Allegheny woodrat carries a rabbit skull to its stick nest in a rock crevice – illustration by Doug Pifer (courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission)
Wildlife biologist Bill McShea trapped, tagged, and released an Allegheny woodrat in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in 2001. It was remarkable to find such a rare species still occupying its ancestral range. For the next 20 years no more woodrats were found there. It looked as if that might have been the last surviving woodrat in the area. But this past summer a team of wildlife biologists trapped, ear-tagged, and released several Allegheny woodrats in two locations within the park — one in Virginia and one in West Virginia.
The Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) is a sleek, handsome animal, but no ordinary rat. Its tail is covered with hair, not bare and scaly. Its underparts are whitish, which makes it look like a giant white-footed mouse. And unlike invasive Norway and black rats, woodrats are wild and reclusive. They are native to the United States.
Closely associated with mountainous, forested areas like those surrounding Harpers Ferry, woodrats build nests deep in the clefts of rockslides and cliffs. Like squirrels, they gather acorns, beechnuts, and other seeds during the fall to eat during the winter. Biologists describe the Allegheny woodrat as an “indicator species” because its populations can be monitored to determine the health of its habitat.
Woodrats build nests of sticks with an opening in the top like a bird’s nest. And they often hide trinkets — bits of bone and antler, bright colored leaves, bottle caps, bits of leather and other objects — in their nests. Several years ago, I wrote about finding a woodrat’s nest on the mantel inside an abandoned house deep in the woods. It contained colored leaves, a candy wrapper, and a perfectly cleaned rabbit skull. I described the woodrat as the Martha Stewart of animals, in reference to its home decorating habits. Out West, where they’re more common, woodrats earned the name “trade rat” and “pack rat,” owing to their hoarding habits and their tendency to pick up any small prize they might find, leaving in its place any treasure they might have been carrying.
Scott Bates, regional wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), said five woodrats were live trapped this past summer. They were ear tagged and released in the same area where they were found in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The group consisted of an adult male, an adult female and three juvenile males, evidence of a successful breeding season. Bates said woodrats are trapped in summer when they are most active. Although they do not hibernate, they don’t move around as much in winter.
Another woodrat was trapped and photographed in the Virginia section of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park as a cooperative research effort by the National Park Service, Radford University, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, and the West Virginia DNR. According to Karen Powers, Ph.D., a biology professor at Radford University, “Given the Allegheny woodrats’ rarity across their historical range, collaborative efforts like this can go a long way in conserving the species.”
Biologists hope woodrats will continue to live here. “It’s good to know that despite disease, predation by great horned owls, and loss of forested lands to development, these animals still can thrive so close to the Washington DC area,” Bates said.
I’m encouraged to see certain species once considered rare or almost extinct — bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and Allegheny woodrats — returning to our immediate locale. Despite the damage done to their habitat, their continued presence offers a glimmer of hope that humans and wildlife might successfully coexist.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown, West Virginia.By Doug Pifer