A couple years ago I had my first encounter with a local dusky-footed wood rat. It took up residence in the shed where I keep garden tools. She was a lovely young female, but not a good housekeeper. I had to pick up hand tools and hardware daily, and then she started to chew up my steel wool. I suspect she was shredding it for her nest. I doubt that EPA condones this material for rat nests. So I live-trapped her and released her in the woods a couple miles away.
The experience stimulated my interest, and I googled up an interesting article. It turns out that dusky-footed wood rats share one particularly lovable quality with people. They love to eat snacks in bed. Not potato chips and ice cream, but more healthy foods, like the leaves of toyon, oak, and bay. Now, one thing our mothers and wives taught us is that eating in bed has sanitation risks. The crumbs can breed fleas. This is especially true for wood rats whose boudoirs are deep within their stick nests, which are seething with insects. So the scientists did an experiment. They reared fleas in mason jars with the rats’ various bedtime snack foods. Low and behold! They found that about 75% of the larval fleas died of exposure to the volatile compounds in bay leaves. The rats don’t actually eat the bay leaves so much as nibble their edges to release the compounds. Toyon and oak on the other hand are the real snacks of the boudoir, but they had no effect on fleas. The dusky footed wood rat actually takes the precaution of fumigating its bed while it snacks. Pretty neat, huh?
When I began bushwhacking paths through the chapparal I discovered a thriving community of wood rats lived only a stone’s throw from the house. They were fair quarry for the camera trap. So here are a few pictures of our tireless bed-snacking architects and their creations. The camera case (9" long) gives you some sense of scale. The small stick nest was started last spring, but construction has been slow. A seedling bay is growing from its base, and the boudoir is probably down the burrow.