A while back, I wrote a light-hearted piece about mousetraps, their history, design, proper application in the home, effective baits, and the various mortuary options in the disposal of mouse remains. We get a lot of practice at our place. We live in an old farmhouse on a gappy fieldstone foundation that allows small creatures like mice to enter at will.
In early New England farmhouse architecture, it was a wise practice of builders to select foundation stones with as nearly as possible opposite-side flat surfaces that could be piled one upon another in such a way that the flat surfaces sloped slightly outward, particularly on the foundation walls that lay beneath roof pitches. That way, as torrential summer rains pool around foundations, or as a deep mound of winter’s accumulated roof-slide snow starts its annual March melt just outside one’s ground floor windows, and the earth thaws, water seeping down the outsides of cellar walls is less likely to slither uphill through the crevices, following the route in that mice take. Oddly, though, this winter neither the meltwater nor the mice are entering in the quantities we’re accustomed to. I’m pleased with the water. And I have a theory about the mice.
Outside, mice eat seeds, berries, fruits, insects, underground invertebrates (earthworms, etc.), and carrion. Until recently, all have been readily available in our yard, garden, and woodlot. Out there, our mice get eaten in turn by weasels, mink, bobcats, domestic cats, hawks, owls, and canines (foxes, coyotes), which are all also readily “available” around our place. In addition to these predators, what particularly drives mice into our cellar is a hard winter with severe cold and little snow. In such winters, outdoors, mice are acutely vulnerable: it’s not only hard to hide from both avian and terrestrial predators on bare ground, but it’s especially hard to keep warm without a snowy blanket.
But even in deep snow, such as the ground cover most of us have been experiencing since shortly before Thanksgiving, mice have to be careful: when tunneling beneath a blanket of snow near bird feeders and compost piles, they’re in danger from voles, moles, and shrews – all of whom tunnel. Shrews, in particular, will tunnel right into a mouse’s food supply, or into the very mouse itself. Our New England short-tailed shrew runs about 4-5 inches in length and has a metabolism 60 times ours. It consumes more than its own body weight per day in a diet of insects, worms, spiders, meadow voles, snakes, very small rabbits, but especially mice. So when a blanket of snow hides mice from foxes, owls, and hawks, a shrew can send out its variation of echo-location (Really! See shrews.nethouse.me/Echolocation) to find mice and their food caches and burrows whether underground or under snow. No wonder mice seek the warmth and safety of our cellars.
Except this winter, significantly fewer have been snapped up in our traps. And so to my theory: I speculate, on the basis of a wholly unscientific reading of the periodic literature, that there are fewer mice because more of them are being eaten; and those who are not eaten and who attempt reproduction are less healthy because malnourished (fewer nuts, seeds, berries, bugs, invertebrates, etc.) Diminished food supply is a result of less healthy soils: we take down trees, but nowadays also take all the slash that traditionally went back into the soil. We convert our wood lots to house lots, fields to lawns, and lawns to gardens, then spray, sprinkle, inject, and dust herbicides and insecticides on more than we should. Gentle breezes, as well as rain-borne runoff, distribute the chemicals widely, where they’re neither wanted nor needed.
I read this morning that even washed fruits and vegetables that we buy at the supermarket still bear up to 70 percent of the insecticides that coated them at harvest. These same insecticides, in full dose, appear to be a major player in the massive die-off of honeybees, bumblebees, and insects in general to say nothing of mice and other tiny rodents. If you haven’t heard yet, you will come summer: insect-eating birds and small carnivorous mammals are next on the disappearing list. By-bye, pollination, bye-bye insects, bye-bye birds and fish, bye-bye owls, hawks, and osprey...and raccoons. Although a brief glance around nearly anywhere on our land shows me no obvious collapse of habitat or ecology, a more global view supported by scientifically conducted soil analysis and creature counts reveals the disturbing truth: by destruction of habitat and unfortunately-applied advancements in chemistry, we’re killing off our food chain bit by bit.
I remember when, as a child, I was taken by my mother to the house down the street where my playmate was confined with chickenpox. I contracted chickenpox, too. Ditto, in other epidemic seasons, measles and mumps (But not whooping cough. In Thomas Mann’s short story “Mario and the Magician”, one reads: “The nature of [whooping cough] is not clear, leaving some play for the imagination. So [the story’s narrator] took no offense at [his neighbor] for clinging to the widely held view that whooping-cough is acoustically contagious.” Only slightly less fearful, my own mother kept me home during whooping cough’s annual assault on our neighborhood.)
Today’s immunizations avert most of those childhood diseases (and the rare tragic instances of a child succumbing to one of them). The vaccinations keep our children in school and their moms, in these two-careers-per-household times, at work. However, there’s no similar safety net for mice, and for the entire natural feeding chain. In fact, the opposite.
The bugs that used to feed the mice (the birds, the trout) used to feed on me. Working or just walking in the woods only a couple of decades ago, in May and June, required for some folks netting, for others bug dope, and, for the loggers, back-country fishermen, and long-trail hikers back a few years, a daily application of a pine tar-based repellent. The military, following its bent, eschewed repelling for killing and preferred their khakis imbued with poisonous pyrethrum.
In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, fly fishing Penn’s Creek in Pennsylvania, and in the Maine wilderness outside of Baxter Park, my camping mates and I found ourselves being eaten alive by black flies and praying for the dragonfly hatch on our first couple of days in the woods. But liberal daily layerings of Ole Time Woodsman fly dope solved the bug problem (and also eliminated any chance of hooking up on our occasional beer-runs into town). Ole Time Woodsman was based on pine tar cooked with some variant of the following oils: castor, lemon verbena, citronella, lemongrass, and/or pennyroyal. Nessmuk, the nom de plume of George Washington Sears, who published the still-effective recipe in his Woodcraft in 1884, said this about the correct application of his version of it, which is essentially the one that survives in Ole Time Woodsman bug dope today:
You will hardly need more than a two-ounce vial full in a season. One ounce has lasted me six weeks in the woods. Rub it in thoroughly and liberally at first, and after you have established a good glaze, a little replenishing from day to day will be sufficient. And don’t fool with soap and towels where insects are plentiful. A good safe coat of this varnish grows better the longer it is kept on—and it is cleanly and wholesome. If you get your face and hands crocky or smutty about the campfire, wet the corner of your handkerchief and rub it off, not forgetting to apply the varnish at once, wherever you have cleaned it off. Last summer I carried a cake of soap and a towel in my knapsack through the North Woods for a seven weeks’ tour and never used either a single time. (see Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, vol.1, p. 244)
We’ve all noticed, in recent years, significantly fewer black flies and mosquitoes in the late spring, fewer June bugs banging on the screens at night, fewer fireflies, fewer (trust me on this) dung beetles, also fewer dragonflies cruising for a morsel of gnat. In effect, it’s possible to work the woods or the garden in cutoffs and a T-shirt in a diminished buggy season without chemical support. But if the bugs do bother you, you can still relish the out-of-doors by avoiding dangerous chemicals, and instead applying tried-and-true natural repellents . . . and staying dirty. (FYI: In years gone by, excessive use of pennyroyal, which is toxic, cost an occasional logger his life, just as excessive daily use of 100 percent DEET repellent in more recent times has also cost some users their health and at least one logger his life. Don’t believe me? See www.health researchfunding.org. And don’t trust corporate-sponsored or affiliated websites in matters such as this.
That there are significantly fewer biting bugs hovering about the streams and ponds may seem to be a great comfort to those of us who log, fish, farm or garden, and fewer mice in the cellar may seem a comfort to those of us who keep house. However, if the ominous-appearing die-off of creatures throughout the food chain continues, bug-free outdoor activities and an absence of mouse-poop in our cupboards may over time turn out to be but a short-term comfort. We may live to regret getting what we’ve long wished for.
Bill Biddle is a retired teacher who worked at Northeastern University and Harvard. After moving to Vermont with his wife, artist Sharon Kenney Biddle, he co-led the Wilderness Program at St. Johnsbury Academy and taught writing at Lyndon State College.