A Creature Was Stirring
House Mice for the Holidays
Merry Christmas, everyone! We actually intended to publish last weekend and not this weekend, but things happened last weekend (and by “things” I mean I had to do last-minute Christmas shopping), so today’s issue of Mouse and Minnow is either six days late or one day early, depending on how you want to look at it. We hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season for those who celebrate, or a nice few days off work for those who don’t. We’ll see you in the new year!
The Creatures Were Stirring
'Twas the evening of Christmas; the humans all slept,
but they'd left out the dishes, and no one had swept.
Pie crust, mashed potatoes, roast veggies galore,
were smeared on the plates and spilled onto the floor.
So while well-fed people were snoring away
all the House Mice awoke to their own holiday.
First came their noses, and whiskers aquiver,
eager to sniff what this night could deliver.
Next emerged little heads topped with perfect round ears
that all listened for cat paws, and other mouse fears.
And when it was clear that the room was secure,
they skipped out and started their feast miniature.
Little pink paws grabbed carrots and crumbs
helped out, no doubt, by their small almost-thumbs.
With tiny pink tongues they lapped up spilled nog,
and cream from a cake that was shaped like a log.
And finally, then, when their bellies were brimming
they threw back their heads and those mice started singing.
They sang of their triumph, they sang of their mirth,
they sang of the peace they had found here on earth.
It was then a small child crept down from upstairs,
astonished to hear all these mousey affairs.
The trills and the chatter soon had him enchanted;
Perhaps he had taken these House Mice for granted.
If the child was older by one year or two
he might not have heard that rodent revue.
But very young ears can hear very high tones;
sounds that are lost to us all when we've grown.
His parents would shrug off his tale with "That's nice,"
for they didn't believe in the song of the mice.
But remember, there's never a true silent night;
We simply can't hear the mouse's delight.
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
The House Mouse
The term house mouse doesn't just describe where an animal lives; the House Mouse is an actual species of mouse (mus musculus). At least 15,000 years ago these little rodents discovered the benefits of living alongside humans and have since followed us around the world. House Mice are one of the ultimate synanthropes, organisms who have evolved or changed their behaviours to benefit from the habitats humans have created. Synanthropes dance a fine line between wildness and self-domestication, and of course we've taken it one step further with the House Mouse by breeding some of them to keep as pets. While the basic shape of the House Mouse wasn't changed by domestication (unlike some other species; looking at you, pugs), "Fancy Mice" do now have many colour and coat varieties not found in the wild.
In rare cases a House Mouse can live up to 5 years, though a one-to-two year lifespan is much more common. In the wild their bodies are anywhere from light brown to black and they often have paler bellies (but not usually with a hard line between the two; if you see a mouse who is solid brown above and bright, solid white below with no blending they are likely another species such as a Deer Mouse or Wood Mouse). And while House Mice don't have opposable thumbs, they do have a first digit that they use to grip their food the same way.
Song of the House Mouse
One of the problems with reading a lot, especially on the internet, is that sometimes you can remember a story but have no idea where you encountered it. When I was thinking about mice and Christmas, I remembered reading something that someone posted somewhere about waking up in the middle of the night and going quietly to their kitchen without turning on any lights. They were surprised to find a mouse on the kitchen counter, raised up on their haunches and making noises this person thought could only be described as singing.
While a half-remembered internet anecdote is hardly a reliable source, the science (somewhat) backs it up. House mice DO sing; at least the males do, trilling loudly when they can smell a female mouse but not see her, and singing a simpler, softer song when she is in their presence. It all seems very similar to the behaviour of songbirds who sing to both attract mates and defend territories. But of course animals also have to practice those songs, so presumably there are some young male mice trilling to themselves even when the ladies aren't around. Mouse songs are referred to as "ultrasonic vocalizations" and are generally outside the range of human hearing, but who's to say that a particular mouse with a lower voice and a particular human with better-than-average hearing couldn't happen to meet one night in the same darkened kitchen?
Hear a Male House Mouse Singing to Woo Mate on YouTube:
The article “The Mystery of the Singing Mice” from Smithsonian Magazine also looks at the songs of wild mice, and raises a lot of interesting questions about how little we really know about the natural world.
The field-dwelling mouse featured in the 1785 poem "To a Mouse" by Robbie Burns is probably a Wood Mouse, but I'm including this classic poem anyway as it seems to become even more relevant as the years pass. "I'm truly sorry man's dominion / Has broken nature's social union," indeed. (The Wikipedia page has a side-by-side English translation, if the Scots dialect gives you trouble)
This Bustle article “Why Were We So Obsessed With Books About Mice In The 90s?” considers the fictional mouse as a stand-in for the child reader, a small person in a big world (though it would have made more sense to leave out the part about the 90s; mice tales were “big” long before then and remain so today)
Pet rats are known for their trainability, but the Mouse Agility YouTube channel has lots of examples of mice playing fetch and basketball, skateboarding, and more.
Domesticated House Mice have long been a staple in research laboratories around the world, but times are changing and our knowledge has advanced. Learn about groups such as The Society for Humane Science in Canada, Animal Free Research UK, and AFSA in the United States, who are all working along with many others to advance and promote better alternatives.
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