Ever notice a large pile of sticks among the bushes and trees and wonder how they all got there? These are woodrat homes or nests, and the woodrats have gathered these sticks and built these nests over many generations. Woodrats, although distantly related to the typical house rats that many people consider pests, are quite different, and they are native to southern California. In appearance they have much larger and more rounded ears, and less pointy faces. They also have more furred tails than their cousins typically seen in houses. Woodrats are nocturnal animals who spend the daylight hours in their nest and forage for seeds and nesting material at night. In the natural areas they collect mostly sticks and some green leafy material for their nests. However true to their nickname 'packrats', individuals that live closer to urban areas may collect all sorts of trash left behind by humans, such bottle caps, soda cans, and plastic razors, in addition to sticks, to add to their nests. In the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding areas we have two species of woodrats, the dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) which is slightly larger than the desert woodrat (Neotoma lepida). Both of these species are present in both the natural core areas and even some of the smallest urban fragmented habitat patches, although the dusty-footed woodrat appears to be more common in both environments. Woodrats are also a favorite prey item for bobcats and coyotes
In addition to woodrats, we also have many native species of mice in the mountains. These mice again are distantly related to the common house mouse, but are generally less common than woodrats in the more urbanized areas. In this region there are five species of deer mice (genus Peromyscus), as well as the western harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys megalotis), and the California pocket mouse (Perognathus californicus). Pocket mice are named for their built-in pockets on each side of their mouth that they use to store and transport food.
Several other types of native small mammals also inhabit our mountains. Pacific kangaroo rats (Dipodomys agilis) have built-in pockets similar to the pocket mice, however they get their name from there large hind feet and hopping style of locomotion. California voles (Microtus californicus), which look like a large robust mouse like mammal, and Botta's pocket gophers (Thomoys bottae) are a few other favorite prey items of bobcats and coyotes in this area. However the most common prey items for both coyotes and bobcats here are rabbits. There are two species of rabbit found in the mountains and around the lush landscaped yards of local residents. Desert cottontails (Sylvilagus auduboni), which have bright white tails and dark tipped ears, are slightly larger than the brush rabbits (Sylvilagus bachmani), which also have white tails, but they are less bright than those of cottontails.
Another group of small mammals commonly seen by residents in the area are squirrels. We have three species of squirrels in and around the Santa Monica Mountains, although only two are typically seen in urban areas. California ground squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi), a native species, are very common in residential areas. They like to burrow at the base of steep hillsides where the vegetation is disturbed, sparse, or grassy, which is an environment commonly produced in urban areas. Eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) are another species commonly seen in urban areas, but unlike the ground squirrel they are not a native species, and they are generally not found in the more natural areas. Also unlike the ground squirrels they spend most of their time in trees. The Western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) is also a tree squirrel, but it is a native species that generally does not persist in urbanized areas. Gray squirrels can be seen in large areas of open space such as Malibu Creek and Point Mugu state parks.
Click here to download a checklist of the mammals of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Did You Know?
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was established in 1978, but the National Park Service did not own public parkland in the area until 1980. National Park Rangers devised clever ways to promote the national park goals without land by creating thriving partnerships with many agencies.