Do you find yourself labeled a packrat by your nearest and dearest? Then you’re in good company with the woodrat, a charming rodent species that inspired the term for their habits of collecting shiny objects they find while foraging, and using them to adorn their homes.
Here in the Bay Area, we have the San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes annectens), a native Californian creature designated a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. One should not confuse it with its non-native counterpart, the ubiquitous Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus), also known as the brown rat or sewer rat. While the latter scurries through both urban jungles and rural landscapes, the dusky-footed woodrat boasts a unique presence in the Bay Area, contributing to the region’s rich biodiversity.
A young woodrat in redwood duff.
At first glance, woodrat nests appear like haphazardly stacked stick piles along trails or nestled within tree cavities, but inside are meticulously organized chambers. Inside a woodrat's home, you might find a bathroom (that gets cleaned out regularly), a bedroom, a pantry, and even a birthing room. Adult woodrats typically live alone in their nests–their litter of pups staying for just up to a year–but they’ll nest close to each other, forming communities and passing down their homes through generations.
Dubbed “ecosystem engineers”, woodrats often build multiple homes, which means more habitat for other creatures! Shelter-seeking mice, frogs, snakes, beetles, and salamanders move into these abandoned architectural marvels.
Woodrat nest, an unassuming “pile of sticks” from the outside.
Using native California bay laurel to their advantage, woodrats adorn the edges of their nest chambers with the leaves, nibbling on them to release fragrant aromatics that deter fleas and other parasites. With a diverse diet comprising woody plants, live oak acorns, elderberry, and occasional fungi, woodrats forage the forest floor under the cloak of night.
Woodrat foraging in Fern Ravine - May 2023
Owls, bobcats, hawks, and coyotes are common predators in the woodrat’s narrative, a testament to their integral place in the canyon ecosystem. Venture into the Sausal Creek Watershed, and you’ll encounter these forest architect homes in oak woodlands, riparian areas, and at the cusp of redwood forests where they transition to mixed hardwood forest like in the Fern Ravine ecosystem of Joaquin Miller Park.
–Ashley Cisneros with photos by Dr. Robert Leidy