that raw nature would come to our aid, when on two separate occasions very large raptors descended into the patio to study the rats’ corner briefly but intently (presumably they could hear the rats’ movements, or maybe just their heartbeats), but then they flew off and haven’t been back.

At least the rats seem to have no taste for cymbidium buds or flowers, so we will have some flowers on the patio.

A taste for rat. Meanwhile, in the Economist’s 1/2/21 issue, the story “Hamper scamper: Jobless Cambodians are catching rats to feed Vietnamese city dwellers: But it is hard to slip the creatures across the border”:

Slung over Pen Keo’s shoulder is a big wicker basket containing wire-mesh traps, which he lays, one by one, on a rice field where rats are known to scamper. There are so many traps there already, it is difficult to find space for his. In Takéo, a rural province in southern Cambodia, rat-catching serves two purposes. The creatures would otherwise ravage crops, and can also be sold for tidy sums in neighbouring Vietnam. There rats nourished on a free-range diet of rice stalks and roots are a delicacy. [The creatures are rice field rats, Rattus argentiventer.]

For a growing number of Cambodians, rat-catching is a full-time job. The covid-19 pandemic has hurt the formal economy. Unemployment is on the rise. The Asian Development Bank thinks that Cambodia, with a working-age population of 9m or so, lost around 500,000 jobs in 2020. Many who worked in the city have gone home to the countryside, but work there is scarce, too. Between January and April farmers’ wages dropped by a third, according to Angkor Research and Consulting and Future Forum, a think-tank. Mr Pen Keo says he no longer earns enough from tilling his fields because rice is too cheap. Like many hard-up Cambodians, he has exchanged his plough for rat-traps.

… [About] the scene at Chuot Dong (“Field Rat”), a working-class restaurant on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam. It does a roaring trade in field rats, which are butchered on the spot, marinated in garlic, chilies, lemongrass, and fish sauce, and then fried or delicately grilled. Giao and his colleagues eat there two or three times a week. For him, eating field rat is as normal as slurping up a bowl of noodles. “Whenever I see a fat rat on a grill,” says Xuan, a colleague, “I cannot hold my saliva.” But do they ever worry that the rodents will make them ill? “Sewer rats and house mice eat everything in the city, which is poisonous,” says Giao. But field rats? They are perfectly safe, he insists.

From an earlier story in the Daily Mail (UK), from 12/4/13:

Anyone for roast rat? Restaurant in Vietnam offers rodent on a stick

— Rat is popular among Red River and Mekong River delta people

— And the taste for it is spreading – with a restaurant near Hanoi

— The special ingredient is caught around the time of the rice harvest

Two illustrations:

(#5) A rat hunter carrying a bamboo cage with captured rats inside as his teammates place rat traps in a field in Vietnam’s Hoai Duc district (AFP Getty Images)

(#6) Grilled rat on sale at a village market in Vietnam (AFP Getty Images)

2 Responses to “Two reflections on rats”

  1. thnidu Says:

    Silver-bellied rats?!

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I admit to not knowing how this stuff actually works, but the scientific tautonym Rattus rattus suggests to me that some taxonomic authority considers (or at one time considered) the Roof Rat to be the archetypical rat species.

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