Denizens Of The Desert:
California Road Runner
Neotomas, Or Pack Rats, Of The Desert
Billy Bob-tail, The Hermit Wood Rat
Spiny Pocket Mice
Catherpes, The Canon Wren
Betsy Bounce, The Rock Wren
Round-tailed Ground Squirrel And Near Relatives
Eleodes, The Beetle That Stands On His Head
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
Neotomas, Or Pack Rats, Of The Desert
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
(Neotoma intermedia desertorum)
NOT long ago three prospectors, new to the game, decided to do something that all old prospectors know better than to attempt. They concluded to go partners on living together, each agreeing to pay his proportion of the expenses. They had not known each other long, they were men of different temperaments, and this in itself was sufficient eventually to bring disaffection among them. The " falling-out" would have been postponed, however, much longer had it not been for the part a fourth party now played in the drama.
Within a fortnight after the men had settled in their quarters, small trinkets began to disappear. One man lost a small mirror, another an aluminum comb, and a pair of much-valued cuff-links. Every morning now more small articles were missing or found misplaced, and the men became sullen and began to accuse one another of thievery. They argued, scolded, and cursed in hot words and threatened each other with blows if this constant stealing was not brought to an end.
Finally, one morning at the end of the week, after they had lost some especially treasured articles, they had what is known as a "genuine fall-out," and each fellow declared in ugly words his intention to shift and live by himself. There was no use trying to get along further together.
Each of the prospectors now began gathering together his belongings ready for his departure, and as they worked there were sullen looks exchanged and grouchy expressions and threats. One of the men, remembering he had left a bridle out under a mesquite tree, went out to get it. Several times before he had noticed a queer pile of sticks and rubbish piled under the tree, but it had never occurred to him that this could be the dwelling-place of any living creature. On this particular morning he paused a minute before it as he took his bridle down from the crotch in which he had lodged it, and noticed something bright, shining among the sticks.
What could this be? He ran his fingers in among the sticks and picked out the shining article. It was one of his cuff-links ! " How on earth did that ever get here?" he said to him-self. Could this be the hiding-place where the camp robber was secreting his treasure? He picked up a stick and stirred further into the pile. A great, big-eared rat ran out of the stack. As he stirred up the mass of twigs further and came to the inside of the nest, he found a small box of medicine which he had claimed one of the men had stolen only the night before. What could it all mean ! He picked up the box and ran to the shanty and urged the accused to come and see for himself what he had found. The men, who were at the house, were curious and suspicious at first, and all refused to have anything further to say, but finally they decided to go out and see what was up. They even began to delve into the mass of sticks themselves. And every time they turned the pile they found more of the missing treasures. They looked at each other in astonishment and more or less shamefacedly, and then finally ridiculously, as they realized the amazing ludicrousness of the situation. Could it be that this strange and curious-looking rat that ran from the stack of sticks was the culprit and the maker of all this mischief?
There was yet another mystery that now seemed on the way to being solved. The men had noticed time after time that there were small piles of rubbish, bits of manure, and small sticks here and there in the house, and they had wondered how this useless stuff came there. They would clean it out, but always after a few days there was more of it. They had heard strange noises at night of animals of some kind running around on the sills and on the floor, but they had repeatedly smelled skunks, and they accounted for the noise by the presence of these animals. But now they made the sweeping generalization that if this rat could be the one to accuse of stealing all their trinkets, he might also be the one who was piling up all this rubbish in the corners, on. shelves and in the woodbox.
And in this inference they were not wrong, for pack rats are given to this very habit. Any object that is small enough to carry off and which strikes their fancy they pick up and pack around until they run across some other article that appeals more to them. The first object is then dropped and the second carried until they reach the nest, or until some silly curiosity prompts them to drop this one and pick up a third. On account of this inclination to pack off things and gather and accumulate them in all sorts of odd places in dwellings and about their nests, there has grown up the belief that they are actually given to bartering, never taking one object without leaving another as " pay." This, however, is not a fact and cannot be verified by experience.
The animals which go under the name of "pack rats" or " trade rats" belong to the genus of rodents known as "neotomas." They are not true rats, and are very unlike the common introduced house rats, both in appearance and in their habits, having none of the repulsive aspects and possessing much more interesting manners. They will not live in habitations infested by the common European house rats. They rank among our most intelligent smaller mammals :and make most engaging pets. They are gentle, affectionate, and easy to keep.
The appearance of the neotomas is always such as to arouse our interest. With their big, batlike ears, their super-prominent, big, black eyes, their gentle, rabbit-like faces and sleek coats, they impress themselves upon us as being really beautiful creatures.
The neotomas are confined to the North American continent and are most plentiful in the Southern and Western United States. Dr. Mearns found as many as thirteen species and subspecies along the Mexican boundary alone. With the rattlesnake, the road-runner, and the burro, they find a chief and constant place in the narrative conversation engaged in around miner's camp-fires, and it is surprising that such alert, mischievous, and interesting creatures should have found so little place in Western literature.
According to their environment they differ in their methods of building their nests. Those living in the deserts and scantily treed regions generally select sites beneath rocks or in the vicinity of cactuses or other thorny vegetation where they find some natural protection from the ravages of their natural enemies, the coyotes, skunks, rattlesnakes, and badgers. All sorts of ingenious uses of cactus joints and small rocks and sticks are made in forming their nests, and the pack rats' domiciles are always homes full of interest to the inquisitive and observant traveler.
The mountain species and those living in brushy and forested areas are given to making huge stick houses either under or high up among the trees. Sometimes the stacks are four or five feet high and are scattered so thickly in the brush of certain localities in the hill country that they number between twenty and thirty to the acre. These nests represent an enormous amount of labor on the part ,of the rats. Thou-sands of sticks, stones, old bones, and other oddities such as empty cartridges and the like, enter into their composition. Sometimes they are composed largely of manure, or, as Dr. Mearns found along the Colorado River, of sticks and coyote melons or gourds. It has always been a marvel to me to know how some of the enormous sticks, bones, and fairly good-sized stones are carried. Recently I found a nest in Superior Valley on the Mohave Desert with hundreds of stones in it the size of pullet's eggs. It seems quite evident that they could not have been carried in the small mouth, and how could the neotoma carry them in her paws !
A mystery equally hard to solve is found among the desert species that surround their nests with the joints of the Bigelow's cholla cactus. This species of shrublike cactus, or Opuntia, has needles so close-set, so impenetrable, and so formidable that it seems no creature could carry the joints in any way, much less let go of them once it had them in its grasp. With the least touch they penetrate the toughest-hided animals and hang on with a tenacity that is most pronounced. Only those who have ever tried to pick up or even touch one of the joints of the Bigelow's cholla know how terrible and how painful the prick of the needles is. Not without good reason the Indians declare that the joints of this cactus jump at you as you come near. The wood rat is the only creature I know of that does not fear to handle them. When we remember that these joints are larger or almost equal in size to her own tender body and that they are given to rolling, it is the more unapparent how she keeps herself from being pierced through and through with dozens of needles, especially about the mouth, breast, and feet. I have seen the cholla joints piled up in stacks or lodged about the entrance of the burrow in such numbers that their total bulk would have filled several barrels. In another instance I noticed cactus joints piled two and three deep over an area of at least forty square feet in front of the burrow. The nest was situated high up on a bank and back under a ledge of rock in such a position that every one of those horrible assemblages of cactus needles had to be carried at least forty feet over steep and uneven rock surfaces, the nearest shrub of cholla being that distance from the nest.
This nest was entered by either of two openings. In order that I may explain the ingenious method that the neotoma used to protect these runways from being entered by an enemy, I have drawn the accompanying map of the space in front of the dwelling. An examination of the figure will show that every approach to the holes is most carefully protected by the spiny cholla joints, barricades more effectual than barbed-wire entanglements in warding off an enemy. Moreover, between all the runways is a mat of the awful cholla material, and, as Hornaday well observes, not the most foolish coyote or skunk is so rash as to jump into that spiny mass or run over the pavement of horrible cholla joints for any rat. So no matter how hard-pressed by the foe, when once the neotoma has reached her fortress she is as safe as if she were a dozen miles beneath the surface of the earth.
You may call this unique utilization of spiny cactus a matter of instinct if you wish, but it seems to me to be a downright work of animal intelligence of a high order, and every time I see this home I have greater respect for the little creature that makes it.
Pack rats are largely nocturnal creatures, though occasionally they come out in the day-time to feed. They eat a variety of foods, but the chief fare is the seeds of grasses and composites, and, in the spring, green vegetation. They are not good gnawers in the sense the common rats are, and they seldom molest food or clothing protected in closed boxes or chests. It is the mice that do the mischief there.
The nests of the desert species, which are made under rocks, generally consist only of a network of burrows with several well-protected openings. Those of the mountains, which are of sticks, contain several small compartments, each with a distinctive use. Thus one nest I investigated consisted of several long hallways, or tunnels, a granary wherein were stored seeds and green willow stems, a bedroom, and a special compartment used as a storeroom for excreta, for the wild rats are very cleanly creatures. There were no odors of any kind anywhere about the nest. These stick houses are almost waterproof and a long season of rains is necessary before they become damp inside. Prospectors and cattlemen often go to these nests to get dry fuel during wet weather.
The Indians are very fond of these animals for food, and if they do not use them now as formerly it is because they are ashamed to eat them, knowing the prejudice of the whites toward rats as food. The animals are captured by setting fire to the mounds of sticks. Even when the nests are fired, the wood rats are as a rule reluctant to leave them and many perish in the flame. One would think that the smoke alone would drive them out.
The Hopi Indians, who call a species common in their region "kee-hua' cahl'-a," account the flesh as one of the greatest delicacies. Physicians of northern Mexico "commonly order broth made from the wood rat for the Indians and peasants whom they are called upon to treat just as our physicians prescribe chicken broth and beef tea." Dr. Mearns tells us that he found many charred bones of this rat in the ancient cave dwellings in the Verde Valley, showing that the neotomas were probably often used for food by the inhabitants.
The wood rats are preyed upon by coyotes, skunks, kit foxes, and the great horned and rabbit-eared owls by night, and during the day they must fear the attacks of hawks and rattlesnakes. Recently while riding through a rocky gulch I ran onto a wood rat upon whom I showered much pity. She seemed perplexed in her slow movements and was trembling from head to tail-tip. I could not wonder; for there in front of her was an enormous coiled rattle-snake casting a spell over the frightened creature before striking. I gave a violent whoop and threw up my hands and frightened the neotoma off into the brush, but before I could dismount and secure a stone to kill the snake, he had crawled into the brush beyond my reach, following, no doubt, his intended victim.