Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oh, rats!

The neighborhood I live in has seen a slow but steady increase in rats, mostly Roof rats (Rattus rattus). Roof rats are also called Fruit rats, Black rats and Ship rats and have been traveling alongside humans for so long that no one is exactly sure where they first lived, though it's believed they started out somewhere in southeast Asia.

Most everyone in my neighborhood can tell a horror story involving a rat so I wasn't too surprised to find one dead in someone's lawn early one Sunday morning in August. I bagged it and took it home to make some sketches and find out more about the neighbor no one wants.

Roof rat

Our family has had intermittent interraction with Roof rats for several years. We kept what we thought was a compost bin for a while, until we realized that we'd actually opened up a McDonald's for rats. They came to eat and party then moved into the attic above our garage. When I worked in my studio, at the back of the garage, at night or early in the morning, my soundtrack was the scritching of little feet overhead. In desperation we dismantled the compost bin and evicted the troublesome tenants. They seem to have taken up residence nearby, though. When our lemon tree has ripe fruit we can sit in the living room and watch as the occasional rat climbs the tree, neatly eats all of the rind from a fruit, leaving a perfectly peeled lemon behind. Apparently, if our tree bore oranges the rats would carefully suck the flesh out and leave a perfectly emptied peel still hanging on it's branch. They approach our apples as though they were wine connoisseur and take a bite of one fruit, then another before moving on.

With several cats in the vicinity, the population seems to stay fairly manageable and, for the most part, invisible. However, the other night I heard some familiar scritching sounds above my head as I worked in my studio so another eviction may be in order soon.

Roof rat

Recently, as I was wandered about one of the old rock quarries in Howarth Park I found a dead rat. I immediately assumed it was a Roof rat or maybe a Norway or brown rat, another immigrant rat from across the ocean. Looking closer, though, I saw that it didn't look much like our neighborhood rats, and decided to make some sketches to take home and help me identify it.

Dusky-footed woodrat

The large ears, long tail, ochre colored fur and the "dusky" patches on his hind feet (dark hairs) suggest that he's probably a Dusky-footed wood rat (Neotoma fuscipes), also known as a packrat. This mostly nocturnal native rodent favors brushy oak woodland and builds a large nest out of twigs, called a midden.

In a woodland area such as Howarth Park the nest might be on the ground, in a tree or in a rock crevice. I searched the area, looking for an above-ground midden, with no luck. However, there's a large opening into a rock crevice near where I found this little fellow and Chloe has always been extraordinarily interested in it, leading me to believe that might be where the packrats live.

For more about Roof rats :
Sacramento Press
Davis Wiki
Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management

To learn more about packrats visit these sites:
Wikipedia: Pack Rat
Wikipedia: Dusky-footed Pack Rat
California State University Stanislaus
Animal Diversity Web
Jane Goodall: Hope for Animals and Their World; Key Largo Woodrat
Camera Trap Codger: A ratty flashback
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Neotoma fuscipes


  1. Great drawings and interesting details, I'm glad I've got cats!

  2. Debbie, this is fascinating and your drawings are wonderful. I was interested to learn that the packrat's nest is called a midden. A the historic site where I work (George Washington's Boyhood Home), we talk about the midden but ours was the kitchen refuse heap down the hill from the Washingtons' house. The word is from Middle English and originally meant a dung pile.

  3. Fascinating and more so for your willingness to take the bugger home to draw.

    I've worked with rats, but most often they were caged, white and pink eyed. :)

  4. Debbie, those are fascinating rat stories. And you drawings are fabulous! Well done!!!

  5. what a great post. I've lived with rats, mice and varmits of all types since I live in the country, but they are all over the city as well. I had 5 cats who did the job. Not all cats are mousers but mine, fortunately, were. Fabulous drawings.

  6. Debbie, I love these drawings and the information is great! When I catch them the last thing I am thinking about is sketching and painting,I might have to rethink that!

  7. Fabolous drawing, rats are successful species, similar as we are........

  8. Great sketches and wonderful information, Debbie.


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