BACKYARD
rats

White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopus
White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopus, in a paper bag

snacking mouse Rats, mice, and voles have an image problem. The only rats and mice people usually hear of or see are the Norway Rat, Rattus norvegicus, and the common House Mouse, Mus musculus; and most people haven't even heard of voles.

With regard to the Norway Rat and the House Mouse, both of these species were introduced by humans from Europe, so they're not representative of the wild rats and mice we might have in our North American backyards. Also, Norway Rats and House Mice, on the North American continent, are seldom found far from human habitation, so they are hardly "wild." They don't live in the wild because they can't survive there -- they can't compete with our native species.

White-footed MouseIn contrast, there's a world of wild, beautifully adapted, native rats, mice, and voles out there, often in our backyards, and they could not be more interesting or fun to study and see. Just gnawing teeth of White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopuslook at that bright-eyed little rodent I sketched at the left, a White-footed Mouse I saw frolicking in the evening twilight on a table in a hunter's lodge a while back, jumping around like a kangaroo!  I couldn't believe how high it was jumping!

At the right you see the gnawing teeth of another White-footed Mouse found along a trail, apparently abandoned by a fox. Foot of White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopusIn that picture, the nose is at the very top. Notice how the top lip is cleft so that it doesn't get in the way when the mouse is keeping you awake at night gnawing, gnawing, gnawing... At the left you see a front foot of the same mouse. See what fabulous little creatures these are? In southern Mississippi, where these pictures were taken, White-footed Mice inhabit every outhouse, every pile of wood and one would think everyplace in general.

Anyway, to emphasize how diverse the mouse/rat group of mammals is here's a breakdown of the North American critters in the group, found north of Mexico, according to the Peterson Field Guide Mammals of North America, Fourth Edition

DEER MICE................. 17 species
HARVEST MICE............... 7 species
GRASSHOPPER MICE........... 3 species
POCKET MICE............... 20 species
KANGAROO MICE...............2 species
JUMPING MICE................4 species
RICE RAT....................2 species
COTTON RATS................ 4 species
WOOD RATS..................12 species
KANGAROO RATS............. 16 species
MUSKRATS................... 2 species
VOLES......................26 species
LEMMINGS....................6 species
INTRODUCED SPECIES..........3 species
MEXICAN SPINY POCKET MOUSE: 1  species

TOTAL.................... 125 SPECIES

Admittedly, few of these will appear in average backyards. Most are very specialized and only occupy niches in places like deserts and forests.

The Merriam Mouse, for instance, requires mesquite and scattered brush in low elevation desert. The Bushy- tail Wood Rat is restricted to high mountains where it lives among rock slides, pines, and at the edge of cliffs. The California Vole specializes in marshy ground.

From the point of view of our wanting to see and study these animals, the main problem is that they're nocturnal -- they're active during the night, like the White-footed Mouse below caught pilfering candy. However, there's one way we can at least partially get around this handicap: trapping...

White-footed Mouse caught in the act! Photo by Karen Wise of Kingston, MississippiThis is a touchy subject. On the one hand, even though here we're talking about non-violent live-trapping, any wild animal suddenly discovering itself trapped is going to be traumatized, especially if it's trapped all night and must wait until you can take a look at it and release it. On the other hand, you'll never know or even believe what wonderful little critters these animals are if you don't experience them yourself. Therefore, how do you trap them?

Different traps work for different animals. We've had success with three different kinds of traps:

You'll have to experiment with various baits. Chunks of bread, smelling of the grain that many native mice eat, often serves well, as does peanut butter, smelly cheese, and bits of banana.

If you do catch a wild rodent, remember what a terrifying situation it is for the animal. Don't jar it around too much. Let it go where it was caught, so that its chances of recognizing its old trails improves. It's best not to handle them, for even a tiny mouse can inflict a painful bite with those sharp incisors.

To be prepared for identifying any catch you might make, before setting the trap you should go through your field guide and write down each species whose range covers your home area, and note its habitat, and what each species eats. Being able to automatically reject the species that couldn't possibly be in your area, or wouldn't ever be in your backyard habitat, speeds up the identification process dramatically.

You can check out some books about rats, mice & voles available at Amazon.com by clicking here.