NORTHLAND NATURE: Deer mice move indoors in autumn

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Mid-November is a time when we observe many changes in the natural happenings. In the landscape of bare trees and a daily schedule that includes very early sunsets, it is easy to think that little is going on in the world of nature. Gone are the songbirds that sang and nested in our yards and woods. With the frost and chill, late season butterflies, dragonflies and even the moths that I like to refer to as “world series” moths are fading. Hardy asters and other fall flowers have succumbed to the colder days with longer nights. Everywhere we look, we see the preparation for the coming winter and the impending cold and snow.

Usually when we enter November, the woods is in its autwin mode and until the snow covers the scene, we can note the abundant mosses, clubmosses, ferns, lichens and other greenery still here. Looking closer, we see animal movements here too. Now is a good time to get reacquainted with our wintering avian neighbors. Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, jays, crows, ravens, grouse and owls are all active now. For those of us who maintain bird feeders, many of these birds and others will come to us. Migrants from further north can be seen as well. Recently, I scared up a flock of snow buntings along the road. Feeding on seeds on the ground, they are a bit hard to see, but in flight, the white on the body shows up. Hunting from trees and utility poles and wires are the newly arrived shrikes and rough-legged hawks. Bald eagles are out in the open while among the conifers may be some crossbills and redpolls could be in the alders and birches. But I find this is also the time that we see and take note of many of the mammals living in the Northland. This may be the best time of the year to see them.

Preparing for the cold, I have been seeing a chipmunk coming to the bird feeder each day. Sunflower seeds are carried off to a den while the gray and red squirrels have made caches of their own in the woods. Cousins of the chipmunk, the ground squirrels may already be in hibernation. Chipmunks will wake during the winter, but soon they will go off to sleep in their protected sites. Mid-November is also the time when I begin to see flying squirrels at the feeder or making squeaking sounds during these long dark nights.

Among the larger mammals, deer and moose are in the rutting season. Bears are seeking a few more good meals before going to sleep in a denning site of their own. Their cousins, the raccoons, use their dexterity and intelligence to find food of any kind, often in our yards. I have been hearing the yipping of coyotes at night lately while finding signs of foxes the next day. (Soon, in the snow cover, their tracks will reveal how common and active they are.) During my morning and evening walks, I normally go by a swamp. An active beaver has been gathering branches for a winter cache each day. Occasionally, I’ll see muskrats as well. Until about a week ago, I also watched big brown bats take advantage of the mild days and feed on insects here too. The snowshoe hare is donning its white coat while the cottontail rabbit stays brown. Porcupines are more likely to be seen in the woods now and I smelled a skunk and heard a weasel recently. This is the time that I frequently see shrews and moles. My badger sights have often been in fall while otters keep active in the wetlands. But maybe the most mammal activity now is with the small rodents — the mice.

As native mice go, there are basically three kinds that we are likely to deal with around our homes. We can determine them by their tail lengths: small, medium and large. Mice with a small or short tail are voles (field mice), mostly with a dark body. Those with a medium-sized tail, about equal to the length of the body, are deer mice (white-footed mice). Brown or gray above, they are white below with large eyes. Very long-tailed mice are jumping mice. They can and do jump with the huge hind legs, but these two-toned rodents are deep hibernators and asleep already.

Voles will remain either in the fields or woods, depending on the species, but deer mice are frequent visitors. Prolific during the warm weather, their populations are high now and all of these critters are looking for food and winter shelter. The protective shelter could very well be our dwellings. And the arrival of deer mice in our houses and cabins at this time has become a regular occurrence. Many cabin users or campers have found these big-eyed nocturnal rodents getting into our places that we do not appreciate. Keeping them out of our houses and cabins is often difficult at this time. But for the mice, it is a struggle to find food and shelter. Many will succumb to predators and the coming cold, but for now, they let us know that they, the deer mice, live here too in very large numbers.

Retired teacher Larry Weber lives in rural Carlton County and is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood”  and his most recent book, “In a Patch of Goldenrods,” which is available for purchase at the Pine Journal. Contact him c/o news@pinejournal.com.