An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Deer Mouse

Hungry Barred Owls Near Feeders

3-4-19 barred owl _U1A2992Over the past few weeks many people in northern New England have discovered Barred Owls perching near their bird feeders during the day. At this time of year, with snow on the ground, food is harder to find and owls are forced to hunt during the day as well as at night. Bird feeders are a sure source of food, as mice and voles are coming out to feed on spilled seed (most often at night).

The owls we see are relying primarily on their sense of hearing to locate small rodents. Their ear openings are asymmetrically placed, which means that sounds reach the owl’s ears at different times. This helps them zero in on the exact location where the sound is coming from, both when they are perched as well as in flight.

Although Barred Owls can detect the sound of a mouse scurrying through tunnels two feet beneath the snow, this winter has been more challenging for them than many. Almost every snow storm has been followed by rain, which has created multiple layers of icy crust. Although sound may be heard through solid, liquid, or gaseous matter, one wonders if these multiple layers of crust compromise an owl’s ability to hear. In addition, these conditions can’t help but impede an owl’s ability to reach its target as quickly as it normally does.

A dear friend whose compassion for creatures big and small is unmatched was going to great lengths (coating balls of hamburger with hair cut from her dog’s coat so they would bear some resemblance to small rodents) to help a resident owl in a time of need. Some would argue that nature shouldn’t be interfered with, but those readers with a desire to come to the aid of a hungry owl could let a little seed fall on the snow that’s packed down around the feeder in hopes that a large supply of accessible food might attract more rodents which might fill more owl stomachs.

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Meadow Vole Tracks & Tunnels

2-4-19 meadow vole_U1A2759Tracking animals can be an elusive endeavor because so many things can alter the condition of the tracks. Have recent flurries erased the details of an imprint? Has the sun melted and enlarged a track? Was every toe registering? Did wind-blown snow cause the tracks to vanish into thin air? Was the animal walking, loping or tunneling or a combination of all three?

The reason you use more than just one track to gather information, such as the stride of the animal and the width of its trail, is that sometimes the individual tracks defy the hard and fast rules of some tracking guides. A commonly accepted generality is that Deer and White-footed Mouse tails leave drag marks, and Meadow Voles’ shorter tails don’t. However, in the right conditions, even a vole’s one-inch tail can drag (see photo), though not creating as long a line as a mouse’s tail would. The Meadow Vole whose tracks are in this photograph was loping along when it suddenly decided to seek cover under the snow and began to (try to) tunnel. Perhaps a predator instigated this behavior.

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Two Songbirds And A Mouse

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Two different kinds of signs — droppings and incisor marks – reveal the inhabitants of a woodshed during a very cold spell. The partially-eaten, shelled acorns have tiny grooves in them (difficult to see well in photo, my apologies), made by the incisors of a very small rodent, likely a White-footed Mouse or a Deer Mouse (the animals, much less their signs, are extremely difficult to tell apart, even if both species are sitting in front of you).

The two remaining signs are droppings from birds that sought shelter overnight inside the shed. Mourning Doves have very distinctive scat — individual round droppings, each about 1/4″ in diameter, consisting of coils of dark, solid waste which sometimes have a dollop of white uric acid on top.

The third and last sign is also bird droppings, but unlike the Mourning Dove’s, these are white and log-like. If you’ve been inundated with Dark-eyed Juncos this winter, you should be able to find these on the ground where they congregate.

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What Goes On Beneath Our Feet In Winter

Alfred's mouse2 2018-01-16 20.39.08 (003)It’s fairly unusual to see Deer or White-footed Mice, especially in the winter – they are nocturnal and they spend much of their time in the airspace under the snow next to the ground known as the subnivean layer. (A blanket of snow traps the earth’s heat, which melts the bottom of the snow, creating this layer of space.) Here both Deer Mice and White-footed Mice travel extensively, protected from both the cold (it stays within a degree or two of 32 F. regardless of outside temperature) and the eyes of predators. On cold winter days, groups including both species of mice keep warm by huddling in a common nest. (Photo of White-footed/Deer Mouse – extremely difficult to tell the difference by sight – by Alfred Balch.)

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Mouse Meals

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Deer and White-footed Mice are viewed negatively due to their association with Deer, or Black-legged, Ticks, carriers of Lyme Disease.  However, these mice are also beneficial, not only as a staple prey food for many predators, but as a vital contributor to the health of our forests.

Mice help spread various kinds of fungi by eating the fruiting bodies (which contain spores) and eventually excreting the spores.   Certain fungi colonize the root system of trees, creating a symbiotic relationship called mycorrhizae. The fungus provides increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities to the tree while the tree provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis. For many temperate forest trees, these fungi have been shown to be an essential element in order for them to prosper. By consuming fungi and dispersing their spores, these small rodents are inadvertently contributing to the vitality of our forests. (Note: look for the tiny incisor marks of mice in the devoured fungus.)

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Winter Mouse House

11-14-16-mouse-house2-049a1332One of my very favorite animal signs is the winterized home of a Deer or White-footed Mouse. Most songbirds do not re-use their nests. Once the nestlings have fledged, what doesn’t get recycled directly from the nest by other birds or critters slowly disintegrates from rain and snow. That is, unless an agile mouse discovers it and renovates it first. Deer and White-footed Mice are known for using abandoned nests as larders (see  https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/mice-preparing-for-winter/) or as homes for the winter. For the latter, a roof is constructed, usually out of milkweed or cattail fluff, but I have even found man-made insulation used as construction material for a roof. (The pictured nest has been well insulated with a roof of cattail fluff.)

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Nest Box Residents : Out With The Old, In With the New

3-25-16  mouse nest in bluebird box by Jim LafleyDSC00362 (2)In order to prevent disease or the passing on of parasites, it is a good idea to clean out nest boxes after they’ve been occupied.  In the fall, after the last brood of eastern bluebirds or tree swallows has flown the coop, many nest box owners often clean them out in preparation for the next summer’s residents, but some wait until spring.  This habit of waiting provides white-footed and deer mice (and occasionally flying squirrels) with a ready-made winter shelter and/or larder.

Feathers incorporated into the pictured grass nest indicate that tree swallows once occupied this nest box.  After the last of the avian nestlings had fledged, mice moved into the box.  After constructing a roof over the nest, the mice succeeded in renovating the former bird nursery into a winter mouse house.  The remaining space inside the box served as a larder for nearby high-bush cranberries.

Unfortunately for the mice, but fortunately for the swallows or bluebirds that will reside here this summer, the responsible nest box owner dutifully cleaned out the nest box this spring, in accordance with avian-mammalian timeshare policies.  (Thanks to Jim Lafley for the use of his photo.)

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