If you hike the Pecho Coast Trail to the Point San Luis Lighthouse, at about the halfway point on the 1.9-mile path, you pass through a stunning oak grove.
Near the plaque dedicated to Patsy Stow Stebbins, who worked tirelessly along with many others in the creation of the Pecho Coast Trail, are several massive conical shaped, stick-built edifices that are made of small oak tree limbs, twigs, bark and other materials.
These structures are the home of woodrats. Several species of woodrat call the Central Coast their home, the most common and far-reaching is the dusty-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes macrotis).
Earlier this decade, a small mammal trapping program conducted by the city of San Luis Obispo for the Cerro San Luis Natural Reserve Conservation Plan identified another type of woodrat, the San Diego desert woodrat. The Monterey dusky-footed and the big-eared woodrats are mostly found north of the Nacimiento River. Both San Diego desert woodrat and Monterey dusky-footed woodrat are species that are federal and state species of special concern.
Dusty-footed woodrats preferred oak woodlands with plenty of tree canopy and coastal chaparral for cover. This species of woodrat looks like other old-world rats like the Norway and black, but they are different genetically and are native to California. They also have a longer coat of fur and bigger ears.
As rats go, they are kind of cute.
Their body length can grow to about 7 inches with a long tail and can weigh as much as three-quarters of a pound. On average, they live for about three years, but some have been documented to live to six years. During periods of drought, these woodrats do not reproduce, but tend to have longer life-spans, which allow them to re-populate areas when the rains return.
Their nest can reach nearly 10-feet tall and are built by numerous generations over time, each one adding material and rooms. These compartments are used for sleeping during the day, protection from storms and predators, food storage, nurseries and resting. To control fleas and other parasites, they often place California bay leaves around their home that are toxic to many types of insect larvae.
The sheer size and volume of their homes often deter predators such as coyotes. They will build additional structures near their main nest, even in trees as escape pods. Since these rats are nocturnal, owls with their silent and stealthy flight often make them into dinner.
For most of the year, woodrats live a solitary life. In fact, except for females with pups, only one adult woodrat occupies one of these structures at a time.
Retired PG&E biologists Sally Krenn would joke that the best way to determine the gender of a woodrat in its nest was the presence of beer cans at the entrance of a male-occupied home. You see, the females tend to be tidier. These woodrats not only collect vegetation but also love brightly colored objects, hence the name, packrat.
These woodrats are considered a keystone species (a plant or animal that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its numbers). A keystone species in its ecosystem is like the role of a keystone in a stone arch. The keystone may not be under the most stress in the span, but without it, the arc would collapse.
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The Pecho Coast Trail is located on the south end of PG&E property and accessed through Avila Beach. Choose from two guided hikes, the 3.75-mile roundtrip hike to Point San Luis Lighthouse and the 8-mile roundtrip hike to Rattlesnake Canyon. This is one of the most beautiful locations on the Central Coast. For information, please visit pge.com.