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April 12
1738 - Fr. Francisco Garcés born in Spain; came through SCV in 1776, found Tataviam fighting with Coastal Chumash, observed Santa Clara River flowing by night and dry by day despite the season being spring [story]
Garces statue

Back to Nature | Commentary by Mari Carbajal
| Thursday, May 14, 2015

maricarbajalA month or so ago, my original intention was to write about a weasel I had seen in broad daylight, crossing the road while driving to Acton. During research on the subject, I discovered we had flying squirrels and truffles in the upper elevations of our own San Bernardino Mountains. There was a seemingly endless path of discovery.

Last month I was intrigued by a flowering plant along the roadsides in the Acton-Agua Dulce areas and found the plant to be a Mexican elderberry with an amazing variety of health and medicinal properties as well as an abundance of uses from the flowers, wood and other parts of the plant.

Mexican elderberry shrub

Mexican elderberry shrub

After writing about Mexican elderberry, I decided to go out and try putting some of the theories I had read to test. I went from one shrub to another, gathering the clusters of flowers with the intent to dry them and then go online to find recipes for their use (I heard you can use the flowers for facials).

When I bent down to pick flowers at a shrub I thought would be my last, I looked underneath the bush, and next to its many trunks stood an enormous nest of twigs, leaves and branches about 3 feet high. I immediately recognized it as a dusky-footed woodrat nest. I walked from one Elderberry to another, and sure enough, each one had a nest identical to the shrub before.

Woodrat nest on ground

Woodrat nest on ground

I know of one location of a woodrat nest at Placerita Canyon State Park. Whenever I led children’s school tours at the park, the nest was a favorite attraction. But I never really studied the actual habitat or habits of the woodrats themselves. So here ‘goes.

There are 11 subspecies of woodrats. Some live in oak woodlands while others live in chaparral or riparian habitat (near water such as streams, rivers and lakes). The nests I witnessed were constructed under elderberry growing in a riparian habitat.

The scientific name for woodrats is Neotoma fuscipes. As an ancestor to the Norway rat, members of this nocturnal subspecies are mostly grayish-brown with long whiskers, rounded ears and furry tails (unlike the scaly – no fur – tail of the Norway rat). To me, they look like small chinchillas. Colors may vary depending on habitat. Some woodrats can also be a light cinnamon color, and all usually have whitish underbellies. They’re called “dusky-footed” due to their dark-colored feet.

Their size varies from around 16 inches long from the tip of their tail to the tip of their nose. Woodrats eat fruits, green vegetation including a favorite, juniper; inner bark, nuts, seeds and subterranean fungi, to name a few standards. They store their food in a special room inside the nest. Some species of woodrats live to be around 2 to 3 years, but the actual lifespan of riparian woodrats is not known.

A woodrat’s predator may include hawks, owls, bobcats, coyotes and many other small- to medium-sized mammals. Woodrats serve as the primary prey of the California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis), a species that is a big concern in California, as some subspecies of woodrats are declining due to various climate changes. Unfortunately, drought conditions have placed riparian woodrats on the North American endangered species list.

Dusky-­‐footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes)

Dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes)

Riparian woodrats, along with all of their subspecies, live in loosely cooperative societies and mostly have maternal social structures that are closely related. Males separate away from the dens where they were born after they’re weaned. The females move to nearby stick houses and remain close to their mother. Once the mother dies, one of the daughters inherits the house, which can be passed on from one generation to another for decades.

Males can be extremely territorial and aggressive, most certainly during mating season. Woodrats are polygamists, so the males often mate with more than one female during a breeding season. Since many woodrats are then closely related, their tendency for inbreeding has targeted the susceptibility for eventual extinction.

Even though these rodents are relatively small in stature, they are known for their large, long-lasting and sturdy terrestrial houses. The nests are usually found under shrubs, bushes or constructed in tree branches where they can be protected from the sun’s heat and the cold of winter.

Woodrat nest in tree

Woodrat nest in tree

Woodrats line the rooms of their houses with leaves, and research speculates that the use of fragrant leaves such as sage and bay leaves line the sleeping quarters to help deter parasites. Most houses last for many years, and some for 20 or more years after being abandoned. Other rodents might also occupy the nests, sometimes while still being occupied by woodrats. The structure of the nests can exceed 3 feet in diameter and 6 feet high.

Some woodrat families can have as many as three houses. The houses or nests themselves usually contain several nesting rooms, various resting chambers and rooms for storage of food.

Interestingly, another room is usually built inside their house to be used as a toilet; however, it has been found that they will also build this room outside of the nest, as well.

An interesting pastime for these creatures is collecting various items such as keys, jewelry, small household items, foil or any other shiny human object they can pilfer. Maybe they’re in cahoots with ravens and crows to see which can accumulate the most treasure. No one knows why woodrats steal and store items. This has given them the nickname “pack rat.”

Even though some see these rodents as pests (just ask anyone who owns horses), they are an integral part of our natural balance, especially for the spotted owl. However, it is important to note that they’re a primary carrier of lyme disease in Northern California, Oregon and Washington state.

The woodrat is also known as a pack rat.

The woodrat is also known as a pack rat.

If you’re interested in seeing their remarkable nests for yourself, just drive down Escondido Canyon Road between Agua Dulce and Acton and stop at any elderberry shrub on the streamside (north) of the road. Look underneath any shrub and you will see an amazing structure of twigs, branches and the like.

You might also want to collect a few Elderberry flowers, dry them and lay them out on a plate in your room of choice. They’re extremely fragrant and worth the effort. And in summer, the berries will begin to grow, so you can make some jellies or jams, or that famous Elderberry wine.

As I’ve said before, many discoveries can be made and are literally lying right at your feet. But it’s up to you to get out there and investigate all of nature’s little treasures for yourself.


Mari Carbajal is a docent-naturalist at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.


Mexican elderberry flowers


Mexican elderberries



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