Denizens Of The Desert:
California Road Runner
Neotomas, Or Pack Rats, Of The Desert
Billy Bob-tail, The Hermit Wood Rat
Spiny Pocket Mice
Catherpes, The Canon Wren
Betsy Bounce, The Rock Wren
Round-tailed Ground Squirrel And Near Relatives
Eleodes, The Beetle That Stands On His Head
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
Spiny Pocket Mice
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
(Perognathus spinatus Merriam)
SOON after finishing my desert shanty I built an out-of-door cookstove. With cement and small stones I constructed a fire-box and then closed over the top with sheet steel. On the evening when I cooked my first meal upon it the pocket mice were there at the first smell of gravy. They climbed up on the stone border, which was slightly warm, and sat there on their haunches sniffing the odors. So long as I kept perfectly quiet they manifested not the least bit of fear. Evidently they pronounced the supper odors good, for no sooner had I emptied the contents of my skillet than they leaped into the half-warm vessel and made way with the leavings.
These little creatures were so graceful, so clever, so elegant and cleanly, that I never minded having them clean out my vessels. My generous-hearted skunk came only too often to help them at their task. Then, of course, their labors ended quickly; for these mice knew how skillful are the nimble paws of skunks in catching them, and they hied themselves away into the rock crannies on her first approach.
After this the mice were about in numbers every evening at the approach of darkness. I counted twenty-two about my out-of-doors table at one time. They were everywhere, under the table, on the table, and every other avail-able place. While I sat still watching them they ran up my trouser legs inside and out; they nibbled butter from my knife, and only too often ran across my plate.
They were among the most industrious little creatures I ever saw, rivaling the ants and running them a close second in competition for Solomon's word of commendation. These busy little rodents every night covered every inch of ground about my house in their search for food. Not a crumb was missed, and the thousands of tiny close-set footmarks left in the dust by morning showed the thoroughness with which they searched.
After the evening meal there was always an abundance of crumbs for them and they stuffed their little cheek pouches almost to bursting, so that these pockets looked like furry balls set on beside the jaws. It was always amusing to see how rapidly the mice worked their little weak forepaws when cramming the cheek pouches full. As soon as a load was secured, they hurried off quickly to the crevices in the rock piles, where they emptied their pouches, and hurried back for more. These mice were especially fond of making off with the burro's barley, and the supply often suffered severely from the work of their industrious hands. A half-dozen pocket mice working all night will carry off several quarts of grain.
On several occasions, while I was absent from my house for a number of nights at a time, they took to storing barley and seeds of various kinds between the blankets and under the pillows of my bed. When upon returning I laid the covers back, I found their little seed piles, each consisting of about a pint of grain. Several successive nights afterward I was awakened by feeling the soft furry creatures crawling under my blankets as they came in with more supplies of grain. Evidently they had not taken notice of the giant that was now reposing in their storehouse.
Many a merry tune they played at night as they scurried over the tin lids and kettles in the pantry out-of-doors. Sometimes they would make such a racket that I would expect to see everything turned topsy-turvy by morning. But always when I went to count the damage against them I found nothing disturbed at all, a thing which was always a puzzle to me.
For some reason or other the spiny pocket mice much preferred most of the time to stay outside the house, although it had so many cracks through which they could enter and leave. On the whole they seemed to like to stay close to the rock piles out of doors, leaving the indoor crumbs to be picked up by the wood rats and the white-footed mice that seemed to want to come in on every occasion.
It is a clever and swift-flighted owl that catches the spiny pocket mice. I don't think he gets many. A pocket mouse can shoot out of sight and under cover in less time than any wild creature I know of. They leap three and four feet at a single jump, and so quickly that the eye can hardly follow them. They are never about in the daytime, but wait until twilight before venturing forth for food. Thus they avoid many enemies which stalk about during the daytime. But they find in a night-roving species of rattlesnake, the sidewinder, an enemy not to be ignored. This little rattlesnake is so quick in its movements when striking that even the nimble, swift jumping pocket mice seldom escape capture.
The pocket mice are always on the alert and ready for flight when occasion demands. They notice everything. Let me make a sudden movement with my foot, or wiggle even a finger ever so little, and they are off in an instant. It is a singular fact, however, that, though their ear conchs are so well developed for catching sounds, these rodents pay little, if any, attention to noises. As long as they see no motion, they pay no heed to sounds. I have imitated owls at their hooting, carried on conversation with visitors, shouted and whined in sharp tones, and they paid no more attention than if they were stone deaf.
One of the peculiarities of these pocket mice- and the same may be said of the pocket rats and a number of other small mammals of the desert regions - is their ability to live on almost indefinitely without drinking water or eating moist food of any kind. They are thus unusually well adapted to live in arid places. This ability to subsist without water is the more amazing to us when we consider the large amounts necessary to sustain other higher animal life in the same region. Lieutenant Gail-lard, of the Mexican Boundary Survey, gives the average amount of water consumed on the desert during the summer by each man of the Survey to be about seven quarts a day and twenty gallons for the pack animals. The desert animals subsisting without water' must elaborate all the moisture for their bodies from the food they eat, much of which, especially in summer, is of an extremely dry character, mostly dry seeds. Most of the species of pocket mice are found in the arid Southwest, and none occur east of the Mississippi River. They are very sensitive to cold and moisture and thrive best where the rainfall is least.
The spiny pocket mice are so called because of the many spiny, somewhat porcupine-like hairs which cover their backs, particularly on the rump and sides. The ears are small compared with the wood rat's, but similarly well set up. Each has at its entrance five tiny stiff black hairs which are doubtless protective in function. The eyes are quite small. The end of the little nose, which is bare of hair, is ever in motion; the shovel-like tip is used as a feeler. The body is little longer than half the length of one's thumb, and when these little fellows are curled up in sleep they are scarcely bigger than a good-sized marble or a walnut. The tail, which is longer than the entire body, is covered with many fine, soft hairs and has at its end a small brush or pencil of hairs, the sight of which would doubtless have delighted the youthful Benjamin West, who as a little boy, you will remember, plucked hair from the cat's tail to make for himself a paintbrush. The pocket mouse's tail would have served the young artist quite as well. The tail is kept well off the ground most of the time, but occasionally you will see marks in the dust showing where it has dragged. When the mice jump, the tail is suddenly thrown forward, but as quickly thrown backward when landing.
They are easily trapped, and recently I caught a little fellow in a box trap and for a few days kept him a captive in order that I might more closely observe some of his habits. As soon as he found himself in the cage, he made a careful inspection of it to find an exit. But discovering none, he sat down on his haunches, grabbed his whiskers in his forepaws, and stroked them like an old man in deep thought, and I could imagine him saying to himself : "Now-let-me-see. What am I to do next?" At another time I found him with his tail brought forward beneath his haunches on which he was sitting. All of a sudden he grasped its end with his forepaws and with a very funny motion began running his hands over it, the movement much resembling the reverse of that made by a man when climbing a rope; this over, he cleaned his whiskers and ran off into the corner.
Mice are a humble folk, but a diligent, assiduous people. I have never seen creatures that could work more unremittingly when once they begin, whether it be at nest-making, food-getting, or seeking egress from a cage in which they find themselves imprisoned. Though nocturnal by nature, they are ever ready to work by day if occasion demands it. How slow, cumbersome, and laborious are the movements of man, how sluggish his disposition, compared with that of these alert, ever-restless, ever-agile, and graceful creatures whom he so often despises!