WHATEVER COMES TO YOUR BIRD FEEDER
quickly got my wife's attention last week when I said, "Come look
out the window. We have a rat at the bird feeder." She was hoping
I meant we had a squirrel.
"rodent" is nowhere to be found in the term "backyard
bird feeder," and many people who like to attract birds decry gray
squirrels. Some of the indictments are that they eat too much too fast
and sometimes chase small birds away. I don't feel such animosity toward
them myself because squirrel behavior can be quite entertaining. My
wife is also accepting of these marauding mammals at the bird feeders.
But her response to squirrels cannot be compared to her response to
the rat alert. Acceptance was not part of the mix.
changed when she looked at our new visitor and I pointed out that this
was no ordinary rat. It was a woodrat, a native species that would be
better served without the word "rat" in its name. Woodrats
are appealing creatures. They are chubby, with cute, inquisitive faces.
They have big, rounded ears. And their tails are somewhat furry. If
a rodent can be considered cuddly, a wood rat would qualify. They are
every bit as adorable as hamsters, although they get 10 times bigger
and bite harder if annoyed.
represent several different species that belong to the genus Neotoma.
In the Southwest they are called pack rats. I became familiar with them
one summer when I worked in the Chihuahuan Desert in southwestern Texas.
These rodents build enormous nests, as much as six feet across and several
feet deep into the desert sand. The nests are made of dead mesquite
limbs, dried cactus plants, and other foraged material. Pack rats come
out at night and are noted for picking up any object on the desert floor
that is not nailed down. They then bring it back to the nest, which
increases in size with each generation.
are generally predictable about what they do with objects they scavenge
during their nocturnal forays. They bring them back to the nest and
place them on top of the pile. We confirmed this the morning I woke
to find my watch was missing. We slept on cots elevated a couple of
feet off the desert floor to make sure no crawling creature would join
us in our sleeping bag. We put loose change, pocketknives, and watches
up on a picnic table. That night I had inadvertently left my watch lying
on the ground below my cot.
after sunrise I walked a hundred feet to the nearest pack rat nest and
picked up my watch off the top of the pile. It was the same nest where
we had found a cowboy hat belonging to one of our colleague's earlier
in the week. Obviously no self-respecting rodent explorer could resist
bringing back a Stetson to show the rest of the pack.
fortunate that pack rats typically leave newly found objects on top,
because presumably these nests serve as refuges from the desert heat
for a variety of creatures. Rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions
are but a few of the presumed inhabitants. Plus, most plants used in
their construction have unpleasant thorns or spines. Before reaching
down to the bottom of a pack rat nest, you would definitely want to
consider just how much the item was worth to you.
backyard we have seen the visiting woodrat several times. It trundles
across the lawn to rummage around beneath a bird feeder where its sloppy
squirrel cousins have scattered more sunflower seeds than they have
eaten. To our way of thinking, a fat, round-eared hamsterlike creature
sitting up eating seeds is more entertaining than yet another gray squirrel.
Or even another titmouse or house finch.
I am, however,
steeling myself for the eventual disappearance of lawn furniture or
grandkids' toys from the yard. If that happens, I will know where to
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