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Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by  John Burroughs


 

 

WILD MICE

[111] ONE of the prettiest and most abundant of our native mice is the deer mouse, also called the white-footed mouse; a very beautiful creature, nocturnal in his habits, with large ears, and large, fine eyes full of a wild, harmless look. He is daintily marked, with white feet and a white belly. When disturbed by day he is very easily captured, having none of the cunning or viciousness of the common Old World mouse. He is found in both fields and woods.

It is he who, high in the hollow trunk of some tree, lays by a store of beech-nuts for winter use. Every nut is carefully shelled, and the cavity that serves as storehouse lined with grass and leaves. The wood-chopper frequently squanders this precious store. I have seen half a peck taken from one tree, as clean and white as if put up by the most delicate hands,—as they were. How long it must have taken the little creature to collect this quantity, to hull them one by one, and convey them up to his fifth-story chamber!

[112] But the deer mice do not always carry their supplies home in this manner; they often hide them in the nearest convenient place. I have known them to carry a pint or more of hickory nuts and deposit them in a pair of boots standing in the chamber of an outhouse. Near the chestnut-trees they will fill little pocket-like depressions in the ground with chestnuts; in a grain-field they carry the grain under stones; under some cover beneath cherry-trees they collect great numbers of cherry-pits. Hence, when cold weather comes, instead of staying at home like the chipmunk, they gad about hither and thither looking up their supplies. One may see their tracks on the snow everywhere in the woods and fields and by the roadside. The advantage of this way of living is that it leads to activity, and probably to sociability.


[Illustration]

WHITE-FOOTED MOUSE

One day, on my walk in the woods, I saw at one point the mice-tracks unusually thick around a small sugar-maple. It was doubtless their granary; they had beech-nuts stored there, I'll warrant. There were two entrances to the cavity of the tree,—one at the base, and one seven or eight feet up. At the upper one, which was only just of the size of a mouse, a squirrel had been trying to break in. He had cut and chiseled the solid wood to the depth of nearly an [113] inch, and his chips strewed the snow all about. He knew what was in there, and the mice knew that he knew; hence their apparent consternation. They had rushed wildly about over the snow, and, I doubt not, had given the piratical red squirrel a piece of their minds. A few yards away the mice had a hole down in the snow, which perhaps led to some snug den under the ground. Hither they may have been slyly removing their stores while the squirrel was at work with his back turned. One more night and he would effect an entrance: what a good joke upon him if he found the cavity empty! These native mice, I imagine, have to make many precautions to prevent their winter stores being plundered by the squirrels, who live, as it were, from hand to mouth.

The wild mice are fond of bees and of honey, and they apparently like nothing better than to be allowed to take up their quarters in winter in some vacant space in a hive of bees. A chamber just over the bees seems to be preferred, as here they get the benefit of the warmth generated by the insects. One very cold winter I wrapped up one of my hives with a shawl. Before long I noticed that the shawl was beginning to have a very torn and tattered appearance. On examination, I found that a [114] native mouse had established itself in the top of the hive, and had levied a ruinous tax upon the shawl to make itself a nest. Never was a fabric more completely reduced into its original elements than were large sections of that shawl. It was a masterly piece of analysis. The work of the wheel and the loom was exactly reversed, and what was once shawl was now the finest and softest of wool.

The white-footed mouse is much more common along the fences and in the woods than one would suspect. One winter day I set a mouse-trap—the kind known as the delusion trap—beneath some ledges in the edge of the woods, to determine what species of mouse was most active at this season. The snow fell so deeply that I did not visit my trap for two or three weeks. When I did so, it was literally packed full of white-footed mice. There were seven in all, and not room for another. Our woods are full of these little creatures, and they appear to have a happy, social time of it, even in the severest winters. Their little tunnels under the snow and their hurried leaps upon its surface may be noted everywhere. They link tree and stump, or rock and tree, by their pretty trails. They evidently travel for adventure and to hear the news, as well as for food. They know [115] that foxes and owls are about, and they keep pretty close to cover. When they cross an exposed place, they do it hurriedly.

The field or meadow mice doubtless welcome the snow. They can now come out of their dens in the ground or beneath the flat stones and lead a more free and active life. The snow is their friend. It keeps off the cold, and it shields their movements from the eyes of their enemies, the owls, hawks, and foxes. Now they can venture abroad from their retreats without fear. They make little tunnels and roadways everywhere over the surface of the ground. They build winter houses under the great drifts. They found little mouse colonies in places where they have never been in summer. The conditions of life with them are entirely changed. They can get at the roots of the grasses, or the various herbs and seeds they feed upon, as well as in the snowless seasons, and without exposure to their enemies.

I fancy they have great times there beneath the drifts. Maybe they have their picnics and holidays then as we have ours in summer. When the drifts disappear in spring, you may often see where they have had their little encampments: a few square yards of the pasture or meadow bottom will look as if a map had been traced upon [116] it; tunnels and highways running and winding in every direction and connecting the nests of dry grass, which might stand for the cities and towns on the map. These runways are smooth and round like pipes, and only a little larger than the bodies of the mice. I think it is only the meadow field-mouse that lives in this way beneath the snow.

I met one of these mice in my travels one day under peculiar conditions. He was on his travels also, and we met in the middle of a mountain lake. I was casting my fly there, when I saw, just sketched or etched upon the glassy surface, a delicate V-shaped figure, the point of which reached about to the middle of the lake, while the two sides, as they diverged, faded out toward the shore. I saw the point of this V was being slowly pushed across the lake. I drew near in my boat, and beheld a little mouse swimming vigorously for the opposite shore. His little legs appeared like swiftly revolving wheels beneath him. As I came near, he dived under the water to escape me, but came up again like a cork and just as quickly. It was laughable to see him repeatedly duck beneath the surface and pop back again in a twinkling. He could not keep under water more than a second or two. Presently I reached him my oar, when he ran up [117] it and into the palm of my hand, where he sat for some time and arranged his fur and warmed himself. He did not show the slightest fear. It was probably the first time he had ever shaken hands with a human being. He had doubtless lived all his life in the woods, and was strangely unsophisticated. How his little round eyes did shine, and how he sniffed me to find out if I was more dangerous than I appeared to his sight!

After a while I put him down in the bottom of the boat and resumed my fishing. But it was not long before he became very restless, and evidently wanted to go about his business. He would climb up to the edge of the boat and peer down into the water. Finally he could brook the delay no longer and plunged boldly overboard; but he had either changed his mind or lost his reckoning, for he started back in the direction from which he had come, and the last I saw of him he was a mere speck vanishing in the shadows near the shore.

Later on I saw another mouse, while we were at work in the fields, that interested me also. This one was our native white-footed mouse. We disturbed the mother with her young in her nest, and she rushed out with her little ones clinging to her teats. A curious spectacle [118] she presented as she rushed along, as if slit and torn into rags. Her pace was so hurried that two of the young could not keep their hold and were left in the weeds. We remained quiet, and presently the mother came back looking for them. When she had found one, she seized it as a cat seizes her kitten and made off with it. In a moment or two she came back and found the other one and carried it away. I was curious to see if the young would take hold of her teats again as at first, and be dragged away in that manner, but they did not. It would be interesting to know if they seize hold of their mother by instinct when danger threatens, or if they simply retain the hold which they already have. I believe the flight of the family always takes place in this manner with this species of mouse.

I suspect that our white-footed mouse is capable of lending a hand to a fellow in distress; at least, the following incident looks like it. One season they overran my cabin in the woods, and gave me a good deal of annoyance; so much so that I tried trapping them, using the ordinary circular trap with four or five holes and wire springs. One night I heard the trap spring in the attic over my head, followed by the kicking and struggling of the mouse. This continued for a few moments, when all was still. "There," I said, "that mouse is dead." Presently the rattling of the trap recommenced, and continued so long at short intervals that going to sleep was out of the question. I fancied the mouse was too strong for the trap, so I went upstairs to investigate. The captive was dead, sure enough, and I was more puzzled than ever. On examining him closely, I found the fur on his back was wet and much rumpled. I concluded, therefore, that his companions had seized him there, and had been tugging away at him to drag him out of the trap, causing the rattling I had heard. No other explanation seems probable.

The least mammal in our woods is the little mouse-like shrew, scarcely more than three inches long, tail and all. And it is the shyest and least known. One gets a glimpse of it only at rare intervals, while sitting or standing motionless in the woods. There is a slight rustle under the leaves, and you may see a tiny form dart across a little opening in the leafy carpet. Its one dread seems to be exposure to the light. If it were watched and waited for by a hundred enemies, it could hardly be more hurried and cautious in its movements. And when once captured and fairly exposed to the light, [120] it soon dies, probably of fright. One night in the midsummer, when I was camping in the woods, one of them got into an empty tin pail and was dead in the morning. A teacher caught one in a delusion trap, and attempted to take it to her school, to show her children, but it was dead when she got there. In winter it makes little tunnels under the snow in the woods, now and then coming to the surface, and, after a few jumps, diving under the snow again. Its tracks are like the most delicate stitching. I have never found its nest or seen its young. Like all the shrews, it lives mainly upon worms and insects.


The track of one of our native mice we do not see upon the snow,—that of the jumping mouse. So far as I know, it is the only one of our mice that hibernates. It is much more rare than its cousin the deer mouse, or white-footed mouse, and I have never known it to be found in barns or dwellings. I think I have heard it called the kangaroo mouse, because of its form and its manner of running, which is in long leaps. Its fore legs are small and short, and its hind legs long and strong. It bounds along, leaping two or more feet at a time. I used to see it when a boy, but have not met with one for many years.


[Illustration]

JUMPING MOUSE

[121] One summer, a boy who lives in Dutchess County, across the Hudson from my house, caught four of these mice in a wire trap, two males and two females. The boy said that when he picked up the trap the two males fell dead, from fright he thought. One of the females died in October, but the other lived and began hibernating early in November. He took it to his teacher in New York, who kept it through the winter. She made a pocket for it in a woolen sock, but it was not suited with it, for in January it woke up and made itself a neat little blanket from the wool which it nibbled from the sock. In this it rolled itself and went to sleep again. A week or two later I was at the school, and the teacher showed me her sleeping mouse. It was rolled up in a ball, with its tail wrapped about its head. I held it up in the palm of my hand. It seemed almost as cold as a dead mouse, and I could not see it breathe. It was carefully put back in its blanket.

Not long after this, a small house-mouse was put in the box with it. "It was the tiniest little mouse," says Miss Burt, "you ever saw. It cuddled in with the hibernator, who got up at once and took care of this baby. The baby struck out independently and burrowed in the sand, and stole some of the wool and feathers from hibernator to line his own nest. But the jumping mouse went in with him, enlarged the nest, and cuddled down to him. They were great friends. But the baby smelled dreadfully, as all house-mice do, and I took him out. Then the hibernator curled up again and went into winter quarters.

"When the warm weather came on, she uncurled and ate and drank. She preferred pecan nuts and shredded-wheat biscuit, and ate corn. I tried to tame her. I took a strong feather and played with her. At first she resisted and was frightened, but after a while she 'stood it,' and would even eat and clean herself while I scratched her with this feather. But she was always terribly frightened, when coming out of her day's sleep, if I began to play with her. After being thoroughly waked up, she did not mind it. She would let me smooth her with my finger, and she would smell of my finger and go on eating, keeping an eye out. Three times she had a perfect fit of fright, lying on her back, and kicking and trembling violently. On these occasions she made a scuttling noise or cry, and I thought each time she would die, so I grew more and more cautious about meddling with her. There was one interesting thing about it,—she rose from these fits and ate heartily, and [123] cleaned herself with great unconcern. I was tempted to believe that she shammed dying.

"The most interesting thing I ever saw her do was to climb up on her glass of water, sit on the rim, and put both little paws down and scoop up a big double-handful of water and wash her face and head. She made her face very wet, just like a person washing his face. She ate sunflower seeds, and often kept one eye shut a long time on first waking up. After the apple-blossoms came, I kept her box supplied with flowers, such as apple-blossoms, cherry, spruce, maple, and so on. Also I kept her box disinfected with plenty of good, fresh country dirt. But she stuck to the old wool and feathers, and the little piano-duster."

The mouse continued hibernating at intervals till May. One damp, chilly morning Miss Burt thought she would add to her pet's coverings, the creature seemed so cold to the touch. "Little by little, much of her bedding of wool had been removed, although she had a pretty good blanket of it left, and the feather duster over her, which she appropriated long ago. So I resolved to carry some bits of flannel to school, and, when I went to her box to give her the extra clothing, again found her as you saw her, rolled up in a ball. I covered her carefully, wrapped her all up, and [124] put her back. Later in the day I peeped in, and she was awake. In the afternoon I took her out in her little basket and looked at her. She was asleep, but started up, and, seeing herself out of her box, put up her little paw in fright. She trembled violently, and I hastily returned her to her box, but before I could cover her she fell back dead of fright." Miss Burt adds: "I have had her put in alcohol. One tiny paw is raised imploringly, suggestive of the sensitive nerves that caused her death."


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