Thursday, December 25, 2014

unasked for presents

unasked for presents --
two mice in a tin cat on
Christmas morning

Have you ever been given a present you didn't ask for and don't want? What to do with it? On the first day of Christmas, we awake to find, not a partridge in a pear tree, but two mice in a tin cat. I can't believe Santa Claus would leave them for us because they were definitely not requested. Though not unexpected. We've been trapping two, three, four mice a day in our three humane traps since the weather turned colder.

Usually, we relocate the mice much further away from our house, but it's Christmas Day and we're having a family dinner in half an hour, so I take these two out to the fallow corn field adjacent to our property to release them. When I open the lid, I only see one mouse, cowering back in the shadows.

It freezes in fear, but then leaps out and scurries away. So where's the other one? What's that hanging down from the entrance tunnel? Aha, a tail!

This little mouse feels safe inside its small cubbyhole. When I rattle the trap, it turns and buries its head in the corner. So I turn the trap upside down and shake it, and finally bright eyes jumps out and scampers off.
          Recently I read an article in Mother Earth News, "How to Keep Mice away This Winter without Hurting Them," by Kayla Matthews. She says that mice are as intelligent as dogs. Well, that I believe. I actually witnessed one in broad daylight, drawn by the smell of wet cat food in the kitchen, push the cover off the bowl with its head and crawl inside to eat, something a sneaky dog would do. 
          Matthews claims that mice are able to recognize their given names when called by humans. Now, I think she must be talking about pet white mice here, not field mice. We would certainly never encourage one by giving it a name let alone keep it as a pet. A friend told me that she caught two mice in a humane trap one winter. Not wanting to release them while it was cold, she put them in an empty aquarium with a lid and fed them for several months. She didn't clean out the cage, just kept adding more sawdust. When she finally released them, she counted at least 25 mice. This might have been only one litter, since a female can birth up to 24 pups in 3 weeks.
          Matthews also says that mice are able to empathize with one another, communicating vocally with squeaks that human ears can't hear and using facial expressions to convey moods. The two mice I released today certainly looked terrified, and maybe they were squeaking, but I couldn't tell.
          The author emphasizes that mice are extremely organized and tidy, designating areas within their homes for food, shelter and toileting purposes. The part about food I can attest to, having found stashes of dry cat kibble in the bottom of my camera case, in a drawer in the bathroom and under the mattress in the guest bedroom. 
          However, I've found tiny black turds all over the house, from kitchen counter tops to living room tables to closet shelves. But I do know of one incidence of a designated latrine. For years I kept smelling a bad odor in one corner of the bedroom, which got worse in the winter. Sometimes I could hear squeaks, a sound that even my human ears could detect. Finally, we pried the wood off that corner and discovered that mice had excavated a space in the clay/straw wall and were using it for toileting purposes. They may be tidy in that regard, but to me it was a huge, smelly mess to clean up. Now I frequently spray that area with peppermint oil in the hopes that it will deter them from returning. Ammonia soaked rags are also supposed to be a natural deterrent, but that would also deter me from sleeping in the bedroom.
          Like burglars, mice are notorious for being able to enter anywhere. They can fit their bodies through holes as small as a dime, balance on a wire and climb vertical walls, as long as the wall has some gripping texture, which they detect with their whiskers. No wonder we find evidence of them all over the house, from the top of the cupboard to the bottom of the clothes drier to inside kitchen drawers.
          Typically they stay with 9 to 24 feet (3 to 8 meters) of their nest, Matthews says, even when searching for food. I wonder about that, since our house is bigger than 24 feet. But I have noticed that when we keep the cat food in the refrigerator at night, we find evidence that the hungry mice have been gnawing on our soap and beeswax candles.
          This gnawing business is one of their most annoying characteristics. They gnaw to eat, of course, and to make nests, but they also must gnaw to wear down their teeth, which continue to grow their entire life. One year we discovered to our horror that mice had gotten into the hall closet and chewed holes in our good coats and leather shoes. This kind of destruction makes them most unwelcome guests.
          We do use humane traps, but Matthews maintains that the captured mice should be released within 100 yards (300 meters) of the trapping site. "Taking mice further away often results in their deaths," she says, "as they're unfamiliar with the area and are less likely to find food and water sources quickly." Since we live in the country, sources of food and water are abundant, and we don't want them finding their way back into the familiar area of our house, so we normally release them further away.
          However, this is Christmas, so those two mice got an unexpected, if unasked for, present today, freedom in a nearby corn field. I hope they don't come back!

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