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White-footed Mouse

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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Red Foxes Locating Prey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeep snow certainly presents challenges to predators – their prey is well hidden for the most part, and if they are to survive, they must compensate for not being able to see what they are hunting. Foxes are an example of how a predator survives in a winter like the Northeast has had. A red fox hunting for food is constantly listening for the sound of rodent feet under the snow, and when it hears them (they can hear a mouse or vole three feet beneath the surface of the snow) they leap up into the air and pounce on or near their prey with their front feet. Most of the time they are not successful, and come up empty-mouthed, but they usually succeed often enough to survive. Biologists are still working on understanding exactly how they do this.

Researchers in Czechoslovakia, watching foxes hunt in the wild, determined that a fox’s success seems to correlate with the direction in which it jumps. If the observed foxes jumped to the northeast they killed on 73 % of their attacks. If they reversed direction and jumped exactly the opposite way, they killed 60 % of the time. But in all other directions — east, south, west, or variations thereof— they were successful only 18% of the time. Jaroslav Cerveny, the Czech researcher, feels that foxes have a “magnetic sense,” and are capable of lining up the rodent sounds that reach their ears with the slope of the Earth’s magnetic field, and when this occurs, dinner is usually caught. (This theory has yet to be confirmed, but the likelihood that it is correct is great.) (Photo by Susan Holland, in the wilds of northwest Ontario)

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Meadow Vole Tracks

1-27-15  vole tracks 130Meadow voles and mice (white-footed and deer) leave most of the tiny tracks one sees on the surface of the snow. In deep snow, meadow voles tend to remain beneath the surface in tunnels, but occasionally do travel on top of the snow. Typically, a white-footed or deer mouse leaves a leaping, four-print pattern, often with a tail drag mark running between the sets of prints. A leaping meadow vole may or may not leave a tail mark and usually has paired prints. However, voles leave a variety of tracks patterns, depending on the speed at which they are traveling and the depth of the snow, so they can be confusing.

Although one might think that three different animals made the tracks in this photograph, every tunnel, track and hole was made by a meadow vole. The trail in the lower left was made by a trotting vole, the tunnel on the right was exposed because the layer of crust just under the new snow prevented the vole from going any deeper, and at the top, the vole was quickly bounding into the safety of its deeper tunnel.

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