Alberta's rat sightings doubled in 2020, but there's nothing to worry about
In massive cases of mistaken identity, the innocent muskrat is fooling Albertans
Albertans logged hundreds of rat reports in 2020, double a typical year, but it's not necessarily because more pests are scurrying around the province.
Norway rats are considered to be extremely destructive — they can carry disease and eat through valuable crops.
For more than 70 years the province has been determined to stop these pests from calling Alberta home, concentrating efforts along the Saskatchewan border, banning the animals as pets, and investigating any hint of a rat inside the province's borders.
Out of 481 rat reports, just 17 turned out to be the real deal last year.
Karen Wickerson, specialist with Alberta's Rat Control Program, said the province set up an email in 2020 which helps turn around a case faster than the 310-RATS number.
The new reporting method could have helped bolster reporting numbers last year.
"When they're out in the environment outside, they have their phones with them and so they can easily take out their phone and email us in a photo, and then we can respond very quickly and tell them which species it is," Wickerson said. "If it is a confirmed rat then we can contact the appropriate people and have them go out and investigate."
Wickerson said while Albertans are diligent about reporting rats they usually get it wrong.
"What I've noticed about Albertans is they feel a really strong responsibility to report a rat sighting because they know that we are rat-free, which is great," Wickerson said. "Because we don't have a resident population of rats in Alberta, they don't know what a rat looks like."
Muskrats more common
About half of the sightings in 2020 turned out to be muskrats. But Wickerson doesn't mind.
"I'd rather have 100 muskrat emails and, you know, not miss out on a rat sighting or a confirmed rat than people think, 'oh, it might be a muskrat, I'm not going to send an email,'" she said.
She added there may be an educational campaign coming in the spring to help Albertans better identify what rats look like.
For her, the difference between a waddling muskrat, and a scurrying rat is night and day — but she has daily practice identifying the critters that land in her inbox.
It's unclear if the pandemic played a role in last year's rat sightings. Dr. Kaylee Byers is the Regional Deputy Director with the B.C. Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. She's also a researcher with the Vancouver rat program.
Byers said throughout the pandemic rats made headlines. The pests were seen in the daylight, reportedly on the move scouring the streets for scraps of food as more humans retreated indoors.
"We would certainly expect to see some changes in rat behaviours in relation to major changes in the environment," Byers said. "What exactly those have looked like? All of those reports have been largely anecdotal."
Rat research still in its infancy
Byers said in many areas there aren't baseline studies or statistics to help better understand what kinds of effects the pandemic has had on rat populations. Rats are notoriously hard to research, as studying wild ones means catching them, sometimes more than once to monitor behaviour.
"Wouldn't it have been nice if we were set up to study this in advance?" Byers said. "The way we answer these kinds of questions is through having systems of reporting so we can say whether or not rat sightings have gone up or down."
Alberta's Saskatchewan border is patrolled several times a year to check rats aren't crossing over into the province.
Rats can't live in mountainous areas, which is good as it keeps British Columbia rats at bay. But, Wickerson said the rodents are crafty hitchhikers.
Out of the 26 rats found in 2020, many rode into Alberta on transport trucks or even personal vehicles, which is something Wickerson hopes to work on. There's also been a trend of rats ending up at recycling centres across the province.
Wickerson said in Calgary, a family drove from Vancouver Island back to Calgary, making a stop in Kelowna before parking their SUV inside their garage at home.
The next morning the homeowner found a rat dead in the garage, floating in a pail of water.
Rats like to hitchhike
"Check your vehicle when you come back from B.C. so that it doesn't increase our risk of rats entering into the province," Wickerson said, adding many Albertans own property in the neighbouring province.
Wickerson hopes to collect more data on rats found in Alberta, mapping out where they are found, recording their specific species, all to see if she can tease out a pattern.
"Location, urban-rural, the type of rat and then where it was reported, I'll put in the GPS location, alive or dead, how many, that sort of thing," Wickerson said. "I would like someone to come along, like a grad student, to do a study."