Ask the Naturalist

Who builds those stick houses, anyway? Woodrats!

May 10, 2013

Stewart Gilbert of San Rafael writes to ask: “Who makes these homes built out of sticks? They’re very common at China Camp. From a wood rat of some sort? The sticks can be large, requiring strength to pile up. I’ve never seen any sign of habitation or fresh construction. And they occur at both the bay water’s edge, and up on dry ridges, to about 500′ elevation or so.”

Dusky-footed woodrat at Henry W. Coe State Park, east of Gilroy. Photo by Kevin Nibur.
Dusky-footed woodrat at Henry W. Coe State Park, east of Gilroy. Photo by Kevin Nibur.

You’ve got it right, Stewart — it is a woodrat, the dusky-footed woodrat to be precise. These remarkable rodents build LARGE homes of sticks, and the homes can actually serve many generations of woodrats. Naturalist Alan Kaplan wrote us a story about them way back in 2007, At Home with the Packrats. That’s their other common name: packrats. They squirrel stuff away, so to speak, and researcheers have even used ancient packrat nests to find out what was happening in an area hundreds or even thousands of years ago!

Alan includes this delightful description of a woodrat’s home: “If you could see inside a woodrat’s house, you’d find a tidy little home: a nest bedroom or two lined with grasses and shredded bark; a pantry full of acorns and other seeds, leaves, and twigs for food; and several latrines for waste (a woodrat poops over 100 pellets a day!). The nests might have a few scattered California bay leaves to repel fleas. Food items that can be toxic when fresh (such as toyon leaves) are kept in a separate room to age before the rats move them to the pantry. When the latrines get full, woodrats clean house, shoving the pellets out into the forest, where they fertilize the soil.”

These rodents are exclusively nocturnal, so you’re very unlikely to ever see one out and about. But photographer Kevin Nibur got this shot of one in Henry W. Coe State Park. Cute!

About the Author

Dan was editor of Bay Nature from 2004 until 2013, when he left to work for SF-based Stamen Design. He is now executive director of GreenInfo Network, a nonprofit mapmaking organization. A onetime professional cabinetmaker, he considers himself a lifelong maker of things and teller of stories. Dan has been working at the intersection of journalism and technology since, at age 16, he began learning reporting, page layout, and database design. His enduring interest in environmental issues crystallized into a career path in 1998 when he assisted former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass in a cross-disciplinary nature writing and ecology course at UC Berkeley, from which Dan received a Masters in English literature. In 1999, he became Associate Editor of Terrain, the erstwhile quarterly magazine of Berkeley's Ecology Center. In addition to editing and art-directing Bay Nature magazine, he was also Bay Nature’s chief technology strategist, fixer of broken things, and designer of databases and fancy spreadsheets. And he was even known to leave the office and actually hike outdoors.