White-footed Mice

White-footed mouse from Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers

Illustration from Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs (1909)

“I think mice are rather nice.” So began the children’s poem by Rose Amy Fyleman that I read to my three sons when they were young.

Fyleman was an English writer who lived in earlier times (1877-1957) and her mice were not the primary hosts for the larvae and nymphs of black-legged (Lyme disease) ticks or the possible carriers of hantavirus. Unfortunately, our winsome, large-eyed, big-eared white-footed mice are. They can be covered with the larvae and nymphs of black-legged ticks and build up huge concentrations of the Lyme disease bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which doesn’t sicken them, and thus remain the principal reservoir for the disease.

They also enjoy life in our old farmhouse, and we are compelled to keep traps laced with peanut butter especially in early autumn when they are seeking warm winter homes. Live-trapping and moving them are not an option even if we wanted to. The late, great mammalogist William J. Hamilton, Jr. once live-trapped and marked white-footed mice and released them a mile away from their home territory. A few days later they were back, exhibiting an amazing homing ability.

In addition, they know their home ranges of approximately one-fifth of an acre so well that they can quickly find hiding places whenever they are needed.

White-footed mice in an old bluebird box by Mark Lethaby

White-footed mice in an old bluebird box by Mark Lethaby (license)

But as Hamilton once wrote about the white-footed mouse, “It often takes up residence in houses; the first evidence of its presence may be a boot half filled with cherry pits or hickory nuts.” In our house, I find sunflower seed stashes not only in old boots but stuffed under the cushions of our sofas and chairs. And occasionally I’ve uncovered shredded sweaters or shirts balled up into nests on some forgotten closet shelf or in an old bureau drawer.

However, most white-footed mice find homes outdoors in abandoned squirrel, woodchuck, or bird nests, bird nest boxes, tree cavities, half-rotten stumps, rock piles or even in a ball of leaves underground. Recently, researchers have noted that they especially like the humid conditions under the rapidly expanding invasive shrub Japanese barberry, which is also favored by black-legged ticks, still another connection with Lyme disease and white-footed mice.

White-footed mice use their long tails as props and balancing organs, to climb trees, although they are not as adept as their longer tailed congener’s deer mice. White-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) and woodland deer mice (P. maniculatus) look alike, and often live in the same habitat in our Appalachian forests. The length of their tails can sometimes be their distinguishing characteristic because the tails of white-footed mice are slightly less than half the total length of their bodies while the eastern woodland deer mice have tails more than half their total length. But the best way to tell them apart is by comparing their skulls. Since I’m not inclined to measure their tails or study their skulls, perhaps some of the mice in our home are deer mice because they too can create havoc inside homes and camps and are carriers of hantavirus, although so far they’ve not been indicted as primary hosts for black-legged ticks.

Both species of mice are abundant over a wide range of North America, but white-footed mice have drastically increased their distribution over the last few decades and now are found in the eastern two-thirds of the United States except for Florida, as far west as portions of Wyoming, Colorado, and eastern Arizona, south through eastern Central America and north in Ontario, Quebec, southern Nova Scotia, and even Labrador.

White-footed mouse by Patrick Coin

White-footed mouse by Patrick Coin (license)

Back in the 1980s, J.O. Wolff did extensive studies of both white-footed mice and deer mice in the Appalachians of southern Virginia and found that female white-footed mice lived in separate home ranges while males had ranges overlapping one or more females with which they mated. It seems as if white-footed mice are usually polygamous, but can also be monogamous, and even in at least one known case polyandrous. These choices may protect their mothers and their young because males can recognize their mates and children and will not kill them. They even often help raise their offspring, although females do most of the work.

Mating begins in early March and continues through late October in Pennsylvania. Their gestation period is usually 23 days unless a female is still nursing a previous litter. Then gestation can be anywhere from five to 14 more days. Most litters contain four or five young but can be from two to eight.

Born tiny and naked, they develop rapidly, and at three weeks of age they are able to leave their nest, although if they are threatened they can leave at 16 days. Previously, if their mother is disturbed while nursing, she runs from the nest with her young clinging to her teats and sometimes falling off as she heads for the nearest hiding place.

These young can breed as early as 46 days of age, but most are two months or 60 days old before they do. Still, it is easy to see how many would survive if they did not have many predators such as skunks, mink, weasels, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, black bears, and black rat snakes.

These “most abundant and ubiquitous rodents in Pennsylvania,” according to mammalogist Joseph F. Merritt, also have catholic food tastes, eating whatever fruits, seeds, and small creatures are available. A short list includes various grass seeds, raspberry seeds, shadberries, the fruits of viburnum species, hickory nuts, basswood seeds, and conifer seeds, and in the summer they add meat to their diets in the form of caterpillars, ground beetles, snails, centipedes, occasional small birds, and even other small mammals including young white-footed mice. But their favorite foods appear to be pitted wild black cherry seeds, acorns, and the seeds of jewelweed. The latter taste like walnuts and have turquoise-blue endosperms that turn their stomach contents turquoise-colored in late summer.

northern red oak (Quercus rubra) acorns by free photos & art

northern red oak (Quercus rubra) acorns by free photos & art (license)

On a study of the impact of small mammals on northern red oak regeneration by Colleen A. DeLong and Richard H.Yahner from October 1989 until December 1990 in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, they attributed most red oak acorn loss to white-footed mice from 67% to 88% in autumn and 94% to 100% in spring in a section of mature forest where they had planted 400 red oak acorns. Certainly, we’ve had fewer mice in our traps lately, and it may be because we haven’t had a good acorn crop in three years. In fact, many wild fruit and nut crops were sparse or nonexistent in 2013, including wild black cherries.

But by mid-autumn white-footed mice have collected caches of food to get them through the winter. Hamilton discovered that they are also fond of storing clover seed and beech seeds, and once found almost a peck of beechnuts they had stashed in a beech tree cavity in New York State.

Here in Pennsylvania, some white-footed mice have periods of torpor from late December until early February, but most remain active. They stay warm by nesting with other white-footed mice and/or deer mice huddled in tree cavities or by nesting underground.

During all seasons of the year, though, in our home, “they run about the house at night; they nibble things they shouldn’t touch, and no one seems to like them much,” as the poet Fyleman wrote. She may have thought mice were nice, but despite their beguiling appearance, I think they are an attractive nuisance.

Bridge Swallows

Cliff swallow in flight by Don DeBold

Cliff swallow in flight by Don DeBold (license)

One hundred swallows perched on our electric line early last August 20. At first, I thought they were barn swallows. And a couple barn swallows were perched at the end of the line, but they were apart from the wing to wing closeness of most of the birds. Those swallows continually pushed each other off the line like rowdy boys on a playground.

They had white breasts, square tails, orange rumps, chestnut-colored throats and a white, triangular-shaped forehead band on their dark heads. Those field marks made them cliff swallows and bird species number 172 for our property.

I had not expected this species to be breeding anywhere near Brush Mountain, but when I contacted Audubon friend Stan Kotala, I learned that “most of the PennDot concrete bridges over streams have cliff swallow nests,” and that there had been a colony under the I-99 off ramp/on ramp bridge at Grazierville, a mile and a half as the crow flies from our electric line.

When I checked the site in late April, it was still too cold and early for the birds, but I counted 10 intact nests when I walked under the far end of the bridge spanning Little Juniata River, but even though there were more I couldn’t see, the swallows probably had come from other nearby bridges too.

Cliff swallows feed nestlings under a highway bridge in California (video by Larry Jordan)

McWilliams and Brauning, in The Birds of Pennsylvania, write that “cliff swallows have colonized new areas as concrete bridges replace steel structures”…because “concrete structures create a more secure base…for the swallows to attach their mud nests…” Those globular-shaped nests with an entrance hole are distinctive; hence, other common names for them such as “jug swallow,” and “pipe swallow.” If the colony is large enough, their nests are jammed next to each other just like the swallows on our electric line.

“Nowhere is the essence of the cliff swallow better captured than by birds sitting on a powerline,” writes Charles R. Brown in his charming Swallow Summer. Brown, who has been studying cliff swallows in western Nebraska since 1982, continues that “despite plenty of wire space, they always crowd together…These creatures insist on being together.”

Cliff swallows on wire by Lostinfog

Cliff swallows on wire by Lostinfog (license)

“They also insist on confrontation. An incoming bird often attacks one already sitting on the wire and tries to knock it off its perch. Others light, sidle toward an adjacent bird, peck at it, and try to make it fly.” Watching this, I was mesmerized by the action and regretted when, after an hour, they swirled off together.

Since August is the height of their migration period, and they migrate along mountain ridges, they were on their way to southern Brazil, south-east Paraguay or south-central Argentina where they spend their winters in flocks of thousands.

As spring approaches, cliff swallows begin their migration back to North America where they breed from Alaska to Nova Scotia and south from northern Mexico across to the Carolinas, although this species was once only found in the west. And, as Charles Brown and his wife Mary, who assists with his research, have found, especially in southwestern Nebraska. There they favor road culverts and highway bridges for their nests.

The Browns have found sites with as few as two nests and as many as 3,700. The “little butt-heads,” as Charles Brown refers to them because of their quarrelsome nature, are “competitive, cooperative, mean, insecure and thoroughly social” and their society is full of “theft, rape, aggression, exploitation, parasitism, competition and cooperation, egotism and altruism.”

Cliff swallow colony by  Don McCullough

Cliff swallow colony by Don McCullough (license)

They will not necessarily return to old nest sites, having shown an east to west shift in Pennsylvania during the second breeding bird atlasing compared to the first atlas. But Brown has found that nests infested with “swallow bugs,” blood-sucking bedbugs as big as wood ticks that are brood parasites, discourage their reoccupation of old nests. However, there are fewer such ectoparasites in smaller colonies, so cliff swallows mostly reuse old nests by repairing them or finishing nests begun the previous year but never completed. Even though they seem to prefer nests that share their neighbors’ walls, probably because they are easier to build and weigh less, those built singly cling to the substrate better.

Cliff swallows are not territorial, defending only their nest site and nest itself from other cliff swallows. They pair up to build their nests, gathering mud in their bills from nearby water sources. Extra-pair copulations occur there, but pairs copulate within their nest after it has been partially built. Usually the male calls the female to the back of the nest with a soft “chur” call, and when she follows him and crouches, he mates with her. They also sleep in their nests when they are partially complete.

When their nest is three-quarters built, they line it with dry grass stems they gather from creek banks, haystacks and pastures. They frequently steal wet mud and grass from their neighbors’ nests if they are left unattended and continually repair their own nests as the season progresses.

Cliff swallow chick by  Richard Griffin

Cliff swallow chick by Richard Griffin (license)

Egg-laying often begins before their nest is finished. They lay anywhere from one to six, lightly-spotted, whitish eggs, but three eggs are the usual number. One parent guards the nest because their neighbors may enter their nest and throw out their eggs, so that they can lay parasitic eggs in them or move their own eggs into the nest.

Here in Pennsylvania, egg-laying begins in late May and into late June, but some have been laid as late as the third week in July. In small colonies, most pairs lay their eggs within six days of each other, whereas in large colonies egg-laying occurs over a three-week period.

Even though only the female has a true incubation patch, both parents take turns incubating the eggs an equal amount of time. The incubating parent stays at the back of the nest while the other parent is out foraging for food. Depending on how cold it is, incubation takes from 13 to 15 days.

Born naked and pink, the young are fully feathered by the time they fledge at three weeks of age. Both parents brood and feed them, catching beakfuls of flying insects and pressing them into a tight bolus for the nestlings. Once they fledge, the parents either transfer the food to them bill to bill while in flight or a parent drops an insect and the fledgling catches it.

Cliff swallows prefer swarming insects at all times of the year, and in Nebraska the Browns have identified 84 families of insects they consume.

Cliff swallow chicks by Richard Griffin

Cliff swallow chicks by Richard Griffin (license)

The young remain dependent on their parents for food for three to five days after fledging. But as soon as they fledge, they travel as far as three miles from their natal home to a crèche site where young of the same age from several nesting sites gather. Because parents learned the begging calls of their young in the nest, they are able to find and feed them in the crèche. The young also show incredible diversity of color and white speckling on their throats and foreheads which also may help their parents distinguish them.

Cliff swallows are amazingly adaptable birds. Unlike most species, they seem to thrive because of human-designed structures. Historically, they lived only in areas in the west that had vertical cliff faces with horizontal overhangs where they could attach their nests, hence their common name. But now they can live wherever there are bridges and buildings with overhangs to accommodate them. Ideally, most colonies are near open fields or pastures where they forage with a nearby water source.

The Browns continue to study these fascinating birds at 100 sites in Nebraska. They’ve discovered that common grackles prey on them by lighting on the nests and pulling the young out of the entrances. They also pounce on adults at mud sites, grab them with their feet and kill them with a couple pecks.

Cliff swallows and moon by Terrie Schweitzer

Cliff swallows and moon by Terrie Schweitzer (license)

Brown writes that “predators attack the larger cliff swallow colonies so often that an individual’s personal risk is actually greater in a larger colony than a smaller one,” but he believes in long-term studies of numerous sites before you can “correctly interpret what you see at a single site.”

As part of his many hundred thousand captures and recaptures of cliff swallows at mist nets, as well as the dead swallows he and his colleagues have picked up on the roads, they have found that over a 30-year period, the wings of the netted birds have gotten shorter while those killed on the road are longer. Shorter wings allow them to take off and maneuver more quickly and avoid being hit by vehicles. Also, while cliff swallow numbers have increased at his nest sites, cliff swallows killed by vehicles have decreased.

Charles Brown says that “evolution is an ongoing process, and all this—roads, SUVs and all—is part of nature or ‘the wild.’ They exert selection pressures in a way we don’t usually think about.”

Pancake Flats

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

On a cool, breezy day in late July, my husband Bruce and I decided to hike on Green Springs Trail. Following precise directions from our friend, Ruby Becker, we drove up the Allegheny Front, locally known as Wopsononock Mountain, on Wopsy Road, seven miles beyond the Penn State Altoona campus and parked in a State Game Lands #108 parking area. Since it was a seven-mile hike, and we are in our seventies, we planned only to hike the first portion, which our son, Dave, who had hiked the trail back in the spring with Juniata Valley Audubon Society members, said was the best part of the hike.

But we hadn’t counted on the seductive beauty of this trail. After a short walk on a gated road lined with a hedge of elderberry shrubs on one side and a bog on the other, we crossed a bridge over Tub Run and entered a mature second growth, mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. Most impressive were the healthy hemlock trees with not a sign of the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation. We followed a footpath through a tunnel of huge rhododendrons, many of which were still blooming. Black-throated green warblers sang “trees, trees, beautiful trees,” expressing our feelings for the impressive hemlocks.

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The ground was a boggy sponge on either side of the trail and mossy hummocks provided habitat for a wide diversity of spring wildflowers, their leaves evidence that if we returned next spring, we would see blooming painted trilliums, starflowers, Canada mayflowers, Indian cucumber-roots, and trailing arbutus, among others. Beds of partridgeberry and a potpourri of club moss species, as well as lady ferns and cinnamon ferns also favored the wet ground while clumps of white Indian pipes lit up the dark understory.

In addition to black-throated green warblers, occasionally we heard the singing of the brilliant red and black male scarlet tanagers, the persistent red-eyed vireos, and twice a black-throated blue warbler. But a succession of ethereal hermit thrushes provided a continuous choir of music that followed us throughout the five miles of the hike within the forest. Once a hermit thrush and hooded warbler sang at the same time in an unintentional duet.

As we penetrated deeper into the forest, Bruce, armed with a map and compass, kept asking me if I wanted to turn back. He knew that I hate to retrace my steps, and I knew that the complete trail was circular, which is my favorite kind of trail. Furthermore, unlike our hilly home grounds in the ridge-and-valley, this trail was almost flat in an area aptly named Pancake Flats and thus was much easier than I had expected. For that reason, I saw no reason to turn around.

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Eventually, the trail became rocky, and below us we could hear the gurgle of Green Springs Run. On the woods’ floor were several huge flat rocks with rugs of moss and an understory of wood ferns. Dark-eyed juncos scolded us, and an eastern towhee exhorted us to “Drink your tea.” At last we had a view of Green Springs Run through the hemlocks and rhododendrons and descended to a bridge of large boulders that crossed the water.

We emerged out on to a grassy flat area that was, in reality, an overgrown road. As Bruce moved to examine the taller grasses on the opposite side of the road, he heard the unmistakable rattle of a timber rattlesnake. Although we stayed on the road edge and searched with our eyes to see the elusive reptile, we never did see the creature, but it rattled whenever we approached the underbrush. Finally, we took the hint and plunged back into the deep forest following Green Springs Run along the cleared footpath.

Beside the trail we spotted a pile of feathers—an indication that a predator had found its prey. A rock that had been wrenched out of the ground was evidence that a black bear had been searching for ants. We also paused to admire an enormous white pine beside the trail.

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

We stopped to picnic next to a picturesque small waterfall under a welcoming hemlock tree and then continued on through a forest with many young hemlocks and a nice stand of mountain laurel beneath the larger trees. Apparently, the leaf fungus that has killed many of our mountain laurel shrubs had not reached this game lands.

Cinnamon ferns and unfortunately also the invasive Japanese stiltgrass formed a portion of the understory. But I was delighted to find blooming dewdrops, also known by its genus name Dalibarda. Still another common name is star-violet because its leaves resemble those of violets, but its single, white, five-petaled flowers do not look like violets. In fact, this lover of bogs, peaty barrens and cool, mossy woods is a northern flower that grows at higher elevations on the Allegheny Front, according to Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive book The Plants of Pennsylvania. In addition, I noticed the three-leaf, clover-like leaves of northern wood-sorrel, another five-petaled, white flower, that one with pink veins, which lives in the same habitat as dewdrops in Pennsylvania.

The last two miles of the trail were on the gated road. Even though the foot trail looked heavily used, we had seen no one on it, perhaps because we were there on a weekday. But on the road we did see a few people walking past us near the middle of the afternoon.

The trail was also remarkably trash-free except for an upright balloon caught on a sapling, wishing a happy birthday to a one-year-old, that had floated in from who knew where. Billed as “biodegradable” balloons, they still can be ingested by wildlife and last for years. We know this because often we find them on our mountain land above Tyrone, especially after their St. Patrick’s Day celebration when they release 3,000 balloons. We learned years ago that whatever pollution is released in the air eventually returns to earth and the same is true of balloons.

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Srpings Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The sunny, open road, in contrast to the dark forest, where we saw only a couple common wood nymph butterflies, was a haven for butterflies—great-spangled fritillaries, spicebush swallowtails, common sulphurs, red-spotted purples, and tiger swallowtails. Common and tall milkweed provided nectar for the butterflies, but sadly we saw no monarch butterflies, despite their milkweed food source.

It had been a terrible year for monarchs, and I had seen not a single one on our property despite abundant milkweed in our First and Far fields. Much later we learned that the population of migrating monarchs in their Mexican winter quarters had been reduced by 80%, an appallingly low number. Not only are their wintering trees being illegally logged in the Mexican mountains, but herbicides, such as glyphosate, used by industrial agriculture in our country, are killing off native milkweed species, the only plants on which the monarchs lay their eggs. So we applauded the managers of this state game lands for providing food and habitat for this rapidly declining butterfly.

The healthy forest and wetland also provide food and habitat for a wide range of birds and mammals. Best of all, from our standpoint, is that this enormous game land provides a refuge for those of us who appreciate wild Pennsylvania.

Cavity-Nesting Birds

tufted titmouse at nest hole by The Natural Capital on Flicker

tufted titmouse at nest hole by The Natural Capital on Flicker (Creative Commons licence)

I’ve never thought of myself as a female Dr. Doolittle, but last June a bird “talked” to me and I understood her.

My tale began last April when our son, Dave, decided not to remove a dead oriental cherry tree trunk in his front yard. It was an eyesore, but, on the other hand, he thought it might attract cavity-nesting birds.

And so it did. Almost immediately a pair of black-capped chickadees started excavating a hole facing the woods and then deserted it and began another hole facing the guesthouse porch five feet away. Unlike most chickadees, which are secretive during the nesting period, they were exhibitionists. As Dave and I sat on the porch, they continued to dig out their nest, carrying beaks full of wood chips and dropping them nearby. Not only were they unafraid of us, but they also weren’t fazed on April 20 when several members of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society stood on the porch watching them.

Dave spent far more time on his front porch than I did and kept me informed about the chickadees’ work. Once they hollowed out an area deep in the trunk, the female started gathering material for her nest. Chickadees are supposed to use natural materials such as moss, pine needles, and possibly bark to provide a firm foundation to their nests and then they line them with finer material such as rabbit fur.

But at 2:00 p.m. on April 23, as I sat on our veranda reading several hundred feet away from and out of sight of Dave’s porch, a chickadee, presumable the female, flew in and landed on my book. By doing this, she grabbed my attention, and I watched her fly over to a piece of unraveling beige twine attached to the handle of a covered plastic bucket. She clung to the twine and pulled out strands of this material until she had crammed her beak full, and off she flew. She returned several minutes later and yanked off more, but this time her beak was only half full. She didn’t come back so I assumed she had enough lining for her nest.

 

One of the chickadee parents at the nest hole in the cherry snag

One of the chickadee parents at the nest hole in the cherry snag

The next time I saw her pulling out twine fibers was the afternoon of the Pennsylvania Migratory Bird Count on May 11. No doubt she had been back numerous times when I hadn’t seen her. According to chickadee researchers, nest-building by females can take as little as two days and as long as two weeks so this female was several days over the limit. Or maybe she was freshening her nest lining.

On the 21st, Dave and I sat and watched the chickadee male feeding the female sitting down in the nest. Neither paid any attention to us. But we were worried. Several days earlier Dave had discovered a six-and-a half-foot-long, shed black rat snake skin not far from the nest. And the previous spring he had observed a black rat snake climb up a tree at the edge of the woods and wipe out a northern flicker nest he had been watching form his porch. We hoped the chickadees would survive and raise their young, but their nest hole was much closer to the ground and the trunk much easier to climb than the mature live tree that had held the flickers.

a black rat snake in a flicker hole, just after eating the nestlings

a black rat snake in a flicker hole, just after eating the nestlings

Four days later, when I went down to check on the chickadees, one parent held a caterpillar in its beak and kept calling “dee-dee-dee” as it perched on a cherry stub above the hole, while a second chickadee flew down into the nest. Finally, it emerged and the calling bird zipped down and reappeared a few seconds later without the caterpillar. Then both parents flew off.

It looked as if they were feeding young. She must have begun incubating her eggs the day after I saw her gathering more twine because it takes 12 to 13 days for the eggs to hatch. But after the eggs hatch, according to ornithologists, the male is supposed to feed both the young and the female for several days since she is brooding the nestlings. Not only was this pair unusually bold, but they didn’t seem to be following the “rule book” either.

Day after day they continued feeding their young, most often caterpillars, which was the most common fare for chickadee nestlings, according to the work of one ornithologist in Massachusetts back in 1961. He constricted the throats of nestlings when they were fed and altogether counted 35 caterpillars, 11 spiders, 10 unidentified larvae, six termites, one white Lepidoptera, one pupa, and one fly.

On June 2 I did some more chickadee watching as they fed both caterpillars and insects to their young. Twice a parent emerged with a fecal sac and flew away with it. Sometimes parents eat these sacs, but usually they drop them far from the nest so they don’t attract predators.

After a short wait, a parent arrived with a green caterpillar, paused at the nest hole for several minutes, and finally ate the caterpillar. It flew into the nest entrance and stayed there for more than ten minutes, and I could see the nestlings below. Then the second parent arrived with another green caterpillar which it fed to a begging nestling.

Right on time, on June 8, 16 days after hatching, the chickadees fledged, but both Dave and I missed it. However, the black rat snake never found them, much to our relief, because we had gotten fond of the plucky birds. Perhaps, by building their nest close to the porch, they had gained some measure of protection from our constant surveillance.

In the meantime, the twine story developed another twist. On May 26, my husband Bruce and I sat on the veranda in the afternoon and watched a tufted titmouse fly in twice and pull out a beak full of twine strands, the second time mixing it with a little freshly cut grass. Titmice are also cavity nest builders and titmice females construct the nest, but I had no idea where her nest was. Still, I couldn’t believe how popular the twine was as nest-building material.

More than three weeks later, on June 19, as I sat on the veranda reading in early afternoon, a tufted titmouse flew in and landed on a round white table. Then she flew toward my face and over to the rim of a white chair across from me. Next she flew back to the table, then to me where she landed on my foot, which was propped on a stool, and looked up at me. This titmouse was trying even harder than the chickadee had to get my attention.

She returned to the table, hopped underneath it, and pecked a few times on the cement floor beneath her spread legs. It was then I realized that she was “asking” me to move the two large containers of potting soil I had recently placed in front of the covered bucket with the treasured twine.

“Alright,” I said to her. “I understand what you want.”

She flew off, and I moved the larger containers so the twine would be accessible. A couple minutes later, the titmouse returned and spent five minutes shredding the end of the twine and filling her beak. She looked over at me several times as if to say thank you. At least that’s how I interpreted it. Then she chirped to me as she flew away.

For the first time in my life, I felt as if I had had actual communication from a wild creature. To me it was a transcendent experience I will never forget.

A short film of the chickadees at work excavating the den hole.


Video and photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.