Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/The Trading-Rat


By Mrs. E. D. W. HATCH.

THESE interesting rodents are dwellers in the Rocky Mountains and adjacent hills, and are known among us by various significant names, as mountain-rat, timber-rat, and trade-rat. The first, of course, refers to their native home; the second to the sound of their gnawing, scarcely to be distinguished from the sawing of timber; and the last to their peculiar system of barter or exchange, so curious a habit that it is doubtful if any other animal has ever been known to practice it while in a wild or untamed state.

These animals are much larger and stronger than the ordinary house-rat so much so that cats are apparently afraid of them, and can not be induced to attack them. They are pretty, well formed, have very bright black eyes, prominent, beautifully shaped, pointed ears, and soft gray fur. Their tails are not rat-like, but are more like a squirrel's, only less bushy, being covered with fur.

Such keen, intelligent-looking little creatures are they that, but for our instinctive dislike to the name of rat, we should be strongly tempted to tame them as attractive and teachable pets. Until they learn that they have an enemy in man, they are quite unsuspicious, and will allow any one to walk up to them.

One of these rats being caught in the house, attracted by his size, I measured him body, eight inches long; tail, eight inches; around his body, under his fore-legs, seven inches; ears, an inch and a half; fur beautifully fine, gray, with a darker shade, nearly black, running lengthwise down his back. He was very plump and fat, but I omitted getting his weight.

They haunt houses and camps near the hills, but seldom, if at all, those a few miles away. The peculiar trading characteristics natural to this little merchant, its habit of exchanging goods without a "by your leave," wise ways, and queer tricks, seem far more like reason than instinct. A few incidents which came under my own observation will illustrate this characteristic. Some men, passing through the country, camped in a deserted cabin, and, before wrapping themselves in their blankets for the night, they placed their bread for breakfast in a pan near the fire. On rising, to their dismay, not a crumb of bread was left in the pan, but it was filled with old scraps of leather, chips, bones, moldy beans, rags, etc. Searching, they found, high up on a partly broken shelf, in an old tin can, their bread packed away with old bacon-rinds, bones, rags, and other trash.

In the house of one of my neighbors these mischiefs carried away a lot of Indian or corn meal, and in the meal-box deposited a quantity of bird-shot, which, mixed with the remaining meal, caused the housekeeper great dissatisfaction. In the same house a trunk was accidentally left open one night; in the morning a quantity of rice, bits of dried fruit, and some oats, were found mixed with loose coral beads and other small trinkets; it was an exercise of patience to separate the articles, as may be readily imagined.

With these traders exchange is no robbery, and distance small hindrance; they travel from their homes and go from barn to house, from loft to cellar, and through living-rooms (noiseless when acting as porters), with great speed and impartiality. A sheep-herder, returning to his camp from a town thirty miles away, brought home a fine new hat; placing the box on his table, he went away for the night. Returning, he found the box had been entered, the crown of the hat eaten entirely round, and the box then filled with wool, flannel rags, remains of food, wheat, and dried fruits. There was a sudden forced abandonment of that unsurveyed "squatter's claim."

Some ranchmen were gone haying for several days, camping away from home. After their return they soon learned that their quarters had not been unoccupied during their absence. A nest composed of wool and rags filled the flour-sieve left upon a shelf; next beside the sieve stood the coffee-box, in it had been left about a pound of good coffee; now the box was filled to the top, mixed with the coffee, moldy crusts, bones, and rinds, that had been scattered about the place. "When I threw it all out," said the man, who was telling me, "provoked as I was, I could not help noticing how prettily the nest was made up of gnawings of an old blue army-overcoat, red flannel shirt, and many white rags, put together so nicely and made so soft within."

This morning, going to the store-house for a lamp-chimney, I found an ordinary glass chimney packed close with straw, grains of rice, oats, wheat, a few beans, and chips.

The mischief these rats can do in a single night is almost incredible. One, getting into a lady's room, stripped her house-plants of every leaf and blossom, and hid himself behind the wardrobe, where he was found next day, with a most singular accumulation of goods, among them many bits of paper, a quantity of raisins, a box of matches, some candle-ends, gnawed postage-stamps, and a lot of odds and ends. Nothing seems to come amiss, and they are particularly fascinated by anything that glitters; often carrying off knives, spoons, watches, and silver, and hiding them effectually.

They are "good providers," and in the fall build their nests, and fill them with stores of eatables, the result of persevering foraging expeditions for their families before winter is on them. Under a large cotton wood-tree on a side-hill, partly underneath a fallen trunk, a party of us found a mountain-rat's nest. It was built up nearly two feet in height, the top or roof covering it sloped on all sides to shed rain or snow; tearing it to pieces, we found it was built closely of grass, moss, chips, bones, and many leaves of the cactus (which grows plentifully among the rocks); how they could cut off and convey this thorny stuff, working it up with the other material, in the close covering, is hard to understand. Away down, running in almost under the log so well built around, out of the reach of any possible moisture or cold, a clever little bed of wool was found, made for the young rats; this wool, of which there was a quantity, must have been collected bit by bit from the weeds through which the sheep passed, and from their corrals.

To reach this nest in the rat's house, there was quite a long, circuitous passage, entrance close to the ground, on the south side a little den or hole to crawl through. In a little heap outside, not yet carried in among their provisions, but lying close by, we found more than a quart of fine, fresh-looking potatoes, brought from our own garden, and it is an unsolved mystery how the potatoes were taken there; with not a scratch or mar upon them, or the skin bruised or broken. The garden was a hundred feet away, considerably lower down, and a stream of water, an irrigating ditch, to be crossed to reach it. One person suggested that the rats might have rolled them all the way, and across some poles thrown over the stream.

Destroying this nest, a couple of rats darted up the standing tree, and there we were surprised to find another nest had been commenced in the forks of the tree. We destroyed this nest also; but here comes in another mystery, a puzzling question: How could the rats climb that tree and carry up stores for the winter? This nest was probably twenty-five or thirty feet from the ground.

I asked a ranchman a few days ago, who was talking about them, if he was afraid of them (I meant of their bite). "No," said he, "and they are not afraid of me; they have waked me many a time, sitting up on the floor of my cabin and rapping their tails like a dog!"

A description in Appletons' "Cyclopædia" seems in some respects to tally pretty well, under the name of "The Florida Rat." It describes these rats as "very abundant in the Southern Atlantic and Gulf States, and occasionally found in the West. The habits vary much in different localities, living in some places in the woods, in others under stones, or in the ruins of buildings; in swampy districts they heap up mounds, two or three feet high, of grasses, leaves, and sticks, cemented by mud; sometimes the nest is made in the fork or hollow of a tree; are very active, and excellent climbers; their food consists of corn, nuts, cacti, and crustaceous food, various roots, and fruits; disposition mild and docile." Its most singular trait, its habit of barter, is apparently, if the same, unknown. He is not a thief like the monkey, who steals and makes no reparation, but, with a strange kind of honesty, whenever he helps himself he puts something (to his mind, perhaps, as valuable) in its place; he adapts himself to circumstances; there being neither corn nor shell-fish in the Northwest, he does very well without, and maintains a plump appearance upon something else. The habit of building here is in dry haunts, where it can find seclusion and secrecy. Since beginning this article, I have met with an extract from Father Joseph Acosta's "Natural and Moral History of the East and West Indies," published at Barcelona, in Spain, in 1591, translated and printed in London in 1604, which seems a fair description of this little animal. Again, in "The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knight, in his Voyage into the South Sea, 1593," published in London, 1622, and still another published by a Spaniard, "History of Chili," published at Rome, 1646. In all these accounts there is a queer confusion of names. Sometimes these animals are spoken of as rats, again squirrels, then chinchillas; the covering of their skins is named indifferently, as it happens, wool or fur; color generally said to be gray.

From a natural history of Chili, published at Bologna, in Italian, 1782, translated 1810, I give the following extracts:

"The chinchilla is another species of field-rat, held in great esteem for the extreme fineness of its wool, if a rich fur, as delicate as the silken webs of the garden-spiders, may be so termed. It is of an ash gray, and sufficiently long for spinning.

"The little animal which produces it is six inches long from the nose to the root of the tail, with small, pointed ears, a short muzzle, teeth like the house-rat, and a tail of moderate length, clothed with delicate fur.

"It lives in burrows underground, in the open country of the northern provinces of Chili, and is very fond of being in company with others of its species.

"It feeds upon roots of various bulbous plants, which grow abundantly in these parts.

"It is so docile and mild in temper that, if taken into the hands, it neither bites nor tries to escape, but seems to take pleasure in being caressed.

"If placed in the bosom it remains there, as still and quiet as if in its own nest. As it is in itself peculiarly cleanly, there can he no fear of its soiling the clothes of those who handle it, or of its communicating any bad smell to them, for it is entirely free from that ill odor which characterizes the other species of rats."

And he adds, which to us seems odd enough, about a little creature six or more inches in length, "For this reason it might well be kept in the houses, with no annoyance, and at a trifling expense, which would be abundantly repaid by the profits on its wool."

Another writer upon Chili, in 1824, speaks of the same animal and calls it a woolly field-mouse, which lives underground, and chiefly feeds on wild onions, saying that its fine fur is well known in Europe; that that which comes from Upper Peru is rougher and larger than that from Chili, but not always so beautiful in color. Still another writer, speaking of the same, calls it chinchilla; says that it usually sits upon its haunches, and is even able to raise itself up and stand upon its hinder feet; that it feeds in a sitting posture, grasping its food and carrying it to its mouth by means of its fore-paws, and adds, "The ancient Peruvians were a very industrious people, and they made of this fur wool coverlets for beds and valuable stuffs." A lady, who was presented with a living specimen from Peru, kept it for many months, feeding it upon hay, clover, and succulent roots. She then presented it to a zoölogical society, with the information that her pet was good-tempered, mild in its disposition, and, when allowed to run about the room, very tame and playful, delighting in feats of agility, often leaping to the height of the table.

These descriptions, written many years ago, with others at hand not necessary to repeat, apply well to the trade-rat of the Rocky Mountains, save that they do not mention the creature's curious habit of barter.

I have already spoken of their great strength and celerity of movements. To an observer these traits are a never-failing surprise. If a light is steadily burning and all is quiet, they are easily watched, darting back and forth, carrying goods each way—round trip, so to speak, and often long trips. I have known them to bring nails, bits of iron, screws, and other things left about the sheds, quite a distance to the house, place them on shelves, boxes, or kegs, just as they fancied, but all in some selected spot, carrying back from cellar and storehouse dried prunes, apples, rice, and all kinds of eatables. If, working in the dark, the drawing of a match, a slight noise, or sudden light will cause them to vanish like a flash.

They seem, too, to have a fancy for certain colors, particularly bright red, and will soon make away with garments of this color, and attach them to their nests. There may be something attractive in the dye, but, knowing their partiality for glittering, shining objects, I am inclined to think they have also an eye for color.

With all their curious and often annoying tricks, they are wonderfully ingenious and persevering, and certainly possess the attributes of a good business man in their energy, industry, foresight, and a desire to make provision against a time of need.