By Nancy Reyering, Committee for Green Foothills Board Member. Originally published May 2015.
My husband and I lived in Woodside for 30 years before we understood that the little igloo of sticks at our property line was a woodrat nest. Discovering this and learning more about the behavior, skill, and value of this charming but rare little species has been wonderful.
The first thing most people notice about the dusky-footed woodrat is that it more closely resembles a large mouse than a rat. Not only is it small, but it also sports soft-looking taupe-colored fur, rounded ears, and a smallish tail. This ingenious animal builds complicated dens of twigs and sticks. These dens, or lodges, are most often found near water sources or at property boundaries, and along fence lines where the woodrats can exist relatively undisturbed.
The original “pack rat,” these little creatures often collect small objects to furnish their dens, including foodstuff like berries, twigs, and nuts, or shiny objects and human oddments like bottle caps, balls, and bits of fabric. In dens at the perimeters of golf courses, golf tees are often a favorite collectible. Hikers and even local walkers have probably seen their homes, but may not have recognized the stacks of sticks they’re looking at as an elaborate woodrat dwelling.
You’ll most often see lodges on the ground, but woodrats also build in trees. When you spot a woodrat lodge, you can be sure that there is a water source nearby, even if it is not immediately apparent where.
Woodrat dens are also used simultaneously by squirrels, frogs, and lizards, as they provide shelter and warmth. As prey, and as a nocturnal animal, woodrats are most often taken by owls and foxes, though they are too small to hold much interest for a coyote.
Because of the way the lodges are constructed, they do not constitute fuel and do not pose a fire danger. In fact, woodrat dens are considered part of the native vegetation, and are best preserved as they assist with cover and forage for wildlife, and guard against erosion.
The Woodside Fire Protection District has established a protocol that could serve other communities as well, asking residents to help protect this rare species by completely avoiding the disturbance of any dusky-footed woodrat lodges.
As the dens are usually found in out-of-the-way places, clean-up crews can easily avoid them. Residents and gardening crews should be cautioned about disturbing dusky-footed woodrats, both because they are a sensitive species, and because dust and fecal matter from the dens can expose individuals to Hantavirus. And as always, in order to protect against harming any local wildlife, the use of rodenticides is highly discouraged.
I feel so lucky to be able to call Woodside my home, and have all of the wonders of nature and wildlife right outside my front door. I hope you will join me and take some time to learn more about the wildlife outside your front door and what you can do to protect it.