Mon 2 Aug 2010
Coyotes began howling not far from my cabin just before dark tonight. For me it’s a thrill to hear and occasionally see them, but I’m no sheepman.
For 40 years, there were no coyotes in West Marin because of poisoning by sheep ranchers. However, coyotes never disappeared from northern Sonoma County, and after the federal government banned the poisoning, they spread south and began showing up here again in 1983. Since then coyotes have put more than half the sheep ranches in West Marin and southern Sonoma County out of business.
There are also more bobcats around these days, and some Point Reyes Station residents believe that many of them had been living in the pasture of the Giacomini dairy ranch before the Park Service bought the land and in 2007 flooded it. For residents raising chickens or other fowl, the forced relocation of bobcats has been a serious problem, and a number of them have been shot.
But for the rest of us, spotting bobcats is exciting. I occasionally see them around my cabin, and for the second time in a year, nature photographer Sue Van Der Wal of Inverness saw a bobcat at her house on July 23, as she told me with delight.
Also intrigued by bobcats is professor Michael Scriven of Inverness Park. Michael, who has taught at universities in the US and abroad, as well as written numerous books and articles, last month penned a light-hearted “memento of a recent visitor” and sent it to me.
Here is his poem titled Bobcat: “On my deck, spots and pads whisper past,/ The stride of a cheetah,/ The mien of an eater,/ Chipmunks chatter their ire,/ Doves flee from a flyer,/ The Prince of the Felids has passed.”
A roof rat eating birdseed off my deck last week. I enjoy watching roof rats but had to spend time and money last year cleaning their droppings out of my basement, sealing off walls they had chewed through, and repairing an electrical line on which they’d been gnawing.
Roof rats are also plentiful at the moment. In June, I found one that had been run over on block-long Campolindo Road — not exactly a high-speed thoroughfare. And during a dinner party in Stinson Beach last month, I spotted a roof rat at a neighboring house scurrying across (appropriately enough) the roof.
Some people have nothing good to say about roof rats. Along with getting into basements and attics, they are especially fond of chewing through the drain hoses of dishwashers.
In addition, many people are aware of the roof rat’s role in the Black Plague. In the 1340s, their fleas spread the plague around Europe, killing off half the population in some places.
Roof rats originated in tropical Asia and made it across the Near East in Roman times before reaching Europe by the 6th century AD. As the influence of European countries spread around the world, so did roof rats, arriving in the New World on the ships of European explorers. Not surprisingly, another name for roof rats is ship rats.
Roof rats are smaller than the inaccurately named Norwegian rats, which are actually from North China. An easy way to tell the two apart is that the tails of roof rats are longer than their bodies. The tails of Norwegian rats (also called sewer rats) are not.
All this raises the question: is there anything good that can be said about rats other than that they’re cute — at least to some of us. Apparently there is. The 2006 Children’s Choices Award went to a book by Barbara Wersba about a rat named Walter.
I haven’t read Walter, but Publishers Weekly reports: “Wersba’s brief tale of a blossoming friendship introduces a literate rat, who ‘christen[ed] himself Walter’ after reading works by Sir Walter Scott and [by] the children’s book author whose home he inhabits.
“The rat hero, who lives under the floorboards of a house owned by Miss Pomeroy, makes a discovery in her library one day. Not only has she written a children’s book series about a secret-agent mouse, but he discovers many other authors who have also written about mice (‘There was a whole flock of little books by a woman named Potter, which dealt obsessively with mice,’ he observes disdainfully)….
“Walter begins communicating with Miss Pomeroy through notes, and he questions why authors never write about rats. In the satisfyingly sentimental finale, the author leaves for Walter a singular Christmas gift and the two finally meet.”
Somewhat surprising for a children’s book are Walter’s reported allusions to The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and The Maltese Falcon. These “will appeal more to older readers,” Publishers Weekly wryly observes.
Walter is appropriate for readers 8 and up, the review says. So if you’re 8 or older or have a child that is, you may want to pick up a copy of the book in order to keep rats in perspective. In the course of their lives, most people encounter far more rats than bobcats or coyotes.