Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ten Quick Bits on Rats

  1. Size: Adult Brown Rats (aka the Norwegian Rat) generally weigh between 10 and 18 ounces and can reach lengths up to 18 inches, from nose to tail. The average weight of an urban rat is about 12 ounces.

  2. Food and Water: : Rats can eat a third of their weight in food a day, but unlike other rodents, rats have a strong need for waterand will drink 1/2 to 1 ounce a day. Rats eat 50 pounds of food a year and can eat 1/3 of their weight a day. Favorite foods include oatmeal, potatoes, meat and cooked eggs. The U.S. Government reports that the average rat damages $1 to $10 worth of food and other material per year, and contaminates 5 to 10 times this amount in its travels. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines allow "an average of two rodent hairs per one hundred grams of peanut butter."

  3. Senses: Rats follow the edges of walls or old grease trails left by their own bodies because they can see only three or four feet with any real accuracy. Rats have such an acute sense of taste, however, that they are able to detect some poisons at levels as low as 0.5 parts per million.

  4. Reproduction: Litters of six to 12 young are born 21 to 23 days after conception. Young rats are completely independent at about four weeks, and reach reproductive maturity at three months of age. A female rat may have sex as often as 20 times a day and can produce a litter about six times a year. Most female rats are pregnant 100 percent of their adult life. A single pair of rats can theoretically multiply more than 15,000 descendants in 1 year; 359 million in 3 years. Like people, and unlike most other animals, rats display homosexuality, even when members of the opposite sex are readily available.

  5. Locomotion: Rats can run at 24 miles per hour for short bursts -- about as fast as an Olympic runner, even though they weigh less than 1/100 the weight. Rats can swim 1/2 mile in open sea and tread water for 3 days. They can dive 100 feet underwater and hold their breath for as long as 15 minutes.

  6. Not a Native Animal: Although the Black Rat has been in England since the Third Century AD, the first recorded Brown Rat arrived in 1714, along with King George I, and they may have come over on the same ship from Germany. The first Brown Rats arrive in the U.S. in 1760.

  7. Rats Can Survive Anything: Warfarin was developed as a rat poison a couple of decades ago, but within a year of its introduction, some rats had grown so resistant to this powerful anti-coagulant that they were seen eating it for food. After several atomic bomb tests on Engebi, in the Eniwetok Atoll in the 1950s, scientists returned to the island to find highly radioactive soil, devastated plant-life, and a huge colony of perfectly healthy rats living off of dead fish washed up on the beach.

  8. The Power of Rat Teeth: The jaws of a rat can exert pressures of 24,000 lbs per square inch, and rats can readily chew through plastic water pipes, bone, irrigation systems and garbage cans, wood boxes, dry wall, and even cinder block. On the international "hardness index" rat teeth = 5.5, while iron = 4.0, copper = 2.5-3.0, aluminum = 2.0 , and lead = 1.5. Rat teeth grow about 5 inches a year, and rats with mis-aligned jaws have been know to pierce their own brain cases with their incisors.

  9. Getting Rid of Rats: It is is almost impossible to rid an area of rats by poison and traps alone. Some rats are simply too smart to be caught by traps, and rats grow resistant to any one poison pretty quickly. Poison and traps can work, but ONLY if they are combined with a clean up of garbage-ridden areas. Start by putting all trash into cans with tight-fitting lids, removing large overflowing dumpsters, trimming grass and weeds in the area, plowing up burrows, and removing all possible hiding places. Bird feeders should be removed, dogs cleaned up after, sources of water drained, and wood piles raised off the ground.

  10. Life and Death: Rats have pushed more animals into extinction in the last 500 years than than any other cause. Most of these extinctions were caused by rats eating the eggs and fledglings of birds endemic to Pacific islands. Rats can transmit at least 35 diseases to humans, including leptospirosis (very common) and the Plague (very rare).While the Bubonic Plague (carried by the Black Rat flea) wiped out scores of millions of people in Europe between 1300 and 1700, the arrival of the Brown Rat in the early 1700s pushed out the Black Rats and Bubonic Plague pandemics in Europe and most of the rest of the world quickly abated. The relatively high quality of life enjoyed by most people in the world today is directly attributable to medical research made possible by generations of laboratory rats bred for more than 150 years from the "fancy" rats first collected by Jack Black, the rat catcher (and terrierman) employed by Queen Victoria.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dinner on the Driveway

Deer eating corn scattered in a driveway near Williamsburg, Pennsylvania.

An overabundance of deer in Pennsylvania and in many other sections of the midAtlantic has resulted in forest undergrowth being overbrowsed, with a resulting decline in some nesting bird populations and a dramatic increase in the number of vehicle-deer impacts -- one reason that Audubon Pennsylvania has concluded that "deer densities in Pennsylvania are too high from an ecosystem perspective."

In order to curb rising deer populations, most midAtlantic states now require hunters to shoot at least one doe before they shoot a second buck, and seasons have been extended and takes increased (or entirely removed in some areas).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Average Size of Fox

All kinds of nonsense is written and said to justify over-large Kennel Club terriers that cannot fit down a hole. Yet, when push comes to shove, a very small dog is needed. As Barry Jones, terrierman to the Cotswold Foxhounds, a former Chairman and President of the Fell and Moorland Working Terrier Club, and the founding Chairman of the National Working Terrier Federation writes:

"I have not encountered a fox which could not be spanned at 14 inches circumference - this within a weight range of 10 lbs to 24 lbs, on average 300 foxes spanned a year."

In his excellent book The Working Jack Russell Terrier, Eddie Chapman writes:

"I am a small man and have reasonably small hands, but in more than 20 years in which I have handled well over 1000 foxes, I have never handled a full grown fox which came anywhere near the span of my hands"
In Foxes, Foxhounds & Foxhunting, written in 1923, Richard Clapham notes that:

"With regard to the weights of foxes, these differ considerably in various parts of the country. Roughly speaking the average dog fox weighs about 15lb., and the vixen 13½lb. It is quite safe to say that nowadays there are far more foxes under than over 16lb. The heaviest fox I have a record of, killed by hounds, was one of 23lb, which was run into by the Ullswater on Cross Fell. This fox measured 4ft. 4in. from tip of nose to end of brush, about 4in. of the latter being white. On the Lakeland fells weights of 18lb. and 19lb. are not uncommon, and this season 1921-22 I handled a 19½lb. fox killed by a fell pack. Extra heavy foxes are occasionally accounted for in the Midlands. When Frank Gillard was huntsman to the Belvoir, his hounds on one occasion killed a fox of 17½lb."

What is interesting is how quick show ring breeders leap over the fact that the average fox weights less than 15 pounds -- so great is their need to find a fox that weights a great deal more so that their over-large dogs can be seen as "correct."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fru Fru Fidos In the Terrier Ring at Westminster

The latest news out of the Westminster Kennel Club show in New York City is that a Dandie Dinmont won the terrier class. I cannot help but laugh, as this is a breed so far from it's origins and so far from being a true terrier as to be a joke on four legs.

Of course, this Dandie Dinmont will now get a lot of press coverage since it is co-owned by comedian Bill Cosby. Does anyone else think Bill Cosby's ownership might have been a small (or large) consideration in the judge's mind? What a great way to launch a small ring judge into the spotlight -- and get a picture with a celebrity as well! Plus the folks at Westminster will love you for it -- star power publicity is always good for business.

Cosby has been showing terriers for years, of course. Or, should I say, he has has been paying people to breed dogs and show them for him. He is neither the breeder nor the handler; he is the person with a lot of money, if not much time. Of course, neither Cosby, his handler, nor his breeder has ever heard of a locator collar. Who has in the world of show ring terriers? These folks are involved in a different "sport" -- the sport of writing checks, deciding which dog has sex with which dog, and parading the resulting progeny around a ring. How this is a sport is a bit of a mystery to me, but that's what they call it.

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, you might remember that I wrote about Dandie Dinmont's back in November ("Danger: Market Forces at Work") and that I promptly received emails from two show-ring Dandie Dinmont breeders in the UK (Hilary Cheyne and Paul Keevil) who said their breed of dog was not wrecked by the ring, and of course it still worked.

This is complete hogwash, of course, and everyone who digs on their dogs knows it. And to underscore the point, I extended a small challenge to Ms. Cheyne and Mr. Keevil:

".... to find even one picture of a Kennel Club Dandie Dinmont that was dug to in the last 50 years. I want a photograph of a Dandie (wearing a locator collar) and his fox or badger standing next to a hole freshly dug. No roadkill photos now!"

Three months later and I am still waiting. Mr. Keevil sent me old illustrations of dogs standing in the counryside, etc. but he did not even have an illustration of a Dandie being dug to or working a fox -- an amazing thing since he is in the graphics arts business. I suggested to Mr. Keevil that he might try to get a picture from Alf Rhodes' family, but in truth Rhodes (who is dead) only claimed to have ever dug six foxes with a single Dandie Dinmont he had back in the 1970s. So much for Dandie's as a working breed!

As I have often note, there are more pictures of Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster than there are of most Kennel Club terrier breeds at work, and the Dandie Dinmont is no exception.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Better than a Dog Anyhow"

Darwin’s musing on marriage:

"Reasons for not marrying: freedom to go where one liked; choice of Society & little of it. - Conversation of clever men at clubs - Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. - to have the expense & anxiety of children - perhaps quarrelling - Loss of time. - cannot read in the Evenings - fatness & idleness - Anxiety & responsibility - less money for books.

"[Reasons for marrying:] Children - (if it Please God) - Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, - object to be beloved & played with. - better than a dog anyhow."

Of course, Darwin went on to marry his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, the kind of "consolidation of superior blood lines" later advocated by another of Darwin's cousins, Sir Francis Galton, whose work advancing the field of eugenics served as the intellectual cornerstone of the modern Kennel Club.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

A very miserable history if you know the result of inbreeding within both the Darwin family and the Kennel Club.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey

On Sunday, it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

For those of you who are wondering, a "brass monkey" is (supposedly) a lipped plate that was screwed to the deck of a battleship while in port. Four iron cannon balls were then racked up in the plate, with three on the bottom and one on the top to form a pyramid. When it got really cold, the thin brass plate would contract far more than the iron cannon balls. The result: canon balls rolling aound loose on deck .. a very bad thing. Or at least that's the way to the story goes.... it apparently is not true.

Nonetheless the phrase feels right, if you know what I mean. Without a doubt it was brass monkey weather on Sunday, with 20 mile-per-hour winds too, which I why I left so little of my face exposed to the elements.

The good news is that with weather this cold, I could drive the truck straight out on to fields, barely leaving a track in dusted white powder.

Driving down the fields to get closer to the holes was definitely the right idea on this trip, as I was digging alone and the ground was frozen solid. I would need the big Bertha spoon to cut through the first 10 inches of ice, and it's a tool that weighs so much, I would just as soon not carry it very far.

I was a bit surprised to find a couple of best-prospect fox-den locations empty or even filled in. A long walk down a likely creek bed found a lot of scent (according to Mountain), but no one home. Bummer.

I headed to another location on the farm and drove right up to a copse of woods where I knew a couple of likely settes were located.

Bingo -- the first sette out of the truck I found a nice fox crap at the entrance. Mountain wasted no time and headed in, while I went to get the Bertha, pack, posthole digger, and Pearl.

Pearl wanted into the sette too, but neither dog could get in very far, and I quickly figured out why -- the pipe double-backed at an impossible angle. If the fox had managed to get in to this sette through this enterance, it was a true Houdini.

I tied up Pearl far enough away that her collar would not read on the Deben box, and I used the heavy bertha bar and blade to break up the frozen ground enough for a spade to finally be of use.

By the time I had finished opening up the pipe
, however, Pearl was clearly freezing, and so I carried her 40 feet to the truck in order to get warmed up. On the way back to the hole, I saw Mountain racing off into the woods following a blur of red fur -- the fox had bolted just that quick. Ah well, you can't get them all on film, I suppose.

I grabbed my shovel and pack and headed off to find Mountain about 80 feet away trying to get into another sette. I knew this sette -- it was 12 feet deep (Sailor had gone to ground here), and in the middle of thick roots from surrounding trees. I had given this pipe a pass when other folks were with me to help, and it was going to be impossible digging solo in ground this frozen.

I grabbed Mountain before she got fully underground, and leashed her up. I drive to another section of the farm and we patrolled another creek bed together, but found nothing and I decided to call it a day.

"I Can Do That"

Wearing a little orange might help you live longer ... or it might not matter at all.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wild, Wilder, Wilderness

The return of large numbers of large predators to the North American landscape is a phenomenon that has occured in our life time, even as their demise was a phenomenon that occured in the lifetime of our great grandparents.

Today, across the United States, the black bear population approaches 500,000, while the cougar (mountain lion) population is over 30,000.

Coyotes are now found everywhere -- from the suburbs of Los Angeles to the South Bronx.

Alligators are so common in Florida and many other southern states that it is hard to imagine they were teetering on the edge of extinction just 40 years ago.

Wolves are no longer found only in Minnesota. The red wolf was reintroduced to North Carolina (current population around 100), and the gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone where it has prospered and is spreading west to Oregon.

While Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are estimated to have had only 1 wolf between them in 1980, imports from Canada helped that number climb to 33 in 1990. By 2000, the three states counted 437 wolves between them, and by 2005, that number had climbed to 1,020. The wolf population of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan is now estimated at about 4,000 animals, with about 2,600 of this population in Minnesota. In Arizona and New Mexico, the Mexican Gray Wolf has been reintroduced from captivity, and the total population in those two states now numbers between 30 and 50 inviduals.

The New York Times reports that the grizzly bear population of the Yellowstone Basin is now about 600 animals -- the most it can hold -- and that the population of these enormous bears is growing at about 5 percent a year -- a doubling time of about 12 years. While there are a few grizzlies in the Yaak, most of Idaho remains griizzly-free for now, but it is only a matter of time before that changes as Idaho's National Forest system offers plenty of excellent habitat to absorb expanding populations.

The growth of large predators means that in the not-very-distant future man is going to have to re-examine its relationship with its wild competition. While black bears are fairly docile herbivores, and coyotes are small enough that they pose no serious problem to an animal larger than a cat or a terrier, cougars, wolves and grizzly bears are top-end predators, and they live on prey quite a bit larger than mice and cats.

Should we kill a cougar, wolf or grizzly because it kills a sheep or cow grazing on national forest land? Not in my book, but I am willing to debate the issue and discuss the competing values and costs. I am confident that in such a debate the cow and sheep will lose, and the lion, wolf and grizzly will win. Am I willing to shoot a mountain lion to protect populations of seriously endangered desert bighorn sheep? Perhaps, but shooting may not be the only option in an era in which we have modern and safe leghold snares, traps and dart guns which give us the option of relocating animals to areas of true wilderness. I am not (yet) of the opinion that we have a longage of mountain lions or grizzly bears.

When push comes to shove, however, we are going to get to a place in the next 20 years or so when conservation and preservation of predator species is going to be less of a concern than sensible management.

This will be a good thing, beause it will mean that we have a viable top-end predator population in the United States again. Unlike Europe, our wild will not be an emasculated place, but a countyside with gradients of wild, wilder and wilderness. Or, as one movie hero remarked, "The closer you get to Canada, the more things'll eat your horse."

I bring this up the wake of a recent cougar attack on two elderly walkers in California. The good news is that both Jim and Nell Hamm survived. The day after the attack, trackers with hounds shot and killed a female and a male mountain lion within a quarter mile of where the attack had occured.

I am not second-guessing the removal of those mountain lions; no sensible person would. That said, it does take you down the path to risk analysis and response. A 70-year old man, like Mr. Hamm, is far more likely to die from cholesterol-choking cheese, a car accident, or alcohol poisoning than from a cougar attack, and yet we do not ban these products -- we heavily promote them.

Cougar, wolf and grizzly bears are inherently dangerous animals -- they will attack and kill you under certain circumstances. That said, those circumstances are sufficiently rare that it is very clear that it does not take too much effort to tip the scale to the point that the lion, bear or wolf thinks better of the arrangement. You can do things to reduce attack, and you can take precautions. At at some point, I think, we need to talk about human responsibility and assumed risk.

When I go into the woods in deer season on a Saturday, I assume the risk of being shot. I lower that risk if I wear an orange hat or vest. When I walk solo through the Smokies just as black bears are leaving their dens in the spring, I assume the risk of a chance encounter. I lower that risk if I sing loudly as I go up the trail, and occassionally bang my walking stick against a rock. If I mountain bike alone, I assume the risk of pitching down a ravine and bleeding out. I lower that risk if I travel with someone else, wear a helmet, and carry a cell phone.

The point is that similar steps can dramatically reduce your risk in cougar, bear and wolf country, and those steps are not particularly onerous. Carry a walking stick and wear a hat and know the value and use of both. Do not engage in long-distance running or biking on brushy slopes in cougar country, and pack your food and pans away from your tents, and up a tree, in bear country.

Above all, however, realize that the chance of attack is extremely remote and that your odds of attack can be reduced to near-zero by taking a few common-sense precautions.

You cannot teach a wolf or cougar to be a vegetarian, but you can teach humans a few common sense tips that dramatically reduce the risk of attack.

Finally, remmeber this: When you are in the woods, you are far more likely to be killed by a swarm of bees, a falling tree, or a lightning bolt than you are by a bear, lion or wolf. If you want to live in fear, live in fear of bees.