She’s a very different kind of pack rat

Published 11:03 pm Friday, November 6, 2015

I am a pack rat. I fight a constant battle with clutter, especially in my office. I work and work to get everything in order, but within a couple of days, it looks as bad, or worse, than before. Somehow, books, newspapers, junk mail, and all sorts of clutter cover every available space, including on a bed.

I was labeled a pack rat by my husband years ago. And as you see, I admit it. One day as I was browsing some books, the words “pack rat” jumped out at me. All I knew about a real pack rat was that it collected things and hoarded them in its nest. I discovered that similar to many other desert creatures, it is nocturnal and makes nightly forages for its food.

You would think it burrows underground and builds tunnels similar to chipmunks. Actually, it builds sort of a mound with twisting passages. Guess what the building material is—spiny cactus sticks. Those who study these creatures have not figured out how they protect themselves from the dangerous, prickly pieces. Yet God gives them the skill to emerge unscathed while they build the mound and leave and enter the nest. This “rodent type” architecture keeps away stalkers of the pack rat, which includes snakes.

It makes sense that there are more nocturnal rodents inhabiting deserts. One is a kangaroo rat. It loves the darkness so much that it never leaves its nest when the moon shines. It hops along on its hind legs, balancing itself with its tail. God provides it with the unusual ability to travel 13 miles per hour doing two ten-foot leaps a second, while zigzagging at the same time. The kangaroo rat has a good defensive system when fleeing from predators by kicking sand in the pursuers’ eyes.

When I visited my friend Billie in Tucson, Arizona several years ago, I was fascinated by the saguaro cactus that grew there. It can reach as tall as 50 feet and can grow many arms. Another fascinating desert creature, the Gila woodpecker, builds its nest in the cactus. It feeds primarily on insects, cactus fruit and berries. The woodpeckers must have been the birds I saw flitting around the saguaro cactus in my friend’s yard. When it vacates, an elf owl occupies the woodpecker’s nest. It reminded me how snakes often inhabit gopher turtle burrows here in the south. Another wondrous thing about the saguaro cactus is that when it dies and disintegrates, the nests built in it remain. The cactus produces a sticky, thick covering over the bird nest cavity and forms a preservative known as a desert shoe.

That elf owl that takes over the woodpecker nest in the cactus is only about six inches high. It feeds off scorpions, ripping the tail away and leaving the pincers.

Labeling myself as a pack rat led me to facts about some of God’s wonders of the desert I probably would never have sought to learn about otherwise.

Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.