The little gentleman in the gray suit

I was downstairs in my “library” — a hopeful term for an unfinished room full of book boxes — looking for a book today when I discovered a guest, a juvenile woodrat (picture below) hiding between a stack of old computer manuals and a box of back issues of Wired Magazine. The little guy probably slipped into the room from the canyon while the door was open and likely had been trapped in there for at least a day. I gently picked him up, intending to simply let him go, but he was so stressed that I detoured to give him some water and a small pile of wild bird seed to nibble on before setting him free.

Neotoma fuscipes — the dusky-footed woodrat– are our most numerous neighbors in the canyon. We have several of their dens on our property, 4-foot mounds of sophisticated cut-stick construction that vaguely resemble a dry-land beaver’s nest and are strong enough to discourage a hungry coyote. The dens pass through multiple generations of woodrats, and being near the bottom of the food chain, woodrats are prodigious breeders. The result is that at least twice a year, adventurous juveniles try to colonize new territory closer to our house. At the moment, an adult wood rat is living under the deck outside my office — and officiously chitters at me when I pass too near his nest.

Now, wood rats get a bad rap — they can be pesky (they will chew through ½-inch plywood) and the “rat” in their name evokes images of the nasty urban rats that sailed over to the new world with the first European colonizers. In contrast, woodrats are native; there is a reference to woodrat nests in our canyon in a book published in 1862, and in Nevada, researchers have found woodrat middens dating back to the late Quaternary Period. And woodrats are gentle and cute; true to their name (“dusky-footed”), they have little white paws and big Mickey Mouse ears. If it weren’t against the law to domesticate wildlife, they would make a fine pet.

They also are smart and social. The typical nest has multiple rooms and the local woodrats have learned to line their nests with pungent bay leaves to keep the fleas and ticks a bay. They also are as passionate about collecting stuff as a power-buyer on eBay (woodrats are also commonly called “pack rats”). The fellow under my deck has a nice collection of tin foil and bottle caps scavenged from the lunch trash of a painting crew that was here last year. The little fellow I encountered today was too scared to do anything but hide, but had I given him some time, I am sure he would have made a nest out of a few copies of Wired, and settled in to read my back issues of Technology Review.