Say the name “rat” and a nasty, sneaky Norwegian stow-away rat comes to mind. Erase that image and imagine a multicolor, fur-coated, big eared rodent with a fuzzy tail as long as its body and cute, big, black eyes and you have our local dusky-footed woodrat. Add a propensity to collect shiny, bright bits of junk and you add a common name – pack rat.
Neotoma fuscipes builds huge domed nests up to five feet high and even wider across. You’ve seen them under coast live oak groves or willow thickets since they prefer dark, shaded places. Sometimes there will be a dozen other homes spaced in a grove as related females live nearby. Male woodrats rove during the winter and spring breeding seasons looking for females in heat, and then move on.
Woodrat nests are more like assemblages of sticks, leaves, shredded bark, grass and whatever else is handy. If you could see inside, you would spy many separate areas for sleeping, giving birth, even pooping. The pantry might store seeds, fruits, greens and even a special pantry for poisonous toyon leaves. After aging these leaves to leach some of the toxic-level cyanide compounds, woodrats are able to eat them. These animals are nocturnal and forage at night for fungi and many kinds of plant materials.
The woodrat is a fastidious housekeeper. The poop room has frequent cleanouts and nests may be lined with nibbled-on leaves of California bay laurel. The leaves have fumigating properties and it’s thought they may keep the nests clear of parasites such as ticks and mites.
Since the animals are nocturnal it is rare to see one out and about during the day. Only once in 30 years of hiking state park trails have I seen one, deep in the shade of a coast live oak and only because a scrub jay alerted me that something was about. The woodrat and I stared at each other for five minutes and she never blinked. For me it was love at first sight!