Our most attractive mouse

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11515207088114.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Under the right conditions, this little charmer may render a song for you.’);

Mice are unattractive to most people, but they generally have in mind the house mouse that strikes terror into most housewives when they see one scampering across the floor. It does not matter that they had just returned from Disneyland, where they were greeted at the entrance by the most famous mouse of all, Mickey.

Mice are rodents that belong to the family Cricetidae, which includes such forms as pocket, kangaroo, grasshopper, harvest, house and white-footed mice, as well as a host of others. Of all of these of our smallest mammals, the white-footed or deer mouse is the most attractive. It is almost a shame to call this handsome creature a mouse at all. He always seems to be well groomed, and his spotless fur of grayish fawn above is sharply contrasted with pure white below. His movements are with natural grace and agility, and his temperament is not aggressive. Rarely, if ever, will one attempt to bite if it is held gently in the hand.

The scientific name of the white-footed mouse is Peromyscus, and there are approximately 28 species of this animal to be found north of the Rio Grande, from northern Canada to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, one or more species occurring in every state of the lower 48. Its great diversity is evidence of its successful adaptation to different environments and subsequent evolution into numerous distinct species.

In addition to the 15 separate species, mammologists have described numerous subspecies of the mouse. A subspecies is a distinct, separate population of a given species that may well be on its way to achieving separate species status of its own. White-footed mice are generally confined to the outdoors, but will readily invade campsites and rural dwellings in search of food, especially in winter.

In many ways, the white-footed mouse reminds one of its distant cousin, the flying squirrel. The gentleness of the dispositions of these two seems to bring them together, and the two are often found to be sharing the same nesting area. And, like the flying squirrel, this mouse makes, for those so inclined, a nice, fun-loving pet. It will find its own private niche in your house, and come out in the evening to cavort around the living room and accept nuts from your fingertips, or climb into your pocket.

Have you ever heard of a singing mouse? From time to time, one reads reports of a mouse singing, but many do not believe this is possible. A personal experience with a white-footed mouse made a believer of me. When I lived in Maryland, I had a cottage on the Nanticoke River, a major tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. One night, I had gone to bed, and the house was quiet when I heard an odd sound coming from the kitchen some 20 feet away. The sound can be described as a rapid, well-toned trill, the quality resembling that of a fife or flute. When I turned the lights on in the kitchen, I saw the source of the “singing.” It was a white-footed mouse happily crooning away by a bowl of popcorn and seeming to be enjoying himself immensely. My presence did not seem to bother him, even when I approached within a few feet. I turned out the light, and let the little fellow enjoy my leftover popcorn. The singing ability is probably made possible by some modification of the vocal apparatus.

The white-footed mouse is a prolific reproducer, with three or four litters being produced each year. There are three to six young in each litter. This rapid reproduction rate is necessary for the survival of the species as this little critter has many enemies, including the fox, weasel, house cat and various types of owls and hawks.

Because of its many species and subspecies, the white-footed mouse has been the center of studies on speciation and other evolutionary principles. The late Dr. W. Frank Blair, a noted vertebrate zoologist at the University of Texas, spent many years studying speciation in the white-footed mouse. He, and his graduate students, made many valuable contributions to our knowledge of how new species are formed and how they maintain their integrity in nature.

This delightful little creature is a prime example of the diversity of the fauna to be found in the natural world, of which many are unaware.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the June 28-July 4, 2006, issue

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