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
Billy Bob-tail, The Hermit Wood Rat
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
(Neotoma intermedia desertorum)
THE wind, that had spent the whole of its energies since sun-up blowing the sand in great sweeps across the oasis desert village, only seemed to redouble its efforts as the sun sank in redness below the western rim of the San Jacintos. It was no night for even the hardened prospector to lie out in his blankets, and I sought the shelter of my little shanty, hoping that, though I must literally chew sand all night (for it sifted into the house through every crack), I should at least be able to keep covers over me.
But soon after midnight the wind, that had seemed to know no stopping, dropped, and a stillness, that made itself conspicuous through mere contrast with the wind-furious sound of the early evening, now came on. As I lay there in the quiet, breathing once more the clear, good air, there came a break in the silence.
It was the gnawing of rodent teeth I heard; then strange sounds of rapping, rapping, rap-ping, almost as regular as the beats of a slow-moving pendulum; then again the gnawing; then more of the mysterious, ghostlike rapping. I pounded the floor, threw a shoe into the corner from which the sound seemingly proceeded, and it stopped, but shortly began again. Three hours this knocking was continued. The noise, which at first only aroused my curiosity, now became nerve racking, impossible to bear. If I could only have known its source and how it was made, the knowledge would have taken off the apprehension accompanying mystery.
A few days later I heard the rapping again behind the closet curtain, and in another instant there stood in full view of me the denizen of the world of mysterious rappings a gentle-faced neotoma, or hermit wood rat, with great lustrous, super-prominent, jet-black eyes, set like enormous crystal hemispheres of black on the all-knowing, all-wise-looking face. His beautiful batlike ears were as large as quarter dollars, rounded and well set up, indicative of his alert and sprightly manner. His body was covered with a, silky pelage as soft as moleskin, brownish buff on the back, clearer buff on the sides, and with white underparts. His feet, too, were white, and the tail (what was left of it) bicolored, dusky above and whitish below - not ratlike, but covered with soft, short hairs. The mutilated tail was really the only detraction from his good looks.
Like the three blind mice celebrated in the rondo he had had his tail cut off, probably in some scrappy feud with another of his kind, so that only a stubby, funny-looking stump was left. And so I called him my Billy Bob-Tail.
With a queer teetering gait Billy now made his way to the fireplace, took up an orange peel which had been thrown there with other scraps at breakfast-time and proceeded to nibble it, holding it the while up to his mouth with his little short forepaws. Shortly he took up another peel, but this time made off with it, carrying it into the closet and down through a knot-hole under the house. In a minute he was back again and got another, and another, working in all fully a half-hour at his self-appointed task. I now began to realize where all my table scraps had been going, but it took me two whole years of watching to know how Billy made the queer rapping sounds.
This was the beginning of a series of visits which became more frequent until now my mischievous Billy comes around both day and night to carry off peels or to inspect the contents of my woodbox with his long-whiskered, ever-moving, inquisitive nose. No sleepy head is he; his bump of curiosity, his industrious, provident impulses, are too strongly developed to allow much dozing in slumber.
At one end of my poorly floored shanty is a knot-hole in the floor, to which Billy Bob-Tail has laid claim as his door to the mysterious, dark storehouse of his beneath the house. He spent several days and nights rounding it out so as to let himself pass through with ease; and there was little leaving of his job until it was done. His industry was marvelous. He stayed by his task hours at a time - mostly at night. His workmanlike industry, habitual diligence, and steady attention to the business in hand would have been a shame to many a man I know.
The job complete, Billy now set himself to the task of carrying everything edible in sight down that knot-hole. Of oranges and lemons I use a plenty, and there were always many rinds to engage Billy's attention. The total bulk of peelings which disappeared down that knot-hole must number bushels. I have watched him work for two hours at a time, toiling with-out any rest, except occasionally, when he stopped to nibble at an orange peel - lunch-hour during work-time.
Now it was in connection with this carting away of fruit peels down that knot-hole that I learned to know that a wood rat thinks, imagines, plans, and invents just like human beings. The guidance of instinct can never account for Billy's actions when he had engineering problems to solve or had questions of mechanics proposed to him.
There were a good many grapefruit peels (Billy liked the bitter things) which were so very large that they would not go easily through the hole. Sometimes, when the clever wood rat could not get them down by pushing, he would sit on his haunches, take the peel in his paws, and nibble around the edges until it was small enough. Or, again, I have seen him clip one right in two and then take each half down separately in the ordinary way by carrying them in his mouth. But he had one trick of getting parings down the hole that required in its execution nothing less than the nicest cunning and real acts of judgment and invention - in other words, mental processes of an order ac-credited to human beings.
One early, rainy morning l was lying on my cot with my face turned to one side watching my industrious pet, when I saw him bring up to the hole an extra large orange peel. This he tried to put through. It would not go down, in spite of his repeated attempts. Billy stopped and pondered. A sudden thought came to him. He dropped his peel beside the hole, went down the hole himself, pushed his head up through it, seized the orange peel, and pulled it through. That was invention, the product of reason, imagination, and judgment - and Billy a wood rat too.
I have seen him do more. I have watched him carry a number of edibles of large size - bread crusts and the like -- up to the hole, leave his collection, run out of the door at the other end of the house where he had an entrance beneath it, go under and put his head up through the ever-handy knot-hole, and then pull the whole supply of crusts and what-nots beneath. Why he made the roundabout trips to get beneath the open hole I do not know. Probably in our exact way of thinking it was a waste of energy, not efficient. But there is one thing that impresses me more. Billy showed that he could carry a thought and hold his attention uninterruptedly to the task in hand.
More surprising still to me was the help Billy took from my hand when he was put to hard straits to get an extra large orange peel through the knot-hole. Many, many times have I pushed while he pulled. Here was the acceptance of cooperation, a trait befitting human beings again.
Not always did this wood rat work so purposefully. Sometimes his work showed more industry than judgment. There were, it seemed to me, times of "much ado about nothing," - for instance, when he carried all the little greasewood sticks out of the fireplace and stacked them up one night in a corner, or when he carried a lot of black, charcoaly ashes off behind the cupboard. I can't see much intelligence there - just the instinct to accumulate keeping him busy.
It is surprising what this instinct to pack off things will induce wood rats to do. I have had them carry off a whole boxful of trinkets, drag my spoons off under rocks, bring into the house quantities of sticks, seeds, and manure, and litter up the house with quantities of paper scraps. A lot of the storing of orange peels was useless endeavor; for Billy has carried away during these two years more orange peels than he and his family could eat in four. Store, store, store; that is the ever-compelling, ever-active, ever-prompting thought of his little busy mind, and the industriously inclined body never tires doing the brain's bidding. These things, to which his provident nature directs his activities, are sometimes carried great distances to be stored. An informant tells me that during one summer when she was absent from her desert home, some pack rats carried the entire contents of a box of lump starch - some thirty pounds - from the upstairs to the basement; that others carried grain from the barn over a hundred yards away and deposited it in her writing-desk.
SPRINGTIME on the deserts comes with a rush. Seeds sprout; plants grow, blossom, and fruit in a surprisingly short time. The animals, which have been more or less inactive because of lack of food, cold nights and days during winter, now wake to the new activities of harvesting food and raising the young. Since the season is a short one, they must work with intensity and enterprise.
This is the time when the mice, wood rats, and antelope chipmunks are likely to plunder your bed for wool and feathers to line their nests. I have learned from experience that any precautions you can now take to secure the bed-clothes from their attacks are none too good; for these small rodents now get into everything left open to their ravages. Billy Bob-Tail played "old gooseberry" with my mattress; and this while I lay in bed. A half-dozen times I was awakened in the night by his tugging at the cotton padding. By pounding on the floor each time I frightened him off, but the fluffy stuff inside the mattress was so incomparably wonderful as bedding for baby pack rats that he just could n't keep away. Never mind, old Billy; two pounds of cotton you owe me and the price of a new mattress, maybe. After this I'll hang my bedding on the clothes line by day, and see that the cot is perched at night high on the rocks far beyond your travels.
My hermit wood rat's mate seldom showed herself, and when she did come around, she was exceedingly shy and retiring. From the nature and extent of Billy's activities I must presume that among these humble rodent folk the males supply most of the material for the nest, and that they take some real interest in the rearing of the young, the number of which is generally three to five.
The home was made under a large rock near the corner of my dwelling where I could carefully watch the activities about the nest. During the early life of the baby neotomas the mother stayed closely at home. The little creatures kept themselves attached to the nipples of the mother, and, when disturbed, they still maintained their hold and allowed her to drag them about as she ran -- always a funny and interesting sight. Mr. A. H. Alverson of San Bernardino, California, quoted by Stephens in his " Mammals of California," speaking of a family of neotomas he had in captivity, says he noticed that sometimes, when the mother desired to move and free herself from her babies, "she would turn round and round and seem to twist them loose in a pile where they would lie quietly until they felt her return; then they would at once attach to the teats." Speaking further of the young after three weeks, he says: "They were very playful, running about most of the time, but when too venturesome the mother takes them in her mouth and lifts them bodily back to the nest in the corner. Sometimes she lifts them by the neck, but mostly by the middle of the side. After playing and eating, the mother and young make their toilet, the mother doing most of it for them, but the young try to learn; then the young attach to the mammae and all sleep."
While my pet neotomas were busy at home-making, a third came about the premises, this one a sleek, youthful-looking fellow, but not so tame as my Billy. Animals like human beings are possessed of individuality, and I was anxious to watch the new tenant of my quarters to see what new contributions he would make to my knowledge of wood rats. One morning while I was seated at my table writing I heard a slight noise, and, looking down, saw my new neotoma approaching a crust of bread I had placed under the table for him. What struck me now to do it I do not know, but intuitively I quickly shuffled my feet and sent the wood rat flying with fright across the room. He went down Billy's knot-hole, but soon came out again determined to get the bread. Having plucked up courage he carefully approached the table again. But again I shuffled my feet and he as quickly retreated, went halfway down the hole, and turned back. He now sat still and peered at me from out his big, lustrous eyes, wiggled his whiskers impatiently, and gave a saucy stamp with his hind feet. I could hardly believe my ears. It was the same noise Billy had made that night of the wind-storm. I shuffled my feet again, and again the neotoma raised the soles of his long-pawed feet and brought them down on the floor with a determined rap.
Oh, what was now my delight! For two whole years I had been guessing, observing, inquiring, and writing letters to scientific institutions and naturalists trying to find out how wood rats did their pounding, and no one seemed to be able to tell me. Now I knew through my own observations. It was the de-light accompanying discovery. My new guest had solved the riddle.
This stamping or pounding seems to be an expression of strong emotional states of mind indulged in when angry, impatient, or defiant. Rabbits pound in similar manner under like emotional states. The wood rats and the rabbits strike with the soles of both feet at the same time. Skunks and squirrels, however, who also pound, strike with their forepaws singly.