By Dennis Prichard
Recently my wife and I were on our way to Texas to volunteer at a national wildlife refuge. We stopped for the night at a state park, and the next morning my truck would not start. After a tow to town and an inspection of the problem, the mechanic told me he had found a rat’s nest in the engine along with chewed wires. I’m sure many of you who spend any time in the outdoors have had a similar scenario either with your RV or your vehicle. Those darned rats! What makes them do that?
The answer is one of the components of “habitat” – the one in question here would be shelter. The little varmints are constantly looking for better homes to protect themselves from the weather, predators, and my eviction notice. I have been all over the engine compartment in my truck. I change the oil myself and inspect all the parts I can see, but the recesses of the engine can offer ample spaces to hide the mat of vegetation they brought in for a cozy home.
As with Rome, I’m sure this nest didn’t get built in a day. It had to take the little beast some time to assemble and then acquire the other components that make up its particular habitat. Food would be the first, and this was evident by the empty acorn shells found in the nest. Next would be water. This one is a bit more difficult in determining the source, but rodents are very resourceful in finding enough to drink. Some, like kangaroo rats of the Southwest, never have to drink as their kidneys are adapted to make up for the lack of moisture in desert climes.
So did the creature ride along with us on our journey? How could it survive the high temperature of the engine? If the nest wasn’t burned, I guess it insulated the rat enough too. This makes me wonder about all the animals that “hitchhike” on the millions of vehicles traveling along our highways. We inadvertently transport them from place to place dropping them off at new locations, and new habitats along the route.
Some are at home most anywhere, finding all their habitat needs wherever they land. Most, thankfully, can’t survive in new places and succumb to the lack of one or more of these habitat pieces. No water? It’s a goner. No shelter? Predators are likely. Food lacking? No living organism can last long without this. So all the parts that make up a habitat must be available within the reach of each organism for it to survive.
Humans are probably the most adaptable animals on the planet, but we are still bound by the Laws of Nature when it comes to habitat. That’s why, when someone asks me, “What good is an endangered ___ ” (fill in the blank – minnow? owl? butterfly?, etc.), I tell them that something in their habitat has gone missing and they can’t adapt. If this continues, will our own habitats degrade enough that we humans are in danger of extinction?
The animals and plants can and are warning us to take care of the habitat components before we get into trouble. Tainted water? Not enough healthy food? No place to rest our heads and stay out of the weather? The absence of any one of these could spell the end of our time here on Earth. If we watch what the animals and plants are telling us, we can avert a catastrophe before all the parts come unraveled.
The trouble with my situation, though, is that the rat in my engine didn’t even offer to help pay the repair bill.
[Editor: Polite, constructive comments are welcome, but please refrain from getting into politics.]
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.