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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.

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