Dusky Footed Woodrat, Neotoma fuscipes

DIET: Fruits, nuts, acorns, seeds, greenery.

PREDATORS: Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks.

HABITAT/RANGE: Oak woodland and riparian areas, mainly in CA and Baja California.

CONSERVATION STATUS: Species of special concern in California.

WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB:

The woodrat is one of only three mammals that build wooden homes, with beavers and humans being the other two.  Woodrats build large, elaborate nests out of sticks, generally with one rat per nest, although the nests are often found aggregated within an area like a "colony".  The woodrat itself is rarely seen, being nocturnal. 
 

Appearance

Dusky footed woodrats are rodents with grey or brown backs, white undersides, and grey feet.  Their bodies are up to 6-7 inches long, and they may have some fur on their tail unlike other rat species.

 

Dusky-Footed Woodrat Nests

Because the woodrats themselves are so elusive, they can be most easily identified by their nests. At first glance, a woodrat nest may just look like a pile of sticks, but a closer look often reveals tunnel openings and elevated "terraces".  Many woodrat nests are on the ground at the bases of trees or shrubs, but "aerial" nests in the canopies of trees also may be found. (These are often mistaken for bird or squirrel nests but can be differentiated by their larger size and the way the debris is carefully placed around the branches). Freshly gathered vegetation is sometimes seen on the tops of nests, as are bits of trash, since the woodrats are always gathering objects to add to their nests.  The nest pictured on the left is a ground nest around 3 feet tall, located in the Arroyo Burro Open Space.

Ecological Roles

Woodrats are herbivorous, eating mostly nuts, seeds, leaves, and fruits.  Studies have shown that they feed on 72 different plant species, including acorns from various oak species.  They often bring food back to their nest and eat it while inside.

Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, owls, and hawks are among the predators of woodrats.  Woodrats' main defense strategy is staying under cover, hidden from predators.

Dusky footed woodrats are considered an indicator species in their habitat, because changes in the health of the ecosystem tend to first be visible within the woodrat population.  Their presence also benefits other species in the ecosystem by providing shelter for other animals such as mice, insects, and lizards within their nests.

Behavior

Dusky-footed woodrats live in colonies, with many nests in one general area and one rat per nest.  They mainly come out of their nests at night.  When leaving their nests, woodrats typically follow a path above the ground, such as on tree branches, or in thick vegetation, to avoid being seen by predators.

Female woodrats remain in their original nests, while males move around in search of mates.  Male woodrats usually choose the female closest to their nest as a mate. 

Woodrats are known to decorate their nests with objects they find, especially shiny objects.  Sometimes, while carrying an item back to its nest, a woodrat will find another item and "trade" the one it is carrying for the new object.  This habit has earned them the name "trade rat."

Not Your Ordinary Rat

Unlike roof rats or Norway rats, which people are usually referring to when they have a "rodent problem," dusky footed woodrats usually don't cause conflict with people.  They are not well suited to living in neighborhoods due to the absence of food and water, and instead prefer to .  Dusky footed woodrats are threatened with habitat loss, and are considered a species of special concern in California.

How to Observe Woodrats

Woodrats are elusive and rarely seen.  Their nests, though, are noticeable if you know what you are looking for.  Look for a mound of sticks on the ground or in a tree that appears to have been deliberately built.  If you find several of these in the same general area, they are likely woodrat nests.  If you sit quietly near a woodrat nest at dusk, you may be lucky enough to see its resident come out to forage.  Arroyo Burro Open Space is probably the best place in Santa Barbara to observe woodrats, as they are plentiful there even right next to the main trail

Image credits: Dusky footed woodrat- Mbmceach, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0.