CANYON The Texas Panhandle and South Plains needed a pied piper this summer to deal with a population explosion of cotton rats.
The cotton rat, properly known as the hispid cotton rat, hasn’t been seen in these numbers since the 1950s, Texas Cooperative Extension specialists said. And while the rat has little or nothing to do with cotton, it can damage melons, pumpkins and gourds.
Alarm was raised this year when the normally range-habitat rat started showing up in towns, getting the attention of homeowners, said Ken Cearley, Extension wildlife specialist in Canyon.
Rick Gilliland, Extension/Texas Wildlife Services district supervisor, received as many as 30 to 40 calls, averaging three to four a day for a couple of weeks. Gilliland is responsible for 61 counties in the Panhandle and South Plains.
A pumpkin producer in Yoakum County reported up to 60 percent of his pumpkins were damaged by the rats gnawing on them. One homeowner reported trapping 10 in her home.
After the first call from Parmer County came in, Gilliland said he began researching the cotton rat and found this rodent species is subject to violent fluctuations in numbers.
The last outbreak in Texas occurred in 1958, when millions of these rodents seemed to appear from nowhere and caused serious losses to farm crops, particularly peas, peanuts, watermelons and cauliflower, according to “The Mammals of Texas – Online Edition.”
As in 1958, this year’s population peak was preceded by bountiful rains, which resulted in an abundance of grass and suitable habitat, Gilliland said.
No toxicants are registered for control of the rodent, he said, so the recommendation is to try traps in home areas and to mow all grassy or vegetative areas extremely short to decrease their protective habitat.
“The more you make the country less desirable to them, the more control you will have,” Cearley said. That includes making sure field borders are kept mowed.
“Even if we had a grain bait, it’s not likely it would be very effective,” Gilliland said. “These rats, for the most part, are vegetative eaters. They can do a lot of damage to gardens and crops.”
While most people assume a rat is a rat and are concerned their homes and barns will be invaded, that’s not the typical behavior of the cotton rat, he said.
The rats may find their way into garages and other structures, but typically they are range dwellers. Also, there are more showing up dead in yards because cats find them easy prey in such high numbers, Gilliland said.
The prolific rodent can give birth to as many as nine litters a year, with two to 10 young per litter, according to The Mammals of Texas. Females breed as soon as 10 hours after having a litter, and the gestation period is approximately 27 days. Females begin breeding when they are only 40 days old, the online report states.
Their life cycle is about a year, Gilliland said. Already a high mortality is being seen.
“We were finding when people were seeing the dead rats, it was because they were reaching the end of their mortality and not that there was a disease among them,” Gilliland said. “Nature takes care of its own population peaks and explosions.”
Reports of high raptor numbers, hawks and owls, in the region where these rats are easy prey are also coming in, he said.
Being a true rodent, the rats are susceptible to plague and tularemia, and have been linked to hantavirus. But Karen McDonald, public health technician in Lubbock, and Kathy Parker, public health technician in Midland, have helped conduct tests on dead rats in a die-off and did not find a disease agent to be the cause.
“This thing exploded rather quickly and we didn’t know how broad and wide it would be,” Gilliland said. “It has been a fire drill for us.”
Cearley said producers should be aware that a similar increase in some predators coyotes, skunks, raccoons, badgers, foxes can be expected due to a generous food supply of cotton rats and other rodents that have proliferated this summer.