The House Mice That Didn't Get Away
Mus musculus, the common house mouse, is a member of the Order Rodentia found wherever humans live. Zoologists consider it to be the most widely distributed and successful of all mammals. There is a wild form and a commensal form. The latter is the category that lives in close association with humans. Adults are approximately 6 to 8 inches long from tip of nose to end of tail. Weighing 1 to 1 ½ ounces as adults, all have greyish brown fur. They possess a high-pitched squeak or call.
Breeding occurs throughout the year generally with 5-10 litters of 5-6 newborn. These numbers are averages and under the right conditions 14 litters a year are possible as are 12 pups (or “pinkies”). The gestational period is 20 days. Their reproductive potential has been described as “tremendous”. Oh really?
The diet of the house mouse includes any items on the human menu, including meat when available. They also eat stored bird seed and household items such as glue and soap. The name mouse is derived from the Sanskrit word “mus”, which means thief.
Our Life with the Mice
We live in a semi-rural area and had mouse houseguests in our basement last winter. As with most visitors, they quickly wore out their welcome. They really, really wore out their welcome. We have cats and, with one exception, the mice never ventured “north” to slip under the doorway at the top of the stairs. The single explorer who did was quickly dispatched by Clara, our brown tabby, who had never seen a mouse before and probably thought it was some kind of new interactive toy. We think that most likely her only complaint about the experience would be that the batteries ran out too soon and should be replaced more often. We never heard any high-pitched squeak. The intrepid pioneer went quietly to mouse heaven. As I said, no other traveler dared enter the no-mouse-land under that doorway. The romantic in us would like to believe the brave rodent who did so instructed the tribe not to follow if he didn’t make it back. Clara made sure he didn’t.
There were sounds inside walls from time to time that we suspected were the rodents. They must have been seeking an alternate route to, “you know, up there”. They must have looked like the survivors in the overturned Poseidon crawling up through the superstructure of the ship. Clara couldn’t fit into the walls; as it turned out that would be little comfort for the furry spelunkers.
An exterminator was out of the question. We worried that some young and foolish mouse would ignore the story the elders passed down of “the one who never returned” and make it to the living area only to pass away from toxins. If he was then the blue plate special for the day the cats could be poisoned. This is the age of weapons of mass destruction.
We didn’t set traps that kill quickly or sticky paper that kills slowly because we’re remnants of the counter-culture generation who couldn’t bear the thought of using modern technology (well, not so modern) to our advantage in this battle. We did use live traps baited with peanut butter and caught up to four mice at a time that were then evicted to the outside, no doubt to return home again by supper. The humane methods were a failure because, just as the Spartans discovered at Thermopylae, there were more of them than there were of us. We had cleaned up enough of their mess several times and were almost ready to go nuclear (or, if you prefer, nuculer) and use spring-loaded traps or whatever would end the standoff quickly.
But Then It Stopped
We both independently noticed that the tell-tale signs in the basement (okay, poop) had slowed and then halted. We were elated and while discussing the miracle one afternoon turned and looked at each other and simultaneously blurted out the only possible reason.
The Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor)
Coluber constrictor is a species of nonvenomous colubrid snake endemic to North America east of the Rockies and found as far south as Belize in Central America. Eleven subspecies are commonly referred to as racers. One member of this group, the Northern Black Racer, is the state reptile of Ohio. They’re the fastest snake on the US East Coast. Depending on age and climate, they can range in length from 3 feet to 5 feet long with a record of 6 feet.
Usually, and I repeat usually, racers prefer open grassland where they can easily spot prey. However, they can take up residence in brush, swamps, suburban and agricultural areas. They’re good climbers and seek cover in trees and shrubs when threatened. They also use this skill to raid bird nests for eggs.
Other items on the menu include frogs, toads, lizards, other snakes and more important for this story, rodents. Although they have the species name constrictor they do not surround prey and squeeze the breath out of them. They coil around the unfortunate victim, pinning it to be swallowed whole. (Don’t blame me for the description. I didn’t create the process.) Care should be taken when approaching the snake because they are aggressive if threatened and can deliver a painful bite.
Northern Black Racer
A Snake in the House
We had seen a racer around the outside of the house for years and nicknamed him, or his progeny, Slinky. Both of us have undergraduate degrees in zoology and consider sighting any amphibians or reptiles something special. No question about it, Slinky was a fav “herp” around the property.
During a remodel of our kitchen in April, a carpenter who we’ll call John (because that’s his name) was relocating an HVAC vent when he dramatically announced that he had located a three foot snake in our old, warm air vent. We think he was out to shock us, but instead we calmly offered to move who we assumed was Slinky so that John could finish the work. We assured him that we had experience with ornery reptiles and wouldn’t mind at all if he’d let us relocate the snake. It may have been a macho thing in response to our calm demeanor and sincere offer to take care of the removal, but John insisted that he do it. We warned him that he should be careful not to be bitten. He quickly asked, “They bite?”
Well, to make a long story short, Slinky was so sleepy from the relative cold of the basement, he allowed John to scoop him up with a stick, put him in a box with a lid, and take him outside to a grove of trees. After setting the snake free John ran away from those trees as fast as his legs would carry him. It was an unusually chilly early spring day and we don’t think Slinky will ever forgive us for this inhospitable displacement. However John thought he was Tarzan and had just wrestled a python and won.
Another winter is almost upon us and we’ve replaced the loose seals around the garage doors where we believe the mice entered the house. We can only assume Slinky also found his way in through one of those gaps. We don’t want the mice back, but if they do reappear (or really their droppings) we hope Slinky has since forgiven us for the rude awakening in April and will come back to stay with us until his work is done. He is always welcome to safely rid the house of these over-sexed rodents. By the way, we don’t worry that Slinky will attack the cats because we know that if he should some much larger and entrepreneurial felines would flood the snakeskin wallet market with new inventory.
And we’re sorry meeskies that you had to learn the hard way that snakes easily fit into walls.
Our Late Beautiful Clara
The great huntress passed away after a long and brave fight with cancer. She is greatly missed and we both look forward to being with her again in a better place. This article is dedicated to her and all of the wonderful cats we’ve loved over the last 4+ decades.
Animal Diversity Web. “Mus musculus, House Mouse.“ Accessed November 2, 2015. http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Mus_musculus/.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Field Guide to Maryland's Snakes (Order Squamata), Northern Black Racer.” Accessed October 30, 2015. http://dnr2.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/plants_wildlife/herps/Squamata.aspx?SnakeName=Northern%20Black%20Racer.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor).” Accessed November 1, 2015. http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/information/?s=030018.
Wikipedia. “Coluber constrictor.” Accessed October 31, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coluber_constrictor.
Wikipedia. “House Mouse.” Accessed November 1, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_mouse.
© 2015 M G Del Baglivo