Since March when many countries started to impose lockdown restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen a marked change when it comes to typical human behaviour. Prior to the lockdown in the USA around 40 per cent of meals were consumed out of the home and as the restaurants closed down almost all meals were consumed at home.
This sudden and dramatic change resulted in a famine. The closed restaurants no longer provided the food for nearby rat colonies who then started to starve. In restaurant-heavy neighbourhoods pest control staff began seeing more rats with wounds from fighting over food. More of the creatures were captured in traps probably because the bait had become a lot more enticing.
As the days of restaurant closures turned into weeks the rat population in some areas started to drop. This was partly due to the fact that some of the rats in an act of desperation moved out of their established home environments resulting in some city residents reporting increases in the number of rats in and around their homes.
This led to rumours there was a sudden increase in the number of rats when in fact it was due to rats on the move. We have also seen many problems with cars that have been parked up since the start of the pandemic. Cars no longer have any human smells and have become more attractive places to seek shelter.
The creatures crawl in the engine compartment to keep warm and chew on the car’s wiring while in there, wreaking havoc on the electrical system. Some car brands, such as Toyota, use soy-coated wiring, which can be a delicious treat to a rodent.
One thing is for sure: Rats aren’t going away. A female brown rat can have litters of 10 pups every few weeks. Any rat populations that have been decimated by starvation in certain areas are likely to rebound as soon as their food comes back.
In the USA the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has recently warned that hungry rats might be unusually aggressive. Matthew Combs, an ecologist at Columbia University who has studied rats in New York City where population estimates range up to two million, stresses that the animals are not evolving into aggressive super rats.
“Really, the rat behaviour probably hasn’t changed so much. It’s really the way humans have altered our activity,” he says.
Rats are not the only urban neighbour of ours who have changed their behaviours as a result of the sudden changes in human activity in recent weeks. There are more reports of strange sightings of Kashmiri goats in the deserted town of Llandudnoy in Wales who helped themselves to garden flowers and hedges.
However, some animals enjoying new adventures can’t be allowed to stay around for long. Several cougars found wandering the streets of Santiago, Chile were captured and released back in their natural habitats.
Finally, another victim of sudden change are the starving pigeons in European cities normally teeming with tourists. The humans who normally feed them or drop morsels of food on the streets are stuck at home under lockdown. In Krakow, Poland, one animal welfare organisation is coming out specially to feed the flocks abandoned for the time being.