Wild Mice

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!

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.

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 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 into 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 take 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 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 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 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 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


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 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 straggling 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, it soon dies, probably of

fright. One night in 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


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.

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 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 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 put her back. Later in the day I peeped in, and she was awake.

In the afternoon I took her out in her little blanket 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."

The Woodchuck A Life Of Fear facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail