Wednesday, September 27, 2023


The RoVing Naturalist – Oh rats! … and the future of humanity

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.



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PJ Nyvall
4 years ago

Some older vehicles had biodegradable corn based plastic coated wiring, one of them was early 2000 Ford trucks, if you left a vehicle sit for awhile near field and woods, mice would come and chew the wiring.

4 years ago

They eat the insulation, not the conductive metal inside a wire. In bygone days, burning wire insulation emitted toxic gases (cyanide). So, our government mandated non-toxic insulation material. Makes sense, no? Todays insulation is made from soy based material, which when burned, generates less toxic gases. Soy based insulation is a gourmet treat for rodents.

Primo Rudy's Roadhouse
4 years ago

We have squirrels around my brick and mortar home. I have not had a problem with the RV (yet) but did find a squirrel chewed the ground wire for my airbag compressor (he left some ball moss on on of the batteries) A few day later, I popped the hood for an inspection and woke up a squirrel asleep on the top of the motor. I have a buddy whose Korean made SUV had to have the entire wiring harness replaced (homeowners insurance) due to squirrel damage. Apparently the Korean wires have vegetable based insulation, which attracts the rodents.

4 years ago

I recently watched a video on youtube called Why the Hood Up? – Pack Rats! By Love Your RV. In this video he talks about how to keep the rats from getting under the hood by placing a light under the hood. He said that others in the campground as well as the park ranger (if I recall correctly) told him this. This might be an idea worth trying.

Dennis Prichard
4 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl

Cheryl, Thanks for the comment. Yes, I should at least have mentioned a solution or two to avoid this in the future. My main intent was to illustrate why rats do this. In learning of their habits and habitats, we can figure out ways to thwart them. But we can’t change the necessity of each habitat component, whether we like the “little darlin’s” or not. I use the “hoods up” technique quite a bit, but sometimes only a trouble light under the engine compartment works. Again, thanks for the tip.

4 years ago

Good points. However, what the article is missing is a remedy or precautions to take to eliminate (or reduce) the RATS! There are several sprays, avoidance baits, and precautions one can take. There should be a link to these articles, which have previously been published on how to reduce these incidents. Good awareness!

Dennis Prichard
4 years ago
Reply to  Randy

Yep, you’re absolutely right, Randy. Check out my reply to Cheryl above. One other idea to try to lessen the chance of rodent infestation is to move the vehicle every night…not always practical in our tightly-cramped RV parks, but worth trying if at all possible. I don’t recommend poisons or baits for the obvious bad side effects they present to our environment. We’ve put out enough of these in our world to completely eliminate the entire population already, without success. Nor would we want to. Learning about the critters and their needs can help us find solutions to OUR problem, It’s almost as much fun to sleuth out a remedy to a problem as it is to live through the consequences!

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