Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The house mouse feeds upon almost anything which people like to eat.

The House Mouse

Teacher's Story

Somewhere in the darkness a clock strikes two;

And there is no sound in the sad old house,

But the long veranda dripping with dew,

And in the wainscot—a mouse.

—Bret Harte

dropcap image ERE mouse-gray a less inconspicuous color, there would be fewer mice; when a mouse is running along the floor, it is hardly discernible, it looks so like a flitting shadow; if it were black or white or any other color, it would be more often seen and destroyed. Undoubtedly, it is owing to the fact that its soft fur has this shadowy color, that this species has been able to spread over the world.

At first glance one wonders what possible use a mouse can make of a tail which is as long as its body, but a little careful observation will reveal the secret. The tail is covered with transverse ridges and is bare save for sparse hairs, except toward the tip. Dr. Ida Reveley first called my attention to the fact that the house mouse uses its tail in climbing. I verified this interesting observation, and found that my mouse used the tail for aid when climbing a string. He would go up the string, hand over hand, like a sailor, then in trying to stretch to the edge of his jar, he invariably wound his tail about the string two or three times, and hanging to the string with the hind feet and tail, would reach far out with his head and front feet. Also, when clinging to the edge of the cover of the jar, he invariably used his tail as a brace against the side of the glass, so that it pressed hard for more than half its length. Undoubtedly the tail is of great service when climbing up the sides of walls.

The tail is also of some use, when the mouse jumps directly upwards. The hind legs are very much longer and stronger than the front legs. The hind feet are also much longer and larger than the front feet; and although the mouse, when it makes its remarkable jumps, depends upon its strong hind legs, I am sure that often the tail is used as a brace to guide and assist the leap. The feet are free from hairs but are downy; the hind foot has three front toes, a long toe behind on the outside and a short one on the inside. The claws are fairly long and very sharp so that they are able to cling to almost anything but glass. When exploring, a mouse stands on its hind feet, folding its little front paws under its chin while it reaches up ready to catch anything in sight; it can stretch up to an amazing height. It feeds upon almost anything which people like to eat and, when eating, holds its food in its front paws like a squirrel.

The thin, velvety ears are flaring cornucopias for taking in sound; the large, rounded outer ear can be moved forward or back to test the direction of the noise. The eyes are like shining, black beads; and if a mouse can wink, it does it so rapidly as not to be discernible. The nose is long, inquisitive, and always sniffing for new impressions. The whiskers are delicate and probably sensitive. The mouth is furnished with two long, curved gnawing teeth at the front of each jaw, then a bare space, and four grinding teeth on each side, above and below, like the teeth of woodchucks and other rodents. The gnawing teeth are very strong and enable the mouse to gnaw through board partitions and other obstacles.

The energy with which the mouse cleans itself is inspiring to behold. It nibbles its fur and licks it with fervor, reaching around so as to get at it from behind, and taking hold with its little hands to hold firm while it cleans. When washing its face and head, it uses both front feet, licking them clean and rubbing them both simultaneously from behind the ears down over the face. It takes its hind foot in both front feet and nibbles and licks it. It scratches the back of its head with its hind foot.


Young Mice, Blind, Pink and Hairless

Young mice are small, downy, pink and blind when born. The mother makes for them a nice, soft nest of pieces of cloth, paper, grass, or whatever is at hand; the nest is round like a ball and at its center is nestled the family. Mice living in houses, have runways between the plaster and the outside, or between ceiling and floor. In winter they live on what food they can find, and upon flies or other insects hibernating in our houses. The house mice sometimes live under stacks of corn or grain in the fields, but usually confine themselves to houses or barns. They are thirsty little fellows and they like to make their nests within easy reach of water. Our house mice came from ancestors which lived in Asia originally; they have always been great travelers and they have followed men wherever they have gone, over the world. They came to America on ships with the first explorers and the Pilgrim fathers. They now travel back and forth, crossing the ocean in ships of all sorts. They also travel across the continent on trains. Wherever our food is carried they go; and the mouse, which you see in your room one day, may be a thousand miles away within a week. They are clever creatures, and learn quickly to connect cause and effect. For two years, I was in an office in Washington, and as soon as the bell rang for noon, the mice would appear instantly, hunting waste-baskets for scraps of lunch. They had learned to connect the sound of the bell with food.

Of all our wild mice, the white-footed or deer mouse is the most interesting and attractive. It is found almost exclusively in woods and is quite different in appearance from other mice. Its ears are very large; its fur is fine and beautiful and a most delicate gray color. It is white beneath the head and under the sides of the body. The feet are pinkish, the front paws have short thumbs, while the hind feet are very much longer and have a long thumb looking very much like an elfin hand in a gray-white silk glove. On the bottom of the feet are callous spots which are pink and serve as foot pads. It makes its nest in hollow trees and stores nuts for winter use. We once found two quarts of shelled beech nuts in such a nest. It also likes the hips of the wild rose and many kinds of berries; it sometimes makes its summer home in a bird's nest, which it roofs over to suit itself. The young mice are carried, hanging to the mother's breasts. As an inhabitant of summer cottages, white-foot is cunning and mischievous; it pulls cotton out of quilts, takes covers off of jars, and as an explorer, is equal to the squirrel. I once tried to rear some young deer mice by feeding them warm milk with a pipette; although their eyes were not open, they invariably washed their faces after each meal, showing that neatness was bred in the bone. This mouse has a musical voice and often chirps as sweetly as a bird. Like the house mouse it is more active at night.


Track of White-footed Mouse

Notice tail-track.

The meadow mouse is the one that makes its run-ways under the snow, making strange corrugated patterns over the ground which attract our attention in spring. It has a heavy body, short legs, short ears and short tail. It is brownish or blackish in color. It sometimes digs burrows straight into the ground, but more often makes its nest beneath sticks and stones or stacks of corn. It is the nest of this field mouse which the bumblebee so often takes possession of, after it is deserted. The meadow mouse is a good fighter, sitting up like a woodchuck and facing its enemy bravely. It needs to be courageous, for it is preyed upon by almost every creature that feeds upon small animals; the hawks and owls especially are its enemies. It is well for the farmer that these mice have so many enemies, for they multiply rapidly and would otherwise soon overrun and destroy the grain fields. This mouse is an excellent swimmer.

A part of winter work, is to make the pupils familiar with the tracks of the meadow mice and how to distinguish them from other tracks.


Mouse Traps

1. Bow Trap—A smooth splint or a peeled twig.
2. Bow Trap—Splint bowed and tied at D, the bait inserted at C.
3. Bow Trap—The inverted bowl balanced on splint bow.
4. Trap

Trapping Field Mice—Probably wild animals have endured more cruelty through the agency of traps than through any other form of human persecution. The savage steel traps often catch the animal by the leg, holding it until it gnaws off the imprisoned foot, and thus escapes maimed and handicapped for its future struggle for food; or if the trap gets a strong hold, the poor creature may suffer tortures during a long period, before the owner of the trap appears to put an end to its sufferings by death. If box traps are used, they are often neglected and the poor creature imprisoned, is left to languish and starve. The teacher cannot enforce too strongly upon the child the ethics of trapping. Impress upon him that the box traps are far less cruel; but that if set, they must be examined regularly and not neglected. The study of mice affords a good opportunity for giving the children a lesson in humane trapping. Let them set a figure 4 or a bowl trap, which they must examine every morning. The little prisoners may be brought to school and studied; meanwhile, they should be treated kindly and fed bountifully. After a mouse has been studied, it should be set free, even though it be one of the quite pestiferous field mice. The moral effect of killing an animal, after a child has become thoroughly interested in it and its life, is always bad.

References—Claws and Hoofs, Johonnot; American Animals, Stone & Cram; Secrets of the Woods, Long; Wild Life, Ingersoll; Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge.

Lesson LV

The House Mouse

Leading thought—The mouse is fitted by color, form, agility and habits to thrive upon the food which it steals from man, and to live in the midst of civilized people.

Method—A mouse cage can be easily made of wire window-screen tacked upon a wooden frame. I have even used aquarium jars with wire screen covers, and by placing one jar upon another, opening to opening, and then laying them horizontal, the mouse can be transferred to a fresh cage without trouble, and thus the mousey odor can be obviated, while the little creature is being studied. A little water in a wide-necked bottle can be lowered into this glass house by a string, and the food can be given in like manner. Stripped paper should be put into the jar for the comfort of the prisoner; a stiff string hanging down from the middle of the cage will afford the prisoner a chance to show his feats as an acrobat.


1. Why is the color of the mouse of special benefit to it? Do you think it protects it from the sight of its enemies? Can you see a mouse easily as it runs across the room? What is the nature of the fur of a mouse?

2. How long is a mouse's tail as compared with its body? What is the covering of the tail? Of what use to the mouse is this long, ridged tail? Watch the mouse carefully and discover, if you can, the use of the tail in climbing.

3. Is the mouse a good jumper? Are the hind legs long and strong when compared with the front legs? How high do you think a mouse can jump? Do you think it uses its tail as an aid in jumping? How much of the legs are covered with hair? Compare the front and hind feet. What sort of claws have they? How does the mouse use its feet when climbing the string? How can it climb up the side of a wall?

4. Describe the eyes. Do you think the mouse can see very well? Does it wink? What is the shape of the ears? Do you think it can hear well? Can it move its ears forward or backward?

5. What is the shape of the snout? Of what advantage is this? Note the whiskers. What is their use? Describe the mouth. Do you know how the teeth are arranged? For what other use than to bite food does the mouse use its teeth? What other animals have their teeth arranged like those of the mouse? What food does the house mouse live upon? How does it get it?

6. How does the mouse act when it is reaching up to examine something? How does it hold its front feet? Describe how the mouse washes its face. Its back. Its feet.

7. Where does the house mouse build its nest? Of what material? How do the baby mice look? Can they see when they are first born?

8. House mice are great travelers. Can you tell how they manage to get from place to place? Write a story telling all you know of their habits.

9. How many kinds of mice do you know? Does the house mouse ever live in the field? What do you know of the habits of the white-footed mouse? Of the meadow mice? Of the jumping mice?


The White-footed, or Deer Mouse

Drawn by Anna Stryke

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