Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the December 9, 2001Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

My toilet is a simple outside affair, the walls of which after three years I've so far neglected to complete. Therefore my toilet is a small wooden platform over a hole, and above there's a small tin roof for rainy days, and I can look all around during my visits.

For a couple of weeks I've noticed that sticks and leaves have been making their way into the hole and on Tuesday I found the hole entirely filled. Using bamboo stems like giant chopsticks I began emptying the material. First out ran an Eastern Chipmunk, whom I didn't suspect of being responsible for the mess. Then when I got to the bottom out ran the true perpetrator, an Eastern Woodrat, NEOTOMA FLORIDANA.

Now, Woodrats are very different from "house rats," also called Norway Rats. House Rats are introduced species and probably my place is a bit too "natural" for their tastes. In contrast, woodrats are native American species who prefer the wild and semi-wild. Several woodrat species occur in the western US, where they are more often referred to as "packrats" or "traderats." These are the rats who in old TV Westerns were always "trading" acorns for Gabby's false teeth left overnight on the bedside table.

When my Tuesday woodrat escaped from the toilet it instantly took to the trees and ran along branches from one limb to another as nimbly as any squirrel. It paused on a certain branch, affording me a perfect view.

House Rats are entirely grayish brown, have small ears, small, squinty eyes, and naked, scaly tails. My Eastern Woodrat had a white belly and feet, prominent ears and eyes, and its tail was a bit hairy. With the larger ears and eyes their faces look distinctly less "ratty" than "squirrely." House Rats look a bit sneaky and insidious, but woodrats, with their large, rounded ears, look a bit friendly, even goofy.

On the same day this happened in my toilet, on the gravel road to the plantation center I found a second Eastern Woodrat that had been squashed by a car -- the first such sighting I've made in the three or so years I've been at Laurel Hill. The next day for the first time I spotted a woodrat in the rafters of our tool shed. This causes me to think that right now something monumental is going on in Eastern Woodrat society. Woodrats are nocturnal, however, so I doubt that I'll discover what it is..

from the June 16, 2002 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

In the December 9 Newsletter I told you about the problem I have with Eastern Woodrats in my toilet. I said that woodrats are very unlike house rats, but are the same thing as the "packrats" and "traderats" we hear about in TV Westerns. Lately my Eastern Woodrats have been behaving like real packrats.

Saturday morning when I began preparing breakfast I discovered that during the night they'd stolen not only one of my two spoons, but also every single green-bean I'd picked the day before, planning to cook during breakfast. That was about a quarter of a bushel of beans, so one or more rats must have been busy the whole night, and now they have a nest someplace formed mostly of green beans and my spoon, and a knife lost a few days earlier. I've also had to clean twigs out of my toilet several times as they continue to try to convert that into a big nest.

from the January 12, 2003 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

In the December 9th Newsletter of 2001 I reported how Eastern Woodrats were filling my toilet with twigs. In last year's June 16th Newsletter I complained that they were stealing green beans from my kitchen. I have noted that our Eastern Woodrats, NEOTOMA FLORIDA, are very different from Norway Rats, the typical "alley rat." Eastern Woodrats have large ears and large eyes, while Norway Rats have squinty little eyes and small ears. Woodrats possess bushy tails while Norway Rats have naked ones. Woodrats are called packrats out West, and I think they should be called packrats here, too.

Packrats tend to wander around in the night "stealing" things. Long ago I learned to not leave anything small lying around, else one of my Eastern Woodrats would pack it off. But during the course of a year sometimes I simply forget to hang my kitchen utensils on the hooks provided for them on my outside-kitchen's roof beams, and sometimes I simply forget to chuck my chopsticks and knife into the jar where woodrats can't get them.

Consequently, now nearly all my kitchen utensils are missing. I am now down to a pair of mismatched chopsticks, a bone-handled hunting knife too heavy for them to carry off, and a butter knife. All my spoons, forks, kitchen knives and my two spatulas have been stolen one at a time.

Monday when my last spatula disappeared I tried to track it down. Without a spatula I can't properly flip my daily cornbread. I used to flip cornbread by tossing it into midair from the skillet, with a certain wrist motion it took years to perfect, but then the handle came off my skillet. Now I need a spatula.

Beneath the wooden platform on which I sit during breakfast I found a collection of about a hundred stolen dried peppers and those mismatched chopsticks. A woodrat was there looking at me with that big-eared, wide-eyed, goofy look woodrats have, but I didn't bother her.

Beneath my trailer I found a foot-high pile of shiny items, mostly aluminum foil from trash my handful of visitors have left here over the years. Rummaging in the pile I found a butter knife, but not a trace of my two lost spatulas or my favorite "anodized" stainless steal "forever-sharp" knife.

A small trail was clearly visible leading from below my trailer into the wild clutter of shattered limbs left by the collapse of the big Pecan tree during Hurricane Lili. I plunged into that jungle and followed the trail to the other side, to a collapsed shack once lived in by a tenet farmer, now little more than a few rotten timbers and some very rusty sheets of roofing tin. There the trail went beneath the tin sheets and the Pecan's trunk lay exactly atop that. In short, my spatulas were lost. If I should move things too much, the Pecan's trunk might shift onto me.

I rather like my woodrats, and I accept my lost utensils as just chastisement for my general forgetfulness. My woodrats knock about beneath the trailer each night and explore my kitchen as soon as night falls. They are good company, but I do miss my spatulas and "forever-sharp" knife.

from the July 11, 2004 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

Long-time subscribers to this Newsletter will remember that at my former location I conducted epic battles with packrats obsessed with the idea of stealing my few outside-kitchen utensils and anything else they could carry. Saturday morning I happened to see one here climbing into a tomato vine. With my binoculars focused right on him I saw him snip off a green tomato and run away with it. The books call this critter the Eastern Woodrat, NEOTOMA FLORIDANA, but "woodrat" is just the Easterner's name for "packrat."

Woodrats are easily distinguished from regular house rats, or Norway Rats, because Woodrats have bushy tails while house-rat tails are hairless. Also woodrat faces have bigger eyes and ears and are more chunky, so they don't look as slinky and insidious as those of house rats.

The tomato I saw being stolen was a small, green "yellow pear" tomato. Though there was a cluster of tomatoes with one ripe one, the rat chose an immature, green one. Still, now I suppose I know who eats large chunks from my almost-ripe Big Boys, even though those vines are staked and the tomatoes are high off the ground. Woodrats can travel inside bushes and trees nearly as well as squirrels.