Quiet as a Mouse

As the sun retreated into the horizon, there was a Northern Harrier drifting low above the ground, weaving back and forth like a needle and thread. I stood and watched from my favorite room in the bunkhouse.  My fellow housemate Eva was also in the room getting some office work done. Because there are always great birds to see everywhere I go, I have learned to keep my binoculars on me at all times.  This bird of prey was very easy to identify with its white rump.  I pointed the harrier out to Eva and she agreed that it was indeed a Northern Harrier. Unlike me, Eva did not need binoculars to ID this bird. Its flight pattern gave it away. Eva mentioned that at her last job she would see a harrier come out every day at the same time like clockwork. She had seen this flight pattern many times before and knew it by heart. I learned then that the weaving motion was particular to the Northern Harrier and that not all birds of prey did this. She also mentioned to me that female harriers are brown and larger than the grey males. I appreciate learning little nature facts like these from my friends. This was extra special to me because I was getting to know my neighbors (the wildlife) a little more personally.

Bunkhouse

The back view of the bunkhouse

Speaking of which, Brenda and I discovered a new friend the other day as we took a walk around the bunkhouse property. We had spent a long day working in the office and decided to put our legs to work. The sun painted the clouds in the sky with hues of pink, orange, and purple. We walked briskly because we did not want to be outside once the sun completely disappeared. It would be much too dark to navigate ourselves back home. That and we were a little intimidated by the pack of coyotes we know run through the land. We walked past many nestboxes and tree swallows. We were about ready to turn back when I saw a large bird fly into a nest on a Douglas Fir. It had a  white head and it looked like it was ripping something apart. Oh my goodness it was a bald eagle! We were both so excited with this new discovery. We sprinted back home, excited to tell Eva what we had just seen.

So far we have seen amazing birds like the Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrels, Northern Harrier, and now a Bald Eagle (and there may also be an owl nesting in our chimney!). But with the good comes the bad. Because we are living in such a remote area, we do get uninvited visitors. This week Brenda and I have actually trapped our second mouse. They seem to sprout from my favorite room, which I have now declared my least favorite room. If you know me well, you would know that I am deathly afraid of mice and rats. You could set a tarantula or a snake loose in the house, I’d be ok with that, but those small rodents bring on a whole new level of disgust and fear.  I blame it on a traumatizing childhood experience… but that’s a whole other story.  Brenda encountered our first mouse one Sunday evening. I was upstairs washing off the weekend and getting ready for the week when I received an alarming text. It read: I think there’s a mouse in the dining room. That or it’s a really fast tarantula. A few texts later it was a confirmed mouse. I trapped myself in the bathroom and began to flip out. Oh no anything but this!! Brenda had to come upstairs to get me out of the bathroom. Our mission for that evening was to get that mouse out of the house. We went to the store and thought long and hard about what trap to set. We were really hoping to get a trap that would lure a mouse in but would keep it alive so we could set it free later.  We had no luck in finding such a trap.

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My fear wouldn’t let me sleep until I knew the mouse was no longer roaming through the house. I need to overcome this fear soon if I want to continue working with wildlife. My Costa Rica study abroad experience was very stressful to me because of a mouse. After a long morning of chasing monkeys through the muddy rainforest I would come back to my room to find pellets on my bed. I’m not sure where the pellets came from, but we definitely knew there was a mouse in the cabin. (It really enjoyed eating the chocolate covered coffee beans the other students had). At night I would beg the mouse not to come visit me. It did eat my snacks and munched through my water bottle, but thankfully I never saw it face to face.

At the bunkhouse, having mice and rodents get in is a given since we are living in such a desolate area. The question now is: how many uninvited guests will we have? I am aiming for a low number and am attempting to achieve this by cleaning up after myself every time I’m in the kitchen and by keeping my food out of reach. I have discovered that the convection oven is a fantastic mouse-proof storage space!

Small rodents only bother me when they are in my space. They are small but can play an essential role in various natural systems. A system I find very interesting is the one of Lyme disease. The spread of Lyme disease can be attributed to an animal as big as the wolf and as small as the black legged tick. The impacts of the disappearance of wolves in the east can be linked to the increase in white-footed mice, the main host of Lyme disease. How on earth is this? Well canids are very territorial animals. Without wolves to keep coyote populations in check, coyote populations increase which in turn causes a decrease in fox populations. As fox populations decrease, the number of small rodents increases. (Fox are a major predator of small mammals).This is just one system, imagine all the others. Apex predators are essential in keeping a balance in food webs. I can only imagine how overrun with mice the bunkhouse would be without all of my raptor friends.

Liliana Calderon
lcalde4@illinois.edu
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