In early September, in an Eagle article about a Wichita rat invasion, Fort Hays State University biology Professor Elmer Finck invited people to send pictures of the rodents they trapped in their yards.
The biologist wanted to see what kinds of rats people were catching. He had a hunch they were cotton rats. So far, it seems he was right.
Within a few days of the article, Finck said Friday, he received photos of rats killed in traps sent in by 10 Wichitans. They didn’t identify their neighborhoods.
All but one of the rodents they killed in traps were what are known as cotton rats. One was a wood rat, also known as a pack rat. None of them were brown or Norway rats, which are often associated with urban areas.
According to Finck, cotton rats – typically 12 inches or smaller from their head to the tip of their tail – are about a third of the size of a pack or Norway rat. Cotton rat hair is lighter on their underside; on the top, they have mottled blackish-brown fur. They have hairy tails.
Many of the people sending rat photos asked Finck how they can eradicate the pests, “To which I said I’m not sure.”
It depends on whether people want to use poison, he said. It depends on whether people want to use a snap trap that kills the rat; otherwise, they have to kill it themselves.
Some people might be tempted to transport a rat caught in a live trap to the prairie. But Finck, a biologist who studies nature, said that’s not a good solution. “We don’t recommend that because that changes genetics of populations.”
Also, he said, “You’re just giving the problem to somebody else.”
In the article earlier this month, Finck said he suspected that what Wichitans were seeing in their yards was an outbreak of cotton rats, not larger Norway rats.
After timely rains and mild winters, the cotton rat population has become “outrageously high” in Kansas, Finck said. The rodents have had more grass and weed seed to feed on. They’ve been able to survive and breed longer.
Cotton rats get their name from the cotton fields south of Kansas, Finck said. They originally migrated from Mexico, moving north, and they have become one of the most abundant species of rats in the state.
Just Wednesday, a Riley County landowner told Finck that he noticed cotton rats running everywhere in a Conservation Reserve Program field populated with all kinds of native grasses and flowering plants like sunflowers.
Everything in nature is connected.
It raises the question, Finck said, of whether the rat proliferation will draw more predatory birds.