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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: A Furry Collector | 04-18-2013
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Apr 18, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugIf you could visit the nest of a dusky-footed woodrat, you would find many surprises.

Let’s start with the treasure room, because they are not called packrats for nothing. They store items totally useless to them, but which have an attraction of some sort we likely can’t understand. Pens, bottle caps, compact lighters and shiny pieces of foil wrappers are just a few items found when opening a nest. The items are carefully assembled in one special collecting room.

The home tour continues. There is a pantry full of acorns and twigs to ensure a ready food supply. Here is an interesting detail: Some leaves, when fresh, are toxic (e.g., toyon leaves), so they are stored in a separate room where they stay until the toxins are gone and they are ready for consumption. Only then are they brought up to the pantry.

woodrat5There is a latrine area, and it is never close to the pantry. Woodrats make about 100 poop pellets per day (one has to wonder who had to collect those statistics). When the latrine is full, the scats are pushed away outside the nest where they fertilize the ground.

There is bedroom lined with grasses and bark, often with the addition of a few California bay leaves if they can be found in the environment, or the leaves of some other pungent plant that will repel fleas.

The woodrat nest looks like a large tippy bird’s nest, with many sticks piled up together. They can get large, and there have been studies designed to look at the seeds left in those nests to find out if the botany of the area has changed through the years.

If you see one nest, often there is another close by. Female woodrats build the nest or take over the nest of their mother, which in turn starts another nest nearby.

woodrat2Some male woodrats are kicked out by the females after mating, and they often build a smaller nest in a tree. Woodrats sometimes share their nests with other animals such as mice, lizards and two kinds of ticks. One of them is the Western black-legged tick, which can spread Lyme disease, so it is well that you leave the woodrat nests alone.

There is little opportunity to see a dusky-footed woodrat, as they are nocturnal and shy away from any light, even moonlight. They are rather large, 10 to 19 inches long, including the tail.

If you were to approach a nest at night, you might hear the noise they make by swooshing their tails around. They do that when they are excited or afraid, and they use this as a warning device against predators.

They like to do dust bathing; they also lick their coats to keep clean, similar to a cat.

They prefer to be off the ground, moving in trees and along fences, so they are cautious when walking on the ground. If they are traveling over ground, they pause after each step to make sure they are safe, because they are anxious about the noise they might make when crushing leaves or twigs underfoot. They could be in danger of becoming prey, so they much prefer to travel on trees and branches. They create their own trails between branches they use most of the time, a bit like their own highway system.

If you look at the photos, you can see their main color is cinnamon, and they have whiskers in six parallel rows. Their ears are thin, round and hairy; they have sharp claws; and females look the same as males, although the male is slightly larger and heavier.

If there are many males in the same area, the younger males won’t reach sexual maturity. If the male is alone, it will become sexually mature.

woodrat1Dusky-footed woodrats are well adapted to the climate in South California. The reproductive period begins in late September and runs through mid-June. This is also the time of year when we have the most rain and good plant growth, so food is plentiful.

Females mate with one single male, the male pairing with the closest sexually receptive female. After gestation begins, the female rejects the male and becomes aggressive toward him, so he goes to live on his own in a separate nest which he builds himself. The mother has two or three babies which are dependent on her until they are weaned at about 3 weeks after birth. At that point, the young start eating the same diet the parents do.

The dusky-footed woodrat does not like to be in the open. It shies away from grassy meadows and prefers areas that provide good cover and screening.

At Placerita, you will find woodrat nests in areas with many shrubs where they find both shade and plenty of branches for navigation routes, plus places to build their nests.

We used to have many woodrat nests. I am sad to say some were destroyed during the last two large fires that occurred in the park, but they are making a slow comeback, so things are looking up.

You have to admit it is an interesting creature with intriguing, different habits. The treasure room is always a fascinating aspect of the woodrat, and adults, like children, are always interested to hear about it and see their “treasures.”

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

woodrat3woodrat4

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