NATURE RAMBLINGS: Something missing? Blame the packrat!

by Sally Roth

The disappearing tablespoons were the first clue. Hadn’t I washed a bunch—six, maybe—and left them out to dry? Now there were only two.

Then the spice jars began to vanish. Had I run out of cumin already? Ground ginger? Wait a minute—I know there was an almost full jar of oregano, and now it was gone.

Finally, the indisputable proof: a sparkly necklace I hadn’t worn in years, laying at the top of the steps one morning.

We had a packrat.

Packrats (our northern Colorado Foothills species is Neotoma cinerea) are famous for collecting a stash of treasures, which they pile into a “midden.” Shiny things are so desirable that some folks use a CD to lure a packrat into a cage trap. Misplace something yourself? Blame it on the packrat!

A packrat treasure “midden” in an attic. The knife and its sheath were taken on different nights, from two separate locations in the house.

Packrats are also notorious for their less than pleasant bathroom habits—abundant quantities of droppings, plus copious amounts of urine that has the unusual quality of being so high in sugar, it quickly hardens into a sort of shellac.

A friend who’d once lived in this same canyon had tried to give me the lowdown on packrats. “There are Good Packrats and Bad Packrats,” she’d explained. “Good ones keep to themselves. They only do their exploring at night, when you’re sleeping. They never eat your bread, cereal, anything left in the open. And! They don’t go to the bathroom in the house!” As for Bad Packrats… “Good luck,” she shuddered.

A rodent that wouldn’t gnaw its way through our food on open shelves? A housebroken rodent? Ha ha, riiiight.

Lo and behold, our spoon-stealing housemate turned out to be a Good Packrat. Completely housebroken, as far as bathroom habits. Doing his work only at night. Never touching bread or other vittles.

We named him Bob. And rather than trying to trap him, we began conducting scientific research.

What do packrats like to eat? We put out a platter of assorted possibilities: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green pepper slices, scallions, and of course cheese. All rats love cheese, right?

Not packrats. They’re total herbivores—they only eat plants. In the wild, that’s leaves, pine needles, twigs, even cactus. All of the veggies we put on Bob’s scientific-research dinner plate were eagerly taken. The cheese? Untouched. Ditto, the peanut butter toast and leftover pizza we tried.

Packrats are not rats. Yes, they look sort of like rats, except for that furry tail. But their only relation is as members of the huge Rodent family, which includes such diverse critters as squirrels, beavers, porcupines, gerbils and lots of others, as well as mice, true rats, and packrats. Packrats like Bob.

Bob lived with us all last winter. Although we saw him in person on only a very few occasions—binge-watching “Breaking Bad” late at night, what?—our motion-activated game cam recorded his nightly doings. We quickly learned that broccoli and Brussels sprouts were his #1 favorite foods.

Packrats are solitary creatures. They live alone, each with its own territory, except at mating time.

And that’s when the trouble started. Around Valentine’s Day, suitors began arriving.

Five of them—all Bad Packrats.

Thanks to observing Bob, we knew what bait to use in the Havahart cage traps. “Sorry, Bob,” we apologized, “but these friends of yours.…”

Within a week, we’d caught and relocated, miles away, all the intruders. And sanitized the house.

Bob himself? Come spring, he moved out on his own. Now that winter’s here, though, we’ve started buying extra broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Just in case our Good Packrat comes back.





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