• Abi Starr

The wood mouse

Here's a piece I've recently written to include in my end of year portfolio.

It's inspired by one of my main undergraduate lecturers who did his best to include a wood mouse in every one of his lectures.

It's kind of fiction, kind of nature writing. I rather like it; let me know what you think!

(picture is a stock image from pixabay)

A frosty March evening. The sharp, crisp moon penetrates the silky sky. All birds have retreated from the feeders and the people are tucked up indoors. All is quiet. Ice crystals dance across the surface of the pond, joining together and growing. Forming intricate lacework patterns as they do so. With no breeze, the sun bleached bunting hangs motionless from the trees. Limp and lifeless. The barbecue stands; rusty and rigid. Waiting for those long summer days when it will once again be needed.

The large patch of lawn is sodden and squelchy, ravaged by the cold, wet winter. Shrubs in the borders yearn for warmer weather as their roots shiver in the frozen soil.

Stillness spreads across the garden like a wave. Enveloping all it touches. All it touches, but for one corner of the garden. The log pile.

A pointed nose, twitching, creeps out between the wood, followed by elegant whiskers. Assessing the surroundings, it moves back and forth. Is it safe to come out? It appears so, but looks can be deceiving.

Behind the whiskers, eyes appear. Large and prominent, they take in what little light is available. A distant sound catches the attention of sweeping ears. Cautiously she steps out from the log pile, revealing her identity. A wood mouse. She is no longer than 10 centimetres and weighs roughly the same as an ‘AA’ battery. Her fur is a rich brown above and her belly is white, but for a spot of yellow between her front legs. Her long tail has an unusual adaptation – should a predator seize her tail, the skin will slough off, allowing her to escape unharmed.

She inches her way out of the log pile, stopping frequently. She has reason to be cautious, for there are many predators that would happily make a meal of her. Tawny owls in particular rely on wood mice for a large part of their diet and, should the numbers of these rodents be low, the owls may fail to breed completely.

She’s hungry. Her varied diet includes fruits and nuts, seeds and berries, and buds and seedlings. She also may occasionally snack on a snail or an insect. Luckily there is plenty of food around. The clumsy birds have dropped lots during the day. She runs and skips over to the feeders and begins to sniff around. Sunflower seed. Peanut. Maize. All fair game.

A twig cracks. She freezes. It’s only a deer, phew. Entering the garden from the woods beyond the hedge. It’s looking around for the shoots and buds spring will bring, but it’s a little early. It carries on its business, completely ignoring the mouse; she breathes a sigh of relief and continues feeding. She can’t afford to miss a single seed, she’ll need all that nutrition. For, during her short life that lasts but a year; she may produce as many as 48 babies in up to six litters.

They’ll be born blind and hairless and she’ll suckle them until they are around three weeks old. She’ll get pregnant soon and will likely be raising young all the way up until October; even deeper into the winter if there is enough to eat. She’s had her fill for now, and has begun hiding food in various places around the garden. Saving it for a rainy day.

During the winter she lived out in the woods, nesting with other wood mice. However, now spring is approaching she has left the group to nest and raise her young alone. She’s not yet seen a male to mate with. He has more ground to cover as he roams over larger areas occupied by several females.

Another sound. The shriek of a cat. The mouse panics and flees to the log pile, scaling its heights with ease. She then gingerly works her way back to ground level, and the safety of her home. The burrows and chambers she lives in are hidden underneath the log pile, dug into the ground. They can be complex minicities and she expands and modifies them as needed. These burrows were probably handed down to her from her mother and her mother’s mother before her. One day, her daughter will take up residence here.

The nest itself was built out of shredded grass, with leaves and moss woven in. It’s nice and cosy at the moment, she added extra bedding to keep her warm in the winter.

The mouse’s tummy is full of food plundered from the feeding station. She’s content and ready to rest. She hunkers down in her cosy home and sleeps, until tomorrow night, at least.

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