The Mouse With Many Names Photo of Deer Mouse.

Ellie S. Thomas

© Copyright 1998 by Ellie S. Thomas

Two flirty little ears poked around the edge of the china cabinet; below them were two bright round eyes regarding the world with intense interest. When things remained quiet and there was no perceivable threat, the whole body emerged. It was a mouse...and when it went dancing across the floor, Janna shrieked and pulled her legs high in the air.

"What in the world is wrong, Janna?" her mother inquired. Janna pointed wordlessly as the mouse sat quietly and then, bit by bit, emerged into the room. It sat up on its haunches and looked about with round, inquisitive eyes. Then it ran across the room and investigated under the table. There seemed to be something there that it liked and again it sat, this time holding the tidbit in its tiny paws and biting into it much as a person would hold a cookie. It munched and then danced across the floor again in another direction. Janna by now had quite forgotten her fear in the fascination of watching the mouse. Dancing was really the only accurate way to describe its motion because it certainly wasn't walking, nor running as mice usually do.

"What is it doing, Mother? And why does it run that way? It doesn't look a bit like the mouse we saw at Grandma's last year."

"That's because this one is a deermouse, Janna," her mother said softly. "You see how different its coloring is...and you're right, it doesn't look much like other mice at all. They are usually grey, if you remember, but this little fellow...or miss, possibly, (Janna giggled) is almost reddish-brown, like a fox. You see how it sort of scampers along? Kitchen mice usually just run. Let's watch it for a minute."

The next day, Janna and her mother went to the library and got some books on wild animals. Janna couldn't wait until they got home to see if the little creature was in there. Sure enough, there was a picture of it. It really was rather a cunning little creature. "The woodland mouse, (deermouse)," the book said, "is a tiny creature that seems to be found in many and varied places over the North American continent. The ubiquitous rodent is an attractive little thing, calling forth feelings of fellowship and protection among campers, naturalists, and many nature lovers. Its engaging looks and confiding manner make it easy to see why Mr. Disney was able to make millions of dollars with the Micky and Minnie Mouse concept."

Janna was very interested in what she now considered a small friend. The next day at school she described the mouse and was proud that she could tell the class something about it. Her teacher listened thoughtfully and then made a suggestion.

"Why don't you make this your school project for this year, Janna? Find out all you can about the mouse and then you can write the information on 3x5 cards. Perhaps you'd like to make a habitat set-up on the sand table. I think it would be quite interesting."

By now the other children were very involved and wished to be of help, so Janna made an appointment to meet several of her friends at the library to find the proper materials. And it was a good test of their library skills, looking up the material on mice, and then finding the books by title and author. They checked out a good supply of books by the noted naturalists, John Burroughs, Edwin Way Teale, Allan W. Eckert, Ronald Rood, and Ann Zwinger. Then they began to sort out what they had found.

"This mouse is very different in appearance from the ordinary mice so often found in households," the first book informed them. "The kitchen mice have sharp noses and beady eyes, and their shapes are not softly rounded as is that of the deer mouse. Too, the kitchen mice are furtive, easily frightened off, and less readily seen. The woodland mouse is a more trusting soul, calmer and slower in its actions and easily tamed. Perhaps its personal habits of cleanliness are as responsible for its almost universal liking as its pretty appearance."

Janna went on, reading bits from first one book and then another. One paragraph said, "The woodland mouse is supposed to be a nocturnal animal but it is still often seen in daylight hours, especially if one is cleaning camp and disturbs its nest, or if one brushes down an old bird nest while walking through the woods...out may pop one of these lively mice. They regard you with friendly, intelligent-looking eyes; the over-sized ears cupped to hear what you are saying, apparently."

The next book described them: "Their coat is a reddish-brown over the back, but then running from the chin down the front of the neck and all along the underside way to the tail, they are a sparkling white. Even the tiny feet are a pristine white which continues part-way up the leg, almost as though they were wearing stockings."

And another author continued: "...which leads to their being called white-footed mice, as well as vesper mice. They are called vesper mice because of the trilling little noises they often make, almost as if they were singing."

She finished up with the red book's summary: "They are usually just about seven inches from their nose to the tip of the tail, which accounts for half their length all by itself."

Janna called Tracy on the telephone to see what she and Tommy had got. Tracy was making sketches to show how they'd plan the sand-table display.

"Janna, these mice often live in the woods, hidden in secret burrows, or they may be in somebody's camp. One book says that their favorite place is an abandoned bird's nest that they remodel, or reshape, and re-do until they are satisfied with the arrangement and it would be hard for anyone to tell what it had started out to be. Tommy said he can get us a couple of empty birds nests and we can work on arranging them tomorrow. Okay?"

The next day the young people met at the school, carrying the nature books and they began to set up the display. Tommy read from the books, and then they modeled the things described out of colored clay. The gray book said the babies were naked and bright pink, so Tommy made several about an inch and a half long with closed eyelids. He tried to show how the eyes seemed about to bulge right through the blue eyelids, but it wasn't easy.

Tracy exclaimed, "Look at this, Janna. Mr. Teale says: 'The little mother is obsessively clean, washing her ugly youngsters with her tongue, sometimes picking them up in her paws to better accomplish her purpose and, indeed, washing them until they squeak. So rigid are her rules of cleanliness that she usually has them scrubbing themselves before their eyes are open! One lady said that she observed a woodmouse as it scrubbed itself all over, licking its paws and then rubbing its face, and then repeating the process with a hind leg!' How am I supposed to show that?" The kids thought for a few minutes and then Tommy had an idea.

"Why can't we draw pictures about the things we can't make? Sort of like a poster board?" That seemed a good idea, so they began to make various sketches.

Tommy decided that he would make a chart on the way the mice reproduced. Mr. Rood had a good paragraph that showed that the mouse could be a threat if all her babies lived to grow up, because she had them so often. He said that she can produce a litter of offspring before she is one hundred days old herself. They will be weaned within three weeks and in four or five months the mother can become a grandmother! And to make matters worse, they can eat almost anything! Tracy brought in a sample of the foods that the mice enjoy. She made small piles of grain seeds, berry seeds, and the pits from small fruits and nuts. She put these near the bird nest that Tommy had gotten. On their poster she added that they also catch crickets and moths to eat, all but the wings. Then Tommy drew a picture showing a mouse looking out of a beehive because one book said, " of all, she likes to make her nest in someone's beehive where she will have honey and beeswax all winter long." Tommy also brought in some tiny bones he'd found and they left these by the nest, adding the fact to the poster board that the mouse's body craved minerals before the babies were born, so she will gnaw on the bones of birds or other small animals which she finds in the woods.

Now came the fun. Checking their books for accuracy, they went to work on the sand table, making the winding trails and secret passageways that the mouse uses in bad weather and which are usually tucked underneath grasses and weeds, or beneath the snow, where it is warm and protected from the bitter wind. Mr. Burroughs said that the temperature beneath twelve or eighteen inches of snow will remain just about freezing, seldom much lower, so the mouse can travel in relative comfort, but Mr. Rood said that if it is too far to open water, or too cold, or too dangerous, she can satisfy her requirements for moisture from the snow itself or from her food! They dipped into one book and then another for the odd statement, "She can also visit some of the storehouses where she prudently laid up piles of seeds and nuts during the fall. It is possible to find a half peck of carefully shelled nuts in a moss-lined hollow tree. The mouse will fill her cheeks and carry the food home to her young. As she goes, she keeps to her tunnels, or to the shadows, sprinting from one side to another in a zig-zag fashion. She approaches her nest indirectly, sometimes jumping surprising distances to the side, a move to throw off predators. If she feels there is no danger, she enters the nest where the little ones are drumming their feet impatiently. They often thump and beat the ground in an infant tantrum which the mother settles with a few sharp nips. The drumming is a characteristic with these mice and it is uncertain why they do it."

It was funny to picture the tiny mice stamping their feet at their mother and for a short time, there was a dancing, shuffling step around the sandtable.

The work had to wait for a while because there was no school for several days. Janna went to the cottage with her parents to open it for the season and now that she knew what to look for, it was easy to see that a mouse had been there before them. One had obviously made many trips back and forth on its mysterious errands. Janna's mother took some linen into the bedroom and one look at the mattress showed what their little friend had been up to. There were holes riddled in the pillows and bits of fluff still protruded where she'd pulled some away for her nest. When they lifted the mattress to turn it over there was a gritty sound like sand or gravel hitting the floor. There was a pile of brown seeds. Undeneath the mattress was another pile. The seeds looked like the "tobacco" kids get from sourdock in the fall. Janna helped vacuum it all away, ruefully thinking how many meals were going into the machine, how many trips those dainty feet had made to bring this large cache inside. After the bedroom was done, they began to unload the suitcases and store the contents in the dresser drawer. Again there were piles of food. These looked like dried rosehips, (at least the mouse knew about nutrition) and the rest may have been bits of bittersweet. She had been busy. Now the drawers had to be vacuumed out too. In the bathroom a stack of plastic cups had been destroyed by her gnawing a long groove straight down the side of the stack, just ruining all of them...and the soap bore the marks of her teeth...and the paper towels and bathroom paper had also been dug into.

"Mom, wait until Monday when I tell the kids what the mouse has been doing to us!"

On the following week Janna was telling Miss Miller about the mouse at their cottage, and how angry her mother had been at the damage and the mess it had left. Miss Miller had to feel a great deal of sympathy for Janna's mom.

"But they do have many enemies...besides your mom, Janna." The kids laughed. "They are a dainty morsel to many birds and animals; the masked shrew leads the list. Perhaps Tommy would like to find a picture of a shrew. It is a fast, ugly little predator and, ounce for ounce, can take on enemies many times its size. Needless to say, the small mouse is no match for such a foe. Foxes, hawks, owls, or snakes are also very willing to add the mouse to their menu, so perhaps your mother still has the best form of control on her side after all."

The project was finished and all the other grades came to their room to view their exhibit. Janna and Tracy and Tommy each got A's for the project and a big star on the poster. But the best surprise came the next day when the evening paper was delivered to their home. Janna's mother exclaimed as she began to read.

"Look at this, dear. Here's Janna's picture...and Tracy and Tommy, too."

There they stood, looking very proud, while the photographer took their picture. A big line underneath said, "Once again Central School students demonstrate how well they can develop a project in natural science!"

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