Losses and Gains

Last August, near the end of the month, it was finally clear, cool, and free of the bothersome mosquitoes and gnats that make hiking in the hot, humid summer unpleasant. Still, I had persevered most days when it wasn’t storming.

Japanese barberry

Japanese barberry (Photo by Virginia State Parks in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On this August day, I chose to walk along Ten Springs Trail. That trail is on the edge of the 112 acres we purchased after it was badly logged back in 1991. On one side of the trail is our uncut forest, access road, Plummer’s Hollow stream and Laurel Ridge. On the other side on Sapsucker Ridge is the land that was logged and is now full of invasive shrubs and vines, most notably Japanese barberry, privet, multiflora rose, mile-a-minute, and Japanese stiltgrass.

I had thought the trail, which is one of the old logging roads, was wide enough to keep the invasives from crossing into the forest, but near a wetland on the logged side, I discovered that mile-a-minute had reached and crossed the trail, heading downslope into the forest. It and Japanese stiltgrass blanketed some areas, and the stiltgrass was spreading even in the deepest, darkest part of the deciduous forest. There was nothing to stop it; no native shrubs and saplings to keep it out. No jewelweed to smother it such as it does in the wetland inside our deer exclosure.

Multiflora rose

Multiflora rose (Photo by Penn State in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eventually, I reached Turkey Bench and was saddened to see that the large red oak next to the bench had split near its base and fallen during one of the recent storms, creating another large opening in the forest that the invasives will rush to fill, if not stiltgrass or mile-a-minute, then Japanese barberry, privet and/or multiflora rose.

It seems as if much of what I record on my walks are losses, especially in this part of our property. Maybe losses are all I should expect now that I’m 80. Old age, I’m learning, is a time when you lose more and more and must be content with less and less. Still, I am grateful to be alive and reasonably able on this, my 57th wedding anniversary. And to sit on the bench and be serenaded by a pair of red-eyed vireos as they engage in countersinging, the second singer repeating each phrase exactly as the first chorister sings it.

But most of the songbirds that had filled the forest with birdsong from April until the end of July were silent. Already many migratory species were on their way south to the tropics for the fall and winter.

Blackhaw

Blackhaw (Photo by Katja Schulz in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eventually, I continued on Ten Springs Trail and found a couple native shrubs—a red-berried elder on the steep forest bank and a smooth blackhaw hidden behind a tree on the logged side. I passed the steam trickling down Bench Blind Hollow and then walked uphill and down, flipping off branches from several storms since I hadn’t been on that section of the trail all summer.

At last I reached Ten Springs Extension. It enters an uncut hollow and forest by a footpath built by our hunters 25 years ago. That path proved to be more of a challenge than I expected. The entrance was smothered in stiltgrass and was on a slant. I ended up carefully crawling through a small section of it.

The stone steps dug into the steep slope that leads to a streamlet were mostly gone so I eased my way down with the help of the stick I had used earlier to flip the branches off Ten Springs Trail.

Finally I crossed the stream bed and breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon, as it turned out. The trail the hunters had dug into the mountainside had eroded badly from the storms. Then as I inched my way along, I found myself blocked by an enormous red oak tree that had fallen recently. I crawled under the tree and then turned where the trail doubled back. There I was stopped by an even larger oak tree across the trail. I had to push my way through the upper half of the tree that had broken off downslope and then try to beat my way back up to the trail since it was totally covered with portions of the tree for several yards. To my relief I found and followed a faint deer track that led me back to the trail and down to the road.

I decided then that that would be the last time I would take Ten Springs Extension and that I would suggest we close the foot path. Closing it would protect the deep forest from invasives. Already one sunny spot had a circle of stiltgrass. And once the autumn leaves fell, the trail would be even more slippery and hazardous.

American beeches

American beeches near the road in the hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

I still had a mile to walk up our road, but this is my favorite part of our property. The steep road bank is covered with several dozen wildflower and native shrub species and the surrounding forest has many native trees such as basswood, cucumber magnolia, American beeches, and several oak species. At the end of August horsebalm, white wood asters, and blue-stemmed goldenrod were blooming. Spikenard, Indian cucumber-root, yellow mandarin, and jack-in-the-pulpit were fruiting. Many wild hydrangeas, red-berried elders and maple leaf viburnum shrubs grew in beds of several fern and clubmoss species. I also found healthy patches of partridgeberry in fruit.

Unfortunately, the “partridge” for which they are named—the ruffed grouse—is suffering from West Nile virus, and we have only found a couple drumming on our property in the last couple years instead of the ones that used to display on our road and flush with chicks at the edges of our forest and First Field.

Mountain laurel with brown leaf spots in Plummer’s Hollow

Mountain laurel with brown leaf spots in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

Our hemlock trees that line the darkest part of our road have been affected by hemlock woolly adelgids but most, while thinning, are still holding on. Over half of our mountain laurel, that once blanketed Laurel Ridge, have died of a leaf fungus or blight, most likely Diaporthe kalmiae or possibly, according to a paper I can’t read in Japanese, Cercospora kalmiae, also called brown leaf spot. The mountain laurel used to provide excellent cover for wildlife, and wood thrushes and yellow-billed cuckoos favored it for nest-building. Unlike rhododendron and other native shrubs white-tailed deer eat, they only eat mountain laurel when they are starving. But they too used the mountain laurel for cover and shade.

Farther up the road I stopped to look at a large basswood tree stripped of its bark. It had fallen in a fierce storm earlier in the month and brought down a large red maple with it. Near the forks, a red oak 26 inches in diameter had come down in the same storm. But as I moved closer to look at the tree I spotted one of the loveliest wetland-loving wildflowers of August and September—a turtlehead.

And so the tree loss continued even as I approached our home and saw the immense black locust that had toppled in the storm, barely missing our house. I heard it crack while sitting in our sunroom and watched it fall.

Wood frog eggs

Wood frog eggs (Photo by Brad Carlson in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The increased winds and rains in Pennsylvania have turned our vernal pond into a permanent pond atop the oak and wild black cherry forest of Sapsucker Ridge. Not only are there now hundreds of wood frogs returning to it and two smaller ponds there each spring to court and lay masses of eggs, but the week before, as I approached the pond, I spotted a green frog, its large, bulbous eyes rimmed in orange and white, dark brown head and long nose, watching me from the algae-covered water.

Still, we’ve lost so much over the nearly 50 years we’ve lived here. Our last forest-dwelling American elm succumbed four years ago to the so-called “Dutch” elm disease which, in reality, came from an Asian fungus Ceratocystis ulmi. The elms’ seeds were favored by ruffed grouse, wood ducks, squirrels and opossums and every spring a porcupine nibbled on our elm’s buds and flowers.

Now most of our ash trees are dead or dying from still another pest from northeast Asia, the emerald ash borer Agrilus planipennis that was first discovered in Michigan near Detroit in the summer of 2002. Again, ashes also produced seeds that wildlife ate.

American bittersweet at the edge of First Field

American bittersweet at the edge of First Field (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

And because of our wet, sometimes too cold springs, for the second year in a row, our acorn crop was sparse. Even the scrub oaks on the powerline right-of-way had no acorns. Our wild grapes and wild black cherries again had no fruit. Even our blackberry crop was sparse.

On the other hand, our American bittersweet draped itself over four tall trees at the edge of First Field and was covered with orange berries, and our “pokeweed forest” above the spruce grove was laden with fruit. But it was still not enough to entice our fruit-loving birds to over winter. I can only hope for better wildlife crops this year.

 

 

A Walk in Penn’s Woods

Last autumn, on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in early October, my son Dave and I led a Walk in Penn’s Woods on our property. This program, begun in 2017 by the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, has attracted support from both private and public land owners eager to share their forests and the trees, shrubs, wild flowers and wild creatures that inhabit them.

Black birches in Plummer’s Hollow

Black birches in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our walk was the only one scheduled in Blair County, and we did not advertise it ahead of time. Still, we had one man from Centre County, another from our county, and a couple from Indiana County.

From our 10 miles of trails, Dave and I had chosen the walk up our mile-and-a-half entrance road paralleling our Plummer’s Hollow stream, through a mostly diverse hardwood forest that also has a stand of hemlocks affected by hemlock woolly adelgids. Many of the trees in the hollow date from the 1840s when it was last clearcut to feed the iron furnace at the base of our road known as Upper Tyrone Forge.

Since visitors to our property first drive across an old couty bridge over the Little Juniata River and then bump across the main railroad line from New York to California, we are able to point out the remnants of the watering tank near the bottom of our stream which was used by the steam locomotives beginning in 1850. It was first overseen by the original William Plummer who came here in 1832 to work as a forge man and ended his life working on the railroad.

Beech trees below the driveway

Beech trees below the driveway (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Human history that impacted our forest was important, but so was learning about our forest today and the plants and animals that live in it. Because the trees are old and the understory on the steep slopes of Laurel and Sapsucker ridges fairly diverse, we were able to show our visitors a wide variety of native tree species and their fruits from cucumber-tree and American basswood to American beech, red, black, white, chestnut and scarlet oaks, white pine, sugar and red maples. All of these species and more provided dense shade that made the walk pleasant.

A Sunday afternoon in early October was not the best time to see or hear the many songbirds that live in this forest, but we could at least mention the red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, Acadian flycatchers, Louisiana waterthrushes, wood thrushes, black-throated green, hooded and worm-eating warblers and other birds nesting here in spring and summer, and the year round species such as black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers, for instance.

Beechdrops in Plummer’s Hollow

Beechdrops in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The wildflower season was also waning, but I did show them blooming beechdrops, wavy-leaved asters, and blue-stemmed goldenrod. In addition, I identified native shrubs—maple-leaf viburnum, red-berried elder, wild hydrangea, spicebush, mountain laurel, and my favorite rhododendron–while Dave pointed out the various tree species.

Halfway up the road we were able to feature a large white oak growing atop the flat remains of a charcoal hearth as well as the chunks of charcoal beneath the thin layer of topsoil.

Since our goal is to let our forest mature into old growth, when trees die, we let them fall and rot to provide more soil and have so many dead snags that birds, bats, gray, fox and flying squirrels and other mammals have no trouble finding nesting holes. We also told our bear, fisher, and coyote stories and mentioned the success of the Game Commission’s program to bring back the extirpated fishers. In addition, the Commission’s efforts to increase bald eagle numbers has led to nesting bald eagles on game lands at the other end of our mountain. This was a gift we had never expected to see in our lifetimes.

We led our visitors to the base of Guesthouse Trail to point out the small rhododendron exclosure Dave had built to keep the deer away from this shrub that is a favorite of theirs especially during the winter months.

One of our deer exclosure fences showing the abundance of vegetation inside it

One of our deer exclosure fences showing the abundance of vegetation inside it (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

And finally we went on to our three-acre exclosure in a part of our forest with a white oak and several red oak trees that date to 1812. Despite our successful hunter program with excellent hunters on our land from the beginning of archery season in October to the end of flintlock in mid-January, our visitors could still see the difference between the open forest outside the exclosure and the dense understory inside including the numerous oak, white pine, black gum, and maple saplings.

In the heavily forested portion of our property, primarily on Laurel Ridge, we have little trouble with invasives, but our 37-acre meadow and the 125 acres we purchased on Sapsucker Ridge after it had been high-graded back in 1991 are infested with barberry, mile-a-minute, stiltgrass, multiflora rose and other pernicious non-native plants, most of which provide little or no nourishing food for birds and mammals, unlike our native trees and shrubs.

Invasive plants and diseases, tree, shrub, and wildflower identification, wildlife, including birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and forest management seemed to be the dominant themes in the 68 walks in 48 counties attended by 1,136 people last autumn.

For instance, at the 50-acre Laura Olsen Memorial Sanctuary walk in Crawford County, hosted by Presque Isle Audubon Society and the Foundation for Sustainable Forests, they entitled their walk “Exploring Forest Bird Habitat” where as many as 51 species have been documented in this forested wetland.

The Musser Gap walk in Centre County, which attracted 66 participants, had 10 stations leading into Rothrock State Forest. There were handouts at the parking lot and leaders at every station that covered forest management, natural or cultural topics.

The Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust in Montgomery County led a walk around the wooded areas of Pennypack Creek that featured a native persimmon tree with fruit and the fruit of a black walnut tree. Visitors saw an American kestrel and sharp-shinned hawk and identified bird and animal calls. The leaders explained why they had wrapped trees in preparation of the deer rut. At a pond everyone heard frogs and saw a beaver lodge.

A Walk in the Woods in 2018 on the Jackson’s property, Bedford County

A Walk in the Woods in 2018 on the Jackson’s property, Bedford County (Photo by Laura Jackson, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

In Bedford County, Mike and Laura Jackson led 22 people over their mostly wooded property. They walked through part of their woods that was high-graded back in the 1980s and talked about how that type of logging creates an unhealthy forest. They pointed out invasive species and the impact of too many deer on the forest even though Mike does his best during hunting season.

They also have a shelterwood cut that was done in the autumn of 2014 and enclosed by an eight-foot-high fence. On a trail through the exclosure, they identified the native trees and shrubs that have appeared such as sassafras, both hornbeam species, and quaking aspen in addition to stump sprouts of tulip poplar, black cherry, oak, elm and red maple that are already almost 20 feet tall.

The large seed trees that were left after the shelterwood cut included shagbark and pignut hickory, black cherry, sugar maple, tulip poplar, white and red oaks, butternut and American basswood, all of which provide excellent wildlife food.

Another view of the 2018 walk on the Jackson property

Another view of the 2018 walk on the Jackson property (Photo by Laura Jackson, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

That was the second Walk in Penn’s Woods the Jacksons’ hosted. On each walk, like most folks on these walks throughout the state, walkers were interested in learning how the Jacksons have managed their woods for wildlife and what birds and animals live there.

In Lancaster County the Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area sponsored a walk on a nature trail with 10 stations featuring wildlife and forest management techniques and tree identifications.

State Game Lands #37 in Tioga County, hosted by the Tioga County Group Effort, attracted 27 people who learned about game food plots, timber harvesting, wildlife and general forest management principles.

Young and old enjoying a walk in the woods at the Montour Preserve, Montour County

Young and old enjoying a walk in the woods at the Montour Preserve, Montour County (Photo by Henry Williams, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

A few of the walks were stroller and wheelchair accessible and, as such, attracted over 30 people. One was in Montour County at the Montour Preserve where they were led on the Goose Woods Trail by Jon Beam who has been associated with this preserve for decades and once showed me the signs of American woodcock during a visit.

At Tuscarora State Park in Schuylkill County 33 people walked on a wheelchair-accessible paved path around Tuscarora Lake where they learned to identify the trees and shrubs of this forest and were told about the forest benefits to humans and wildlife.

Two young people participating in a Walk in the Woods at the Wolf Creek Narrows Natural Area in Butler County

Two young people participating in a Walk in the Woods at the Wolf Creek Narrows Natural Area in Butler County (Photo by Andrew Zadnik, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

Because of the popularity of wheelchair and stroller accessible walks, this year’s organizers of the Walk in Penn’s Woods on October 6 hope to have more such walks in what they are calling Walk and Roll in Penn’s Woods. But many of the same walks as last year plus new walks are featured on their website.

For most walks there is no reason to sign up ahead of time. Just pick your walk anywhere in the commonwealth and go. You are bound to learn something new about Penn’s Woods and meet knowledgeable people both leading and attending the walks.

 

 

Food for Wildlife

After three lean years, our oak trees finally produced a bumper crop of acorns last September. Forewarned by hordes of blue jays screaming from the treetops as they plucked ripe acorns from the oaks, I had to be careful on our steep trails not to slide on the fallen nuts that were more hazardous than marbles.

grey squirrel

Grey squirrel eating an acorn (Juraj Patekar image on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still, not every section of forested Pennsylvania had a good acorn crop, despite predictions from folks that should know better. Dr. Marc Abrams, a forestry professor at Penn State says there’s “no way to predict it,” calling a heavy mast year “one of the amazing mysteries in nature that we still do not have a handle on.”

Dr. Warren G. Abrahamson, a Bucknell University professor who conducted a long term study of acorn production from 1969 to 1996 with Jim Layne of the Archbald Biological Station in Florida, agrees, although he says that “the production of acorns definitely is not forecasting but hind casting the weather.” In their September 2003 report of their work they claimed that the size of the acorn crop each year is partly controlled by precipitation which affects acorns during different stages of development in prior years.

Other experts think that the group behavior of masting trees called synchrony most likely depends in part on the temperature during pollination in late April or May. Since oaks are wind-pollinated, meaning the wind must transfer pollen from staminate (male) to pistillate (female) flowers, a period of rain might disrupt the process.

For instance, a cold, wet spring in 2012 affected red oak production in 2013 because all the oaks in the black oak group (those with pointed lobes on their leaves) take two years to mature. Those in the white oak group (those with smooth lobes on their leaves) take only a year and would be affected by a late spring frost during pollination.

Still others believe that synchrony occurs as a way to outsmart nut predators by producing more nuts than the predators can eat, ensuring that at least some nuts will grow into trees. But whatever the causes, it is cyclic and occurs every three to five years.

On our dry mountaintop we have mostly chestnut oaks with an occasional white oak in the white oak group. Deer prefer these tastier acorns and squirrels eat them almost immediately because they spoil more quickly than those in the black oak group, which include scrub, black, northern red, and scarlet oaks here. Those acorns the squirrels store.

hickory nut

Hickory nuts form 10 to 25 percent of a squirrel’s diet in a good year (image by Peppysis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acorns are not the only hard mast fruit. Others include the squirrels’ favorite—hickories, especially pignut, mockernut, and shagbark—which consists of 10 to 25 % of their diets in a good year and ripen before acorns. But like oaks, as well as the other hard mast producers—American beeches and black walnuts—they are also wind-pollinated.

Hard mast is high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein and is important to at least 180 species of birds and animals in fall and winter, but since it is highly variable in production from year to year, wildlife must depend also on a wide variety of soft mast throughout spring, summer, and fall. These fleshy, perishable fruits high in sugar, vitamins, and carbohydrates include a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species.

Foresters and wildlife biologists, in fact, consider mast to be the woody plant fruits and browse of native trees, shrubs and vines even though the word mast comes from the Old English “maest” which meant the forest tree nuts on the ground that fattened domestic pigs and other animals.

A wide variety of soft mast allows many mammals and birds to survive the lean years of hard mast. Of course, there are always some nuts every year, but ever since the extinction of American chestnut trees which, because they were insect-pollinated and didn’t bloom until summer, reliably produced an excellent crop of nuts, wildlife has had to adjust to a feast or near famine hard mast situation.

Consequently, encouraging biologically diverse meadows and forests, stocked with native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species produces food for wildlife throughout the year. And diverse food leads to diverse wildlife, as we’ve discovered on our property.

Other examples of trees that are insect-pollinated and produce a huge number of seeds every year as well as foliage, twigs and bark are red and striped maples. Striped maple, also called moosewood or goosefoot, has fruit that matures in early fall and is eaten by ruffed grouse, rodents, and songbirds. In addition, it produces browse for deer and bark for rabbits and beaver.

Elk eat the buds, foliate, twigs and bark of red maple, songbirds gorge on the seeds, and squirrels and mice store them for winter.

Basswood is another insect-pollinated tree, producing seeds squirrels and chipmunks consume while deer and rabbits browse its foliage.

The best of the soft mass fruit is that of wild black cherry trees. It fruits abundantly every third or fourth year in August and is pollinated by solitary bees. Seventy bird species feed on the fruit including grouse and wild turkeys. Black bears, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice relish the dark cherries.

witch-hazel fruit and flowers

Witch-hazel fruit and flowers (Image by Rodger Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fruit of sassafras trees, which is high in fat, is eaten by turkeys, bobwhite quail, black bears, pileated woodpeckers and gray catbirds. Rabbits and deer browse its twigs, black bears like its stems and deer its leaves. Despite its popularity, we have many sassafras trees in our forest.

Common witch-hazel, which flowers in late fall, develops woody capsules the following spring and summer. Those capsules contain a pair of shiny, black hard-coated seeds that shoot out in autumn before the next flowering. But squirrels, turkeys, quail, and grouse go after them, especially if the acorn crop fails. Deer browse heavily on witch-hazel, but it persists in growing above the deer line here.

Common spicebush (my personal favorite) produces brilliant spicy red fruits eaten by grouse, pheasants, and quail. It also provides shoots for rabbits and browse for deer, but it too survives and thrives, especially in wet areas along our stream. Our son Dave has planted it as an attractive shrub in our yard and his.

Both red-berried elder, which blooms the same time as the invasive barberry, has red berries available for birds in June or early July, although it only lives on steep slopes here because deer are fond of its browse. Deer also like common elderberry. It blooms in late June or early July and hangs heavy with clusters of dark purple berries favored by birds and humans in late August.

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit (Kelly Colgan Azar photo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Staghorn sumac is making a recovery on our property, living on the sunny edges of meadows and forests. Blooming in late June and early July, its greenish-yellow, fragrant flowers morph into bright red, cone-shaped clusters of fruit that last through the winter, providing food for squirrels, songbirds, grouse, pheasants, turkeys and quail. Deer and rabbits browse on this shrub as well.

Wild berries are a popular summer food. First come the lowbush blueberries as early as mid-June on our powerline right-of-way, followed by the huckleberries. Black bears are particularly fond of them, but so are songbirds, grouse, chipmunks, pheasants, and mice.

Black raspberries ripen in early July and blackberries in early August. Both are incredibly important fruit for songbirds, skunks, opossums, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears, while rabbits like their cover and rabbits and deer browse on their stems. Of course, the wildlife must also compete with me, especially in the blackberry patches.

Opossum eating wild grapes

Opossum eating wild grapes (photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Greenbrier of several species has bluish-black berries eaten by songbirds and gamebirds and deer browse them. They browse wild grapevines too, but wild grapes are among the most important and valuable food for wildlife including songbirds, gamebirds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. The vines provide winter shelter for animals and birds too. I remember one winter when the hard mast failed and deer spent the season among the grapevines of the Far Field thicket, yarding up like they do in northern New England.

My list of native trees, shrubs and vines could be greatly expanded. In other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly south of us, still other wildlife food, such as common papaws, are important. But diversity remains the key to providing abundant wildlife food, even in years when hard mast is scarce.

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.