Friday, March 3, 2017

Life on the Watershed: Searching for Signs of the Secretive Dusky-footed Woodrat

It’s a small nighttime animal that's critical to the health of the oak woodland ecosystem.  For the most part, it keeps hidden from human view, but the indicators of its presence are there for us to see, especially at this time of year. 

Named for their soot-colored webbed feet, Dusky-footed woodrats are small, secretive nighttime animals that we almost never see. But here in the oak woodlands, the proof of their presence is in their large visible dwellings, called middens. These are sprawling, untidy-looking heaps of twigs and other forest debris nestled into dense woodland growth near the base of a tree--or up a tree between branching limbs.   

Despite the ramshackle look, the midden is durable and water-tight. Its clean interior is neatly organized into a central nest area surrounded by other chambers for storage of different plant, fungus and nut foods, plus numerous tunnels, latrines, entrances and exits.    

The Dusky-footed woodrat is listed as a California species of special concern—meaning a native species now at risk for population and habitat decline—but it is key to our oak woodland ecosystem. It’s a principal food source for larger neighbors, especially certain owl species, as well as hawks, bobcats, and coyotes. Also, after a woodrat dies or moves on, the empty midden soon serves as handy protective lodging for other small woodland dwellers, such as mice, lizards, newts and various spiders and insects.
Middens can be hard to see because many are well camouflaged within the trees. But now is a good time of year to spot them, when winter conditions have thinned out some of the surrounding vegetation. 

Look in the wooded areas on either side of the Sawyer Camp Trail. 

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