The Backyard Naturalist – At Home With the Mice
This year, the closing-in feeling of impending winter is acute and deep. Propane patio heaters kept selling out online, pointing to people’s panic over being forced indoors by dark and cold and COVID, away, again, from friends and family. We aren’t used to seasons having such tyranny over us. We’ve built so many spaces to gather in artificial warmth and light, but that all breaks down when we have to keep away from each other.
Summer was an idyll. We were like the grasshoppers, seeking our recreation and socializing in parks and in the streets. The industrious ants — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins, Harvard — warned us that the fall would likely bring a surge, that cases would rise as we descended into winter.
Mice have always known how to handle situations like these. All summer, even the species of mice named for our habitations, the house mouse (Mus musculus), is abroad in our gardens, sheds and woodpiles. As the cold creeps in, they retreat with us, and in the walls and ceilings at night, we hear them scuttle and gnaw. House mice are native to Asia, but have been fellow travelers among humans for so long that we ourselves have become their habitat. There are other species of mice here, these native to North America, colloquially known as deer mice, of the genus Peromyscus. In 1909, a biologist named Wilfred Osgood wrote, “Within the range of one species (Peromyscus maniculatus) it is probable that a line, or several lines, could be drawn from Labrador to Alaska and thence to southern Mexico throughout which not a single square mile is not inhabited by some form of [them].” The land is blanketed in these wild mice. It’s their tidy round nests of shredded bark and leaves that you find in woodpiles and tucked under overturned canoes. In their 2015 article about Peromyscus, biologists Nicole Bedford and Hopi Hoekstra wrote that, although less reliant on human habitations than house mice, “deer mice (particularly in New England) do enter human households and partake of their larders.”
In our house, we’ve trapped both house mice and deer mice. Once, to my terrible chagrin, we trapped a meadow vole, though I don’t know why I prized her life over the other rodents. I have ambivalence about these creatures, tolerant of them, but uneasy. I accept the mess they are certainly making in my attic insulation, but they grow bolder. While we sat on the couch one night, we watched one shinny up the leg of our birdcage, sending our elderly cockatiels into a frenzy. As we drank tea one evening, a mouse positively sauntered across the middle of the floor. Mice generally hug the baseboards as they travel, obsequious. These mice considered themselves lords of the manor. It seemed a provocation. I set a few traps, killed a couple of mice, but then gave up again.
When my kids were little, I used to read them Leo Lionni’s story about “Frederick,” a daydreamy field mouse who spends all summer lying in the sun like a feckless hippie, staring at rainbows. His family reproves him for laziness, but come winter, in the dark, Frederick calls forth the words he’s gathered, summoning Technicolor memories. Were we gathering, too, all summer long? When we met friends, people-watched on the sidewalks, drank coffee at outdoor tables on dates, were we saving up, hoarding memories, putting them up like canned goods in a pantry to carry us through? There’s no reason this particular spot on Earth is mine more than the mice’s. They are only more noticeable to me now, as all of us, mice and men, contract our ranges and seek to spend more time in the warmth and out of the wind.