Packrat Treasures

by Beverly J. Letchworth | Sep 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Bushy-tailed packrat
Bushy-tailed woodrat. Photo © Melani Wright|Dreamstime.com.

So often when people hear the word “rat,” they shudder and think of the big black rats in the city that run in alleyways or gutters. But there’s one rat in the woodrat family called the bushy-tailed packrat that’s a handsome little one-pound creature with a fascinating “hobby.”

With its rounded ears, soft brownish coat, and squirrel-like bushy tail, it looks more like a squirrel than a rat. It’s often called the mountain rat because it prefers rocky places along cliffs, canyons, and open rocky fields, but it lives in forests and grasslands too in western United States and Canada.

It’s usually more active at night, but can be out and about during the day. It doesn’t hibernate, but stores food to eat through winter. And it’s not picky about its food. Although it prefers green vegetation, such as leaves, shoots, and needles, it will also eat twigs, fruit, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and some animal matter.

This bushy-tailed packrat pursues an intriguing “hobby.” As its packrat name implies, this little beastie is quite a
collector. As it goes about its daily routine, it’s attracted to anything it sees, especially shiny objects. The bushy-tailed packrat’s trading and collecting habit is the strongest of the woodrats.

Perhaps a hiker drops a coin from his pocket. Maybe a picnicker forgets to pick up a spoon that fell to the ground. Or a young girl loses a hair barrette. Aha, just the thing for a Bushy-tail! Even if it’s carrying something else in its mouth, like a twig or a pebble, it will drop it, trading it for the coin or spoon or barrette.

Apparently pleased with its new treasure, it carries it back to its house, which is usually inside a rock crevice barricaded with sticks. Inside is a nest where two to six young are born and raised. Usually there is a midden too, a refuse heap, where the packrat stores the trinkets it collects along with its other discoveries, such as bones, sticks, leaves, and other debris. Because the little animal’s urine is full of minerals, it tends to “cement” everything together.

To scientists who find an ancient midden, discovering its contents is just as much of a treasure as a coin was to the packrat.

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