20 August: Gilbert White VII, Harvest Mice

Harvest mouse by Hendrik Osadnik

White depended upon correspondence with other gentlemen researchers to further his researches – and theirs. He contributed to the identification of the harvest mouse as a separate species. ‘Nondescript’ here means not having its description recorded in a scientific publication. Two inches is about 5 cm.

I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy.  From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript.  They are much smaller, and more slender, than the mus domesticus medius of Ray, and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour; their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly.  They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves, abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles.  They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat, perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket ball, with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged.  It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.  As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively, so as to administer a teat to each?  Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk.  This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field suspended in the head of a thistle.

Letter xiii

As to the small mice, I have farther to remark, that though they hang their nests for breeding up amidst the straws of the standing corn, above the ground, yet I find that, in the winter, they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass: but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest.  A neighbour housed an oat-rick lately, under the thatch of which were assembled nearly a hundred, most of which were taken, and some I saw.  I measured them, and found that, from nose to tail, they were just two inches and a quarter, and their tails just two inches long.  Two of them, in a scale, weighed down just one copper halfpenny, which is about the third of an ounce avoirdupois: so that I suppose they are the smallest quadrupeds in this island.  A full-grown Mus medius domesticus weighs, I find, one ounce lumping weight, which is more than six times as much as the mouse above; and measures from nose to rump four inches and a quarter, and the same in its tail. 

Zwergmaus (Micromys minutus), fotografiert 9/2005 von Hendrik Osadnik

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Filed under Daily Reflections, Laudato si'

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