Mighty Mouse: A Master of Survival

The Wilder Side of Oakland County

A re-purposed bird nest with a new roof is a perfect winter home for the white-footed mouse. Photo courtesy of Wendy Pellerito, Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy

A re-purposed bird nest with a new roof is a perfect winter home for the white-footed mouse. Photo courtesy of Wendy Pellerito, Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy

Hike the snowy trails of Oakland County Parks – or search your own yard – and you may discover a finely crafted bird nest from last spring. It may have a new roof on top, and perhaps be wedged between the branches of a hawthorn tree or found in leafless shrubbery. Many of these nests are not empty. They have been re-purposed by Oakland County’s least heralded, but perhaps most abundant small mammal, the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). White-footed mice, while being masters of winter survival, home-invasions and kitchen-trespassing, also serve another role in the wilds of nature’s way. They are crunchy entrées on the winter menu for the eastern coyote, red and gray fox, screech owls, great horned and barred owls, red-tailed hawks, mink, weasel and even opossums.

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White-footed mice are skilled tree climbers with incredible strength for their size. That’s a fact I confirmed accidentally last summer on the grounds of the Oakland County Fair at Springfield Oaks County Park. While moving crates, a white-footed mouse nest, hidden under an old board, was disturbed. With babies clinging to her body, Ma mouse scampered for the nearest tree and then climbed out of reach.

A mighty mouse scampers up a tree with her large babies hanging on.

A mighty mouse scampers up a tree with her large babies hanging on.

Their climbing ability is a key to winter survival. It is simply safer to sleep off the ground, in an old bird nest, than to nest under snow, where fox and coyotes can detect the slightest sound, and then pounce. Owls are also a threat. With their incredible hearing, they are able to detect activity under the snow and swoop in for a meal. The bird nest, with a roof of grasses and leaves, is the perfect winter bungalow. Perhaps while in the nest, they dream of seed storage bins to raid.

Corn storage bins: A perfect place to shop!

Corn storage bins: A perfect place to shop!

Seeds, grains and wild dried fruits are the primary diet for this tiny creature, that weighs less than an ounce. An observant nature-detective may spot remnants of their winter stash under a re-purposed bird nest. However, it’s more likely than not, that no clues are available; the exception being their easily recognized, tiny tracks in the snow. The mice scurry both above the snow and tunnel beneath it as they travel from their winter homes to meadows with seeds. Active all winter, these snow tunneling aerialists can survive the coldest nights if they do not encounter a predator. Their tracks bear witness to their travels.

Tracks tell the tale of white-footed mouse hunting for seeds above the snow.

Tracks tell the tale of white-footed mouse hunting for seeds above the snow.

My finger-poking recon mission on an abandoned and re-purposed nest in the trailside meadow of Independence Oaks County Park North led to the discovery that it was lined with a soft mixture of grasses, feathers and milkweed seed. Under the soft blanket were a few bits of old hawthorn fruits, a perfect bedtime snack for winter nights on the wilder side of Oakland County. However, with no mouse tracks under the nest and no mouse inside, I suspect a fox or perhaps a screech owl had a perfect Mouse-McNugget snack. That too, is nature’s way.

Text and photos by Nature Education Writer Jonathan Schechter. Visit http://www.oakgov.com/parks for details and maps on all 13 Oakland Parks and winter outdoor recreation opportunities. Originally published on January 23, 2015.

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