Dusky Footed Woodrat, Neotoma fuscipes
The woodrat is one of only three mammals that build wooden homes, with beavers and humans being the other two. Woodrats, whose bodies are only about 6 or 7 inches long, build large, elaborate nests out of sticks. The woodrat itself is rarely seen, being nocturnal.
Dusky footed woodrats are small rodents with grey or brown backs, white undersides, and grey feet. However, they can be most easily identified by their nests. These look like large piles of sticks against tree trunks or supported aerially by branches, sometimes with fresher vegetation on top of the nests. Below is a photo of a woodrat nest at the Arroyo Burro Open Space. This nest is about 3 feet tall.
Role in Food Chain
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.
Habitat and Range
The dusky-footed woodrat is found mainly in California and Baja California, in oak woodland and riparian areas. Woodrats build nests, which look like mounds of sticks, either in trees or on the ground against a tree or shrub. The nests have elaborate tunnel systems inside, including elevated "terraces" on the outside where tunnels come out.
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. Because of this, and due to their limited habitat, they are a protected species.
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."
Relationship with Humans
Dusky footed woodrats usually don't cause problems to people. They are not well suited to living in neighborhoods due to the absence of food and water. 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.
Image credits: Dusky footed woodrat- Mbmceach, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0.