”I think mice are rather nice,
Their tails are long, their faces small;
They haven’t any chins at all,
Their ears are pink; their teeth are white,
They run about the house at night;
They nibble things they shouldn’t touch,
No one seems to like them much,
But I think mice are rather nice.”
— “Mice” by Rose Fyleman
September slips into October with a little warmth and a lot of rain … again. Geese fly south honk-a-honking as they pass beneath the clouds in a scraggly V-formation. Hummers are gone. Soon we’ll put up the feeders, for we see titmice, chickadees, mourning doves, finches and sparrows land on the patio and wander about pecking the cracks in the bricks looking for autumn bounty.
October, is a transition month for birds … many are heading south; for mammals, the deer family that comes around daily is visibly darker as they get their winter coats; for mice, into the house they sneak, sussing out places to hunker down for the winter, places that will give them comfort and food. I haven’t seen any mice, only their calling cards. If only they’d learned to use the outhouse!
These small, grayish-brown creatures with large dark eyes, long pointed ears and sharp chins are in some ways rather appealing, were it not for having to clean up after them. When I was seven or so, I memorized the Rose Fyleman poem “Mice” and pranced about the house reciting it over and over to my parents chagrin and my siblings’ annoyance. I did stop, though, with the continual recitation when my parents gave me a pair of hamsters for my birthday, such lovely, little, living toys.
Throughout the centuries, mice have been revered and feared by many, many cultures. Egyptians mummified mice and buried them with their mummified cats; Romans decorated their houses with bronze mouse figurines. In India, mice are friends and confidants of Ganesha. In Japan, many carved netsukes feature mice. The fabled Obekre is a mouse oracle from the Ivory Coast. Pottery from Peru also captures the darling of fields and forests as it sits on lids or is caught in action in the design circling the middle of the pot.
Artists were, and are still, captivated by these “wee beasties,” as Robert Burns calls them, these “sleek, cow’rin, tim’rous” creatures. Beatrix Potter had two pet mice, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, that became role models for her “Tale of Two Bad Mice.” A very young Walt Disney found mice scrambling about his studio, caught them and kept three in a cage on his desk. Their antics eventually led to the creation of you-know-who. Mickey was not a sweet little adorable creature. He was an all-too-early symbol for the menace of corporations. Would that the original Mickey come back and see how absolutely corporate is the Disney world of today!
As nature became more prominent than religion in art, mice appear small and unassuming in many paintings by the likes of Durer and Delacroix, Bosch and Brueghel, Klimt and Klee, Otterness and Oldenberg. Many writers focused on cat and mouse antics — think “Krazy Kat and Ignatz,” George Herriman’s satirical cartoon of the 1920s or in the ‘50s “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. The most poignant of cat and mouse stories, though, is “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman telling the story of the Holocaust with the mice as the oppressed Jews and the cat Nazis as the oppressors.
October is the beginning of the mice pilgrimage into the house, very rarely seen, certainly more often heard, gnawing behind a wall board or scurrying inside a cabinet or pantry, those sharp little claws scratch-whispering over the wood. In the Northeast, nine species of mice live and dwell in the forests, fields and outbuildings. The meadow, white-footed and deer mice are the more common. Two species of jumping mice, the meadow and the woodland, are easy to identify since they are built like kangaroos.
House mice are around, though I think of them as city dwellers. Like Norway rats, they aren’t native to this country having arrived aboard ships the 18th century. Check the belly of your tiny intruder — the underside of the house mouse is the only one that is not white.
Rodents might only live six or eight months in the wild but in captivity, as millions are throughout global science labs, they may live for five years or more. Once the mini-mouse reaches adulthood — 6 weeks — breeding begins and continues throughout the warm months. A pair may have several litters a year, each litter producing 5 or 6 young. Such fecundity! Why aren’t we overrun with mice? Fortunately, their niche on the food chain is surrounded by voracious predators: birds, mammals, reptiles and even some amphibians.
Mice build cleverly crafted nests and are the most efficient food hoarders. After being away for a few weeks in winter, I have occasionally found a seed cache in a drawer and, once, under a pillow on the bed. Our house, built in 1861, is not a fortress, and mouse invaders can squeeze through the tiniest of openings. Our lazy cats are no help. They just open an eye, blink and stare if they catch a glimpse of a mouse shadow disappearing under the refrigerator.
Nowadays, we know more and these little creatures still may carry diseases: hantavirus and myriad tick-borne illnesses. But then on the other hand, mice have helped mankind enormously by taking up residence in labs and enabling scientists to learn so much to benefit mankind.
Every time I encounter a mouse, I still hear that poem in my head …