There is a chill in the air, deer season is coming to an end, the fireplace feels pretty nice and the short-sleeve shirts are all back in the storage boxes under the bed. It is the time of the mouse.
Despite my best efforts, we always have some mice in the house every fall. Yesterday, when I went to the kitchen drawer for a knife to slice up a nice fresh loaf of bread, there was a bit of unmistakable mouse evidence there on the bottom drawer. Before the thrash was over, we had to take out all three drawers, wash all the utensils, toss out a couple potholders, clean up the drawers and spray them with disinfectant. Leaving the stuff out for a while, I set a mousetrap in each of the empty drawers, figuring to catch the besmirching little bugger so I would not have to repeat the whole fracas.
I just settled down on the couch to watch the evening news when my concentration was broken by the three fearless watchdogs stampeding across my recumbent body to bray with great intensity at the kitchen. The cause for this great alarm was the trap in the top drawer snapping. Pleased with myself at the rapid solution to the problem, I decided to re-set the trap, just in case there might be more than one.
I resettled on the couch and was just taking the first tentative draught of a hot cup of tea when the dog alarm went off again, splashing tea all over my chin and shirt. This time I was surprised to find a mouse in the traps in the top two drawers. Now suspicious, I reset the traps. I was out on the porch, calling Kitty, Kitty to present them with fresh mice — paying them back for the field voles and chipmunks they brought me all summer — when I heard the witless mutts shrieking at the kitchen again. This time I just quieted them down and had a couple of minutes trying to watch the weather. During the time it took to watch the local weather, they alarmed twice more. I removed these three mice, reset the traps, and tried TV again.
This was a fool’s errand. The mouse carnage finally abated when the tally hit 11. The dogs and I went to bed, rising in the morning to find one final sprung trap bringing the total to an even dozen. It has now been almost eight hours without a dog alarm, so I feel confident putting everything away and getting on with life.
I found the tally interesting, for my grandmother always said that for every mouse you saw, there were at least a dozen, but I was surprised by the fact that all the kitchen residents were white-footed mice. Other times our rodent pests were predominately deer mice. The difference, however, is not great.
The white-footed mouse is not large: a big adult might be as much as six inches long, with slightly less than half that being tail. Actually, the tail is what distinguishes it from the other inveterate house invader, the deer mouse. Both are about the same size and color. If the tail on your mouse looks shorter, generally less than half as long as the body and although it may shade into two colors, this is very indistinct, it is a white-footed mouse. The tail of the deer mouse is much longer, more than half the body length and the bi-color patches are very clear and pronounced.
White-footed mice are not large, weighing about three-quarters of an ounce. They have a huge range, covering all of the USA west of the Rockies, up into southern Canada, and south through eastern Mexico and Yucatan. They prefer younger forest areas with mixed hardwoods and good brushy cover. They are also quite fond of stone walls, brushpiles, and buildings, particularly in the cold weather.
Keeping them out of homes is quite a feat. They can flatten their very flexible skeleton and push through openings as small as a quarter-inch. They are not quite as bad as deer mice for filling birdhouses with mouse nests, but they are occasionally found to be responsible for the nasty nest messes we have to remove every spring prior to bluebird time.
Females begin breeding as soon as the weather breaks in the spring. Following a gestation period of 23 days, the momma mice give birth to litters of four to nine blind, naked, babies called “pinkies.” Young are nursed for about 16 days before being evicted from the nest.
Mothers can rebreed shortly after giving birth, so the first litter has to make way for the next following shortly on their heels. Although the average lifespan of newly independent mice in the wild is measured in hours, of those that do survive young females can breed at about 50 days in age. So in a year with a late winter, there can be three generations breeding by the end of the season.
When we think of mice, we tend to consider them vegetarians, eating seeds, grains, and fruits. This is another major difference between the two species. Some recent studies have found that well over 50 percent of the diet of white-footed mice surveyed consisted of animal material. This included everything from insects and insect larvae to bird eggs to small amphibians.
Deer mice typically show less than 20 percent animal material in stomach analyzes. To make it fair, white-footed mice have been found in virtually every predator living in the same habitat from shrews to eagles to bullfrogs to bass. They are the primary food of rattlesnakes, a threatened species in much of their range.
This makes my mouse recycling program seem like a pretty natural progression.