Back before I became enlightened about the many reasons to keep house cats indoors at all times – for their own safety as well as that of the local wildlife – it wasn’t uncommon to awake to one of a variety of small dead animals on the back deck delivered by one of my cats. It was just about the only time I ever saw the tiny doorstep creatures, other than the rare occasion when a mouse would sneak into the garage.
Without my cats preying on the them, however, I’m noticing them much more often. And that’s a good thing for the entire ecosystem, especially the local owls, hawks, foxes and weasels that prey upon them.
Most people tend to think that all small, mouse-like animals are, indeed, mice. Not true. Several other relatives – like voles, moles and shrews – are also common-but-seldom-seen backyard critters. And even though they’re difficult to observe, in winter there is plenty of evidence that they are around.
White-footed mice, the most common native mouse species in our area, have large ears, bulging dark eyes and a tail about as long as their body. Their vague footprints in the snow and tiny droppings give away their existence at this time of year. I know there are a couple living in my woodpile, another wedged between the house foundation and the side garden, and more under the shed. Not that they actually show their faces very often, but I know they’re there.
Whenever I want to see one, I just go to one of my birdhouses. Every few weeks in winter, I open the birdhouses on my property to see what’s inside. They’re almost always occupied by a family of mice huddled together in the confined space. Often the houses already have the remnants of a bird’s nest in them that the mice use as insulation. If not, the resourceful little guys import their own mix of dried grass and shredded leaves to construct a comfy winter hideaway.
Unlike mice, voles are virtually nondescript, with tiny eyes, ears hidden by their fur, and stumpy little tails. And they’re even less likely to be seen. But when the snow melts, it often reveals the raceways the voles create at the interface between the ground and snow, where the animals are protected from freezing temperatures. Like a child’s ant farm, the labyrinths tell a wonderful story of vole industriousness and determination.
Of all the doorstep creatures found in Rhode Island, shrews are my favorites, but they’re even harder to observe in the wild than mice and voles. These tiny, dark gray animals have long, pointed, flexible noses and are insectivorous – they feed entirely on insects. And their metabolism is so fast that if they don’t eat every couple of hours, they’ll quickly starve. So recent warnings about the decline of insect populations is a concern for shrews around the world.
The most difficult of all the small mammals to see – at least in my experience – are moles, those nearly blind oddities of the subterranean world that feast on grubs and worms and whose tunnels are the bane of gardeners. I’ve never seen a live one, though even I have to admit that I’m probably not missing much.
As much as I’d enjoy becoming more familiar with all these little fellows, I’d forgo the idea if I could be sure the neighborhood cats would, too.