Because of the popularity of hazel nuts, it is surprising to find viable fruits on Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) in mid- to late winter. Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Beavers, Snowshoe Hares, Raccoons, Red Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and White-footed Mice all vie for these delectable nuts.
This multi-stemmed, wind-pollinated shrub bears fruit that is wrapped in a modified leaf (involucre). Beaked Hazel (as opposed to American Hazel, Corylus americana) is named after the tapering beak-shape of its nuts’ involucres. One might suspect that any fruits remaining on hazel shrubs at this time of year must not be edible, but the photographed specimen was very tasty!
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Meadow Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and White-footed Mice (Peromyscus leucopus) are two of our most common species of small rodents, and they both remain active in winter. Their feet are roughly the same size (approximately ¼ ” wide by ½” long), but the tracks they leave differ slightly, due to their differing gaits. White-footed Mice bound, leaving tracks that have a four-print pattern (parallel larger hind feet in front of smaller, parallel front feet) often with a long tail drag mark in between each set of tracks. Meadow Voles have a variety of gaits, the most common being a trot, which leaves an alternate-track trail, with the hind feet directly registering in the tracks of the front feet. Although voles can also leave a tail mark, they do so much less often than mice. Once the depth of the snow is significant, mouse tracks are more common, as voles tend to travel primarily through tunnels they’ve created under the snow.
Animals that remain active in New England throughout the year often make preparations for the colder months, when food is much scarcer. Eastern Chipmunks store up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds in their underground tunnels, Red Squirrels hang mushrooms and apples out to dry and White-footed and Deer Mice create larders, often out of abandoned bird nests. Once their young have fledged, most songbirds never re-use their nest. Mice find these empty cup-shaped containers perfect for storing seeds that they collect in the fall. The mouse that took over this Northern Cardinal nest (located in a rose bush) didn’t have to go far to collect a sizeable number of rose hips. One hopes that this isn’t this particular mouse’s only cached food, as most of the seeds (within the fleshy red covering) have been devoured. (Thanks to Marian Marrin for photo op.)
Most songbirds only use their nest once. After their young have fledged, the nest is usually abandoned. In the natural world, recycling has been a way of life for a long time, and abandoned bird nests are not about to be wasted. In the spring, the material used in old nests is often re-used by birds building new nests. But long before this occurs, white-footed mice and deer mice, both of which remain active year round, often use old nests as larders where they store food for the winter. Occasionally they even renovate a nest in the fall in order to make a snug, winter home. They do this by constructing a roof (of milkweed fluff in this photograph) over the nest, which serves to insulate it. Use caution if you come upon such a nest– it could well be inhabited! (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for the photo op!)
Mice and voles are commonly lumped together, probably because the differences between them are so slight. Both are small, furry rodents, but mice generally have large eyes, large ears and long tails (close to or greater than the length of their bodies). Voles have smaller eyes, smaller ears (often concealed in their fur), and shorter tails. Voles tend to be active day and night, whereas mice are mainly nocturnal. ( Meadow voles are commonly referred to as “field mice,” which tends to add to the confusion regarding these two groups of mammals!) There are five species of mice in New England (white-footed, deer, house, meadow jumping and woodland jumping), and four species of voles (meadow, southern red-backed, rock and woodland).
It may be possible to tell the difference between white-footed and deer mouse tracks, but I certainly can’t. The only clue that sometimes works is to note the habitat in which you see the tracks– they are somewhat more likely to be those of a deer mouse if they are in a coniferous forest, but not always! White-footed and deer mice often travel on top of the snow. They are bounders, leaving tracks that resemble those of a miniature rabbit, with the larger back feet landing in front of the smaller front feet. There is often a tail mark, but not always, as they can and do hold their tails vertically at times.