For quite awhile I’ve considered writing essays based on the English idiom “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” – and then selecting an image of a subject that might have some innate quality, something unique … maybe not in the photo itself, but in the story surrounding the image. And it is with the lowly deer mouse that I begin. The key image is the deer mouse below, but there are other images to illustrate behavior.
Living at the bottom of the food chain can’t be a pleasant experience. Birthing large numbers of young is their only defense against the short, violent life most of these critters have to endure. Only the ungulates (deer, elk, etc) don’t prey upon mice, and even they probably cause the deaths of thousands of these little guys, via their feet, in their travels through meadows and sagebrush. How many mice die under the pounding hooves of a herd of elk being chased by a pack of wolves in Yellowstone? Over the course of a year the number is probably substantial.
We humans don’t eat mice (at least I don’t, and nobody I know … but there are always crazies out there somewhere) and at times the deer mouse can be a target if we find them in our homes. However, the lowly deer mouse can cause human deaths with the diseases it can carry, such as the hantavirus. Approximately 12% of deer mice carry this virus. Yosemite National Park received unpleasant notoriety a few years ago when many cases of hantavirus originated from there and active measures were taken to reduce deer mouse populations and educate the public. There are simple precautions to take: sleep on a cot and not on the ground, avoid sleeping near obvious “mousy” areas, try not to breathe in dusty air in areas with mice, and so on.
In Yellowstone National Park deer mice feed most of the park’s carnivores. The great gray and great horned owls actively hunt them, coyotes and foxes would prefer Uinta Squirrels as a larger meal – but won’t pass up an available mouse, while wolves and bears treat them like an annoyingly small treat – something they will eat if nothing better is available. And then we come to the amazing mouse killers – great blue herons, snakes, weasels, badgers, and the rest of the raptor world. Once when I was fishing for bass in California as a teenager I saw a mouse suddenly appear in the pond, swimming from the cattails. It made it about two feet before a largemouth bass swallowed it up in an explosion of water. Yes, the deer mouse’s enemies are numerous.
While the deer mouse itself is a pretty normal looking critter, what it causes other animals to do in capturing it is unique. The term “mousing” is a uniquely predator term, describing the behavioral antics predators go through to catch mice. Some raptors hover, like white-tailed kites (an awesome mouse predator) while others perch (like owls and some hawks). The dog world (mostly foxes and coyotes) performs an artistic leap, spanning the distance via an arching, silent, aerial attack after triangulating the unfortunate mouses exact location via its squeaks and scratches in the grass. Since a ground approach through grass would warn the mouse danger was near, the stealthy “mousing” leap is key to success
While predatory “mousing” is relatively silent, owls hunt in complete silence, and usually in complete darkness, out of the prying eyes of my camera. This great gray owl image (above) I shot last fall in Yellowstone is the best hunting owl image that I have taken. The image (below) shows the same owl seconds earlier while it was hovering, trying to pinpoint the slight sounds it had heard.
Bobcats are also included in that list of animals that perform aerobatic leaps to surprise the wily deer mouse. To be honest, it’s the behavior of these predatory animals and birds that has always drawn me – not so much their target. Deer mice are tiny little critters weighing tenths of an ounce and hardly seem worth the bother to a thirty pound coyote. But in reality, there are hundreds of pounds of these mice per acre, year-around. And while the mice are more difficult to hunt in winter blasted snow country, they are still active and still actively hunted.
This red fox took a really magnificent leap 6-7 feet in the air and hammered its nose and face through at least 16″-24″ of winter snow to capture a much needed meal. When it’s -30 degrees below zero at night even the smallest meal could be a lifesaver. This past winter was my first opportunity in the digital photo age to capture this unique, and beautiful, fox behavior. Shot tons of winter (think snow) red foxes in the past few years, but getting these dramatic images was exciting.
Finally, the story surrounding the deer mouse image. While driving through Soda Butte Valley this past winter safari in Yellowstone we stopped to question other photographers about sightings. While talking, a white short-tailed weasel (ermine) suddenly appeared. It hunted through the sagebrush, going down holes in the snow and popping up in a different locations. While waiting for the ermine to return to the surface from its sub-snow mouse hunt we were surprised to find a deer mouse sunning itself in the gravel of the parking area where we were standing. It seemed unconcerned, maybe not knowing about the nearby weasel – a vicious killer of mice. After a few minutes it returned to the snowbank carved out next to the pullout by the snow plow. The snowbank had compacted during the sunny days, but the mouse moved visibly through tiny tunnels. I could watch it’s dark furry body easily moving through the snowbank that I had just jumped off of a few minutes earlier. Wasting no time, I backed away to my 500mm lens’ minimum focus distance, dialed in +1 compensation, and fired away. It happily moved into full view, creating a great deer mouse encounter.