Mouse 2 – The house guests

They were among the first to introduce themselves to us when we moved here. A small family, parents and three or four youngsters half their size, had made themselves at home among the shrubs of a small rockery near our kitchen door. They were very shy at first and vanished in the wink of an eye at the first sight of us. All we saw was a flash of colour then nothing.

We caught longer glimpses by concealing ourselves as best we could just inside the kitchen windows. The adult mice gradually appeared from different corners of the shrubbery, noses whiffling, ready to flee. When they saw no threat the youngsters came bundling out and chased around the brick paving like a bunch of kids let out of class.

We realised they were all looking for crumbs we had scattered earlier which our morning gathering of birds may have missed. So we spread more crumbs.

Before long they emerged tentatively from the bush as soon as we opened the kitchen door. And soon they were so trusting they were waiting on the steps outside. And then they got to know us so well they were right inside the house …

That was the beginning of disaster. Cute they may be but they are also devastating little critters. Once they have made themselves at home in new territory they are the devil to oust.

One hot summer’s day I was pondering blankly over my keyboard (my “productive” mode) with my bare feet stretched out under my desk when something bit my big toe, hard. I yelped and a large stripey streaked from under the desk and out the door. I pulled up my foot to look and discovered a large drop of blood poised on it. Stripeys are known to be omnivorous (which means they eat insects as well as plants) but this was a nip too far.

I sat and waited. Within minutes a pointy little nose with trembling whiskers appeared at the edge of the door followed by a pair of bright eyes. It stood there for some thirty seconds staring all around while I sat dead still then dashed smartly into the study and behind the desk.

Enough. I grabbed a broom and chased it out, yelling. Fundi Dor thought I’d been bitten by a snake, judging by the noise I was making. The mouse fled into the living room and disappeared under the clutter of furniture.

But the drama was far from over. Now that they had discovered the inside of this house with its cornucopia of fallen crumbs, baskets of fruit, vases of flowers, a kitchen bin laden with edibles, cupboards of heavenly groceries and the occasional cricket or moth for appetisers, the stripeys were not going to quit easily. The word had gone out on the mousevine and more came.

Moreover there were no predators here, no plunging sparrowhawks or ambushing genets and mongeese, pure peace.

A mother mouse and three babies so small they must have just left the nest came trotting through the garden door left open for the summer breeze like a family marching into Nando’s. We watched in some awe as they first checked out the guest bedroom then moved to the kitchen where the symphony of food smells got them all excited and they rushed around seeking the sources. They didn’t give a damn about us until we started chasing them out.

Mother darted this way and that with the babies following like a trail of bright gems. Eventually she got the message, turned towards the door and hid against the wall behind the sofa, one of those long things made up in sections.

I lifted section after section to let Dor chase them closer to the door. Mother finally made it and raced out with two babies at her swift heels. Where was the third?

I lifted the next section. A piercing scream like a train whistle so startled me I dropped the section. The whistle stopped immediately.

We feared the worst. I slowly raised the section. Tragedy. Baby Number Three lay there very dead, squashed flat as a doll’s house carpet by a chair leg.

Win some, lose some.

The determination of the four-striped mice was demonstrated powerfully by an incident involving one mother which unfortunately also ended in a tragedy in miniature.

She was extremely cautious. We caught only fleeting glimpses of her in her wanderings around the house and suspected nothing out of the ordinary.

Dor noticed something very odd. We have these boldly coloured woolen throw rugs, woven by Zulu maidens, spread around the living-room. Long tassels decorate each end. She saw that the tassels were thinning out. Now who would cut off tassels and what for?

A four-striped mouse. We watched closely and actually spotted her at it, chewing one off at the carpet edge. That could mean only one thing: building a nest. But where?

We chased her out of the house through the same door as the mother with the ill-fated offspring. She fled to the garden. Within the hour she was back.

She ran at high speed towards our bedroom. I blocked her passage and again we sent her packing. Again she returned.

This went on and on. Every time she came back she seemed more anxious, more highly strung. We checked out the bedroom but couldn’t find a nest or whatever else she might be looking for. When we closed the bedroom door she shot into a broom cupboard below the stairs and scrabbled frantically at the wall where stairs met floor.

After a couple of hours of this to-ing and fro-ing she appeared to give up and didn’t return.

I made a detailed inspection on my knees of the bedroom and found a gap between a wall and a corner cupboard so narrow I could not get my little finger into it. This had to be it. A torch revealed nothing but there might be a passage behind the cupboard, which was anchored to the walls.

I opened a door covering small shelves and lay down and listened. A thin squeaking came from behind a wood panel separating the bottom shelf from the floor. With the door closed it was inaudible.

Some deft work with a screwdriver removed the panel and there lay the answer to the mystery: mother’s nest with six babies so young and small they were blind and pink, like tiny cocktail sausages. They squeaked softly while their match-head-size paws groped for their mother.

And there, too, was a comfortable woolen bed made of all the missing tassels from the carpet.

What does one do with a clutch of babies so small there is no way of feeding them? And what would one feed them anyway?

We left everything wide open in the hope mom would come back once more and take over, kicking ourselves for not having sought the nest before. On the other hand, having a whole stripey family raised inside the house to regard it as their home was not a pretty prospect.

We lifted the nest and contents, put it in a shoebox and put the shoebox on the lawn outside where the mother had disappeared into the canary creeper bush when she last left the house. Hopefully she would come and transfer the babies to a new nest site, as wild parents often do when their families are threatened.

Then we waited and watched until nightfall. Nothing happened. In the morning the babies had gone. Where, we don’t know but they were most likely taken by a mongoose or genet.

Small animals maybe but a large tragedy that still lingers in our minds. Another mistake, another lesson learned. At least we got our tassels back.

That lesson taught us how to do it right when we had a mouse encounter. In spite of that the next time it happened we were outsmarted by one of the smallest mammals on earth.

To be continued next Friday / 2nd January …..

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Mouse 1 – The mini-monsters

So you think a mouse is a mouse is a mouse. Wrong. There are more than thirty kinds on this earth of ours, and plenty of sub-species and characters which look like mice and are called mice but aren’t.

Mice and some hundreds of kinds of rats all belong to the family Muridae whose list of technical names would strain the brain of an Archimedes.

We know of three kinds in our mini-sanctuary and that’s more than enough to keep us on the hop. One is the mouse everyone knows (no, not Mickey though the Disney character is drawn from him). It is the commonest of all, found everywhere in the world. Perhaps because it is so successful it enjoys the scientific name mus musculus, “the muscular mouse”. We all know it as the house mouse because that’s where we so often find it – in our homes, raiding our larders, chewing our cheese, nesting in the lingerie. It’s a real survivor, this one, which has adapted perfectly to life amongst people.

Our house mice are seldom seen probably because they are nocturnal, shy and always hyper-cautious thanks to our local variety of predators like the genets, mongeese, caracals and those real pests, the feral cats.

They are about 16 cm long with a tail a bit less than half that, light brown and somewhat plain but far from dull fellows, as anyone whose kept white mice as pets will know. White mice are simply a variation of the everyday house mouse bred largely for laboratory experimentation. As childhood pets I found them much more lively and playful than boring hamsters, which did nothing but sleep or stuff food in their cavernous cheeks (worth watching only when the food is pieces of dry spaghetti). But everyone knows about them so let’s look at the other two.

One is the rakehell of the mouse world, more dashing and colourful than any other of our local inhabitants. He is the four-striped mouse, so named for the four narrow black stripes that run down the back of his body from neck to tail. Pale grey or white bands lie between the outer pairs of black stripes like the racing stripes along the sides of a teenager’s hot rod. The rest of his 220 cm body, half of it tail, is reddish-brown.

The handsome four-striped field mouse.
The handsome four-striped field mouse.

Sadly, the four-stripers bear a family curse: They are the staple diet of just about every hunter afoot, the living larder for every predator from hawks and ravens to mongeese. To compensate for this they breed like fury so the population swells and dies in waves. They are as attractive in taste as in personality and appearance.

The story will be continued next Friday /-

Mongoose 6 – Quick eggsit

Only once have we seen the mongoose truly discombobulated.

Our neighbour Hawk-Eye Kath likes to put an egg on their large front lawn occasionally just for the pleasure of watching a mongoose boot it around until it strikes something hard and cracks. On this day she placed it in the middle of the mowed grass and she and my wife waited for the performance.

As usual the mongoose’s head appeared over the far edge of the lawn to check out the scene and spotted the egg. It ran up and was settling the egg under its belly to thrust it backwards when all hell descended.

It came in the form of a large black and white polka-dotted bird much bigger than the mongoose with a wicked black beak and a big, back-sloping red casque like a fireman’s helmet: a guinea fowl. And it came down like the wolf on the fold, screeching, cackling, claws flying, its bird brain set on saving this unborn avian from the ravenous predator.

The mongoose fled. Precipitately is an under-statement. It ran with its hands figuratively on its head with the guinea-fowl hurtling close behind like an angry old woman beating a thieving urchin about the ears with her brolly.

When the mongoose vanished into the shelter of the canary creeper thicket the guinea fowl patrolled up and down until its temper dropped below boiling point then ambled back to the lawn, where the two women were falling about with laughter.

Now what?
Now what?

It cocked its head to look at the egg but clearly did not know what to do with its prize, having won the battle. No way was it going to cosset it, a lonesome egg of indeterminate provenance. Who knew where it had come from or what was inside.

So the guinea fowl went on its way to scratch around in the flower beds, leaving the egg intact in victory in the centre of the green, until Hawk-Eye Kath added it to the lunch omelette.

Next week’s episode will start with a series on Mice …..

Mongoose 5 – Visitors at the window

Doreen's morning cuppa with a visitor at the window.
Doreen’s morning cuppa with a visitor at the window.

Every morning when my wife, Dor the Store, ambles into the kitchen for the mug of coffee that kickstarts her day, there they are at the window, standing erect on a ledge, looking in, all ears and eyes focused on her every movement. The three heads move in unison like tennis spectators as she moves to the fridge, takes out the bowl of bonemeal, moves to a counter, shapes little balls smaller than a grape, then drops them one by one out on to the ledge. Each is snapped up by a mongoose which rushes into the nearest bush to feast in peace before returning for the next handout – maximum three.

A few days ago we learned the cost of familiarity. Dor the Store had left a packet of frozen chicken parts on a counter to defrost for supper. From the living room we heard a light thump but thought nothing of it, a pot lid had fallen maybe. When she returned to the kitchen the plastic bag had been neatly sliced open and a large drum – my choice for supper – had gone. So would the rest have had we not come in the nick of time.

To be continued/- Friday 12 December.