The Mouse in Winter

MacBeth Derham


Last night, as we pulled into the driveway after 11 p. m., my daughter Libby saw something moving along the outside of the window.  We all sat in the car for a few moments and watched a mouse crawl along the sill in slowly-sniffing mouse-like fashion.  I have been able to keep mice out of the house this winter, so observing this little mouse was a welcome addition to homeschool nature study.  Neither a "city mouse" nor a "country mouse," this suburban mouse knows his way around the outside of our house as well as any of us, and finds its food, we have discovered, under the birdfeeder, and its shelter under last fall's leaves.


I’ll say it up front—I like mice.  I met lab mice (Mus musculus) for the first time as a 4th grader.  I had a good friend whose father worked for a laboratory near Boston.  I am not sure which unsuspecting institution had two young girls helping to change the cages of the lab rats and mice, but we quickly learned a good deal about how to make sure the rodents did not escape!  We filled water bottles and added “Lab Blocks” to the feeding trays.  Mmm...the smell of fresh lab animal food still brings back memories! 


A few years later, my brother acquired two mice, a white one, and, a few weeks later, a black one.  Unfortunately, he knew little about mice; he was unaware that both were male, and did not know that male mice that are not raised together often fight and kill one another.  Ugh.


My first experience with wild white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) occurred shortly after we moved to sparsely suburban eastern Long Island when I was in high school.  As a city kid, I was a frustrated naturalist with an abundance of beetles, ants, houseflies and sparrows to view, but never any mammals except the grey squirrel.  Here on Long Island, the mice lived in our house!  They ate our dog food!  And, to my mother’s chagrin, they were plentiful.  One night, I laid a trap, catching 19 of them in a large, nearly empty bag of dog food.  I had set up a cage, in anticipation of my success, with food and water for the mice.  The cage was a bit crowded, and a mouse would occasionally escape.  My dog, a brilliant and versatile German shepherd, was as good a mouser as any cat, and those mice which escaped were her easy prey.  Moreover, the close quarters for so many mice proved stressful to them all, so I released all the mice the next day, in the woods far from the house.


Since then, I have always enjoyed watching wild mice.  The typical white footed mouse is a small mouse with cinnamon-grayish fur above, white feet, and large eyes.  The white footed mouse is opportunistic, and lives as comfortably with people as in the field.  I have seen them in the woods, on the beach, in the house and in the city.  Some of the more memorable encounters happened in urban areas.  On a cold winter night, we saw a mouse eating some bird seed that someone had sprinkled at the base of a tree next to the skating rink in New York City’s Rockefeller Center.  It gathered the seed, and retreated into a hole out of which ran some electrical conduit (confirming my suspicion that mice really run NYC).  We saw a mouse living in some litter on the beach along Long Island Sound last week.  The mouse ran away quickly as we lifted the litter, piece by piece, always one step ahead of us, until we lost sight of it.  My usually calm, animal-loving daughter Annika was sitting in a Paris Metro station last summer when a mouse ran behind her feet and into the nearby vending machine.  Understandably frightened, she screamed and jumped up on a chair in a classic cartoonish response.  Another mouse recently provided a welcome distraction during a meeting at a local high school, peeking around a corner from time to time, perhaps to see if we had left behind any crumbs.


In literature, mice are most often depicted as brave and resourceful.  Aesop’s mouse and Lewis’ mice in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, use their skills to help lions.  Redwall’s Matthias is braver than the bravest of our race, defending his abbey against Cluny the Scourge (a rat, of course).   In the current Newbery rage, Despereaux braves untold dangers in a most mouse-like way.


Sometimes a mouse in literature tells us about ourselves.  The tale of Town Mouse, Country Mouse has been retold many times, but Jan Brett’s illustrations bring the miniscule world of a mouse to life, with a brilliant palette of color which captures details of fur and whiskers, fears and dangers, and food and feathers.  Brett’s mouse-eye view is at once earthy and surreal, and the ancient themes of unrest, jealousy, and ultimate satisfaction are delivered to the reader in Brett’s unique style.  Martin’s Mice, by Dick King-Smith, is a tale of a cat who loves mice—as pets.  Mice, we find, do not enjoy the attention the cat bestows upon his pets, and the perplexed Martin learns a lesson when he becomes a pet himself, in this tale of freedom versus captivity.


Rarely is a mouse is just a mouse.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie...well, we know what happens next.  Or do we?  This simple story provides us with a funny look at an unpredictable chain of events.


Reality is often stranger than fiction.  If fictional mice are cute and ingenious, real mice are well-adapted to their environments—and our own.  Bernd Heinrich, in Winter World, describes mice as living in snow caves (pg. 28), hunted by predators (pg. 31), and surviving by economizing energy (pg. 203).  In fact, he has a whole chapter dedicated to the behavior and survival strategies of mice in winter.  As a child, Heinrich himself survived with his family in post WWII Germany by eating, among other things, mice.  He writes, in his autobiography In a Patch of Fireweed, of pork-fried mice, and claims they are delicious.  Survival, it seems, is yet anther theme connecting mice and humans.


I hope you will not be more disturbed, after this endearing (if not always appetizing) description of mice, if I tell you that they are not welcome inside the house.  When the mice are in our house, things are not so cozy.  Some years, getting rid of mice in the house has been an interesting challenge.  We now live in a more urban area than when I was in high school, and mice in the house are common, especially in winter. One year, after a few tries with humane traps, I did resort to snap-traps and poison. 


Unfortunately for us, animals often seek refuge in or about human dwellings to keep warm or to find food. Usually pests, but sometimes welcome guests, they all seek the same thing—shelter and food for survival against a hostile natural world.  Here’s an activity to help understand one of the benefits animals get from living close to humans (modified from an OBIS activity):




Animal Anti-freeze




A cold day

Dixie” cups


Unflavored gelatin




Mix the gelatin according to the instructions on the box, and cool to room temperature.  Fill several cups with the mixture.  Place your control cup in the fridge.  This will gel if the ingredients were mixed perfectly.  Place the other cups of gelatin around the yard, some near the house, some far from it.  Place one in a compost pile, if you have one.  Wait two hours, and check your samples.  Which ones did not gel?  Which ones did?  Did any freeze hard?  Make a chart comparing the distance from the house to the firmness of the gelatin.  What can you conclude about some areas near or far from the house?  If you were a mouse, where would you prefer to live?





 Mousey books and resources:






Non-fiction (high school and up)


Care and keeping of mice


And remember the game, Mousetrap?



 Recipes (no real mice included!):

Chocolate Church Mice

Meatloaf Mice

Mexican Mice

Chocolate Chip Mice

Pear Mouse


 A few mouse sites:

Make a Mouse Mummy (requires a real dead mouse)

Mice as Pets

Mouse Genetics Activity (high school)

Lethal Gene Genetics (high school--page includes links to Mendelian genetics info)



Copyright 2005.  E-mail for permission to reprint.