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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Deer mice are hardy, adaptable little survivors

Deer mice are hardy creatures, as evidenced by the unlikely appearance of the mouse at Minnesota Point Pine Forest SNA on a bitter cold winter day. These delicate looking animals seek shelter in logs, cavities in trees, underneath the snow and in burrows, too.

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Deer mice are very common, nocturnal, and quite active throughout the winter. Of the two subspecies of deer mice, the prairie deer mouse prefers open habitat such as the prairie grasslands and farmland of western and southern Minnesota. The woodland deer mouse is more at home in forests and woodlands.
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I recently enjoyed a weekend in Duluth with a couple of friends I’ve known for many years. We snowshoed along and on the Sucker River up the North Shore and we hiked the sprawling beach of Lake Superior on Minnesota Point.

At the beach on Minnesota Point’s north side, extensive shelf-ice rising in undulating, massive ice mounds gave the beach a surreal appearance, almost unworldly, like a moonscape.

The shelf-ice was of such incredible heights that it obliterated from view Lake Superior itself as we walked on the safety of snow-covered beach sand. Indeed, we never ventured far onto the dangerous shelf-ice, although we were tempted.

The highlight of our three-hour hike was exploring Minnesota Point Pine Forest Scientific and Natural Area. The forest consists of towering old-growth white pine and red pine trees growing in ancient sands deposited by Lake Superior.

Beneath the giant trees are assorted hardwoods and other coniferous trees, junipers, and swaths of beach grass and forbs poking up through the snow.

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And animal tracks, too — deer and fox among the most abundant — as well as catching fleeting glimpses of winter birds such as common redpolls and red-breasted nuthatches. And believe it or not, a deer mouse.

After emerging from a grove of pines into an opening of aspen saplings where snowdrifts blanketed grasses beneath, my friend’s dog, Frankie, treed a deer mouse that he flushed from the snow.

The little mouse quickly climbed to the canopy of the spindly 10-foot-tall aspen, found a comfortable crotch, and curled its tail around its body to sit and wait for us to leave. We spent a moment looking at the little fellow and then left him alone.

I got to thinking about this special little species of mouse. Deer mice are very common, nocturnal, and quite active throughout the winter. Of the two subspecies of deer mice, the prairie deer mouse prefers open habitat such as the prairie grasslands and farmland of western and southern Minnesota. Their diet consists primarily of grass and weed seeds, other plant materials, and insects.

Meanwhile, the woodland deer mouse, the animal that Frankie frightened up the tree, is more at home in forests and woodlands.

This deer mouse differs from the prairie deer mouse in that it has a longer tail and is partly arboreal — it climbs trees extremely well and often nests inside cavities. Their long tail is an adaptation to tree climbing and helps the mouse balance on limbs as it searches for food such as seeds, berries, nuts, buds, and insects.

The life of a deer mouse begins in a nest made of soft material placed under a log, rock or other vegetative debris inside a cavity, burrow, hollow log, stump or even in abandoned birdhouses. A female gives birth to a litter of three to seven helpless young. The young mice are cared for by their mother and are able to leave the nest in less than a month after birth.

A female is ready to breed and raise her own young at only 8-10 weeks of age and can rear four or more litters a year. You can tell a juvenile deer mouse from an adult by their mostly gray pelt.

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They get their adult coat around 40-50 days of age. The deer mouse, like other non-hibernating mice, is able to survive the winter by eating the food they store in underground caches.

Deer mice are hardy creatures, as evidenced by the unlikely appearance of the mouse at Minnesota Point Pine Forest SNA on a bitter cold winter day. These delicate-looking animals seek shelter in logs, cavities in trees, underneath the snow and in burrows, too.

And though Frankie was the reason that the mouse rousted from its hiding spot under the snow, the adaptable little survivor of an unforgiving Lake Superior environment undoubtedly returned to someplace safe as soon as we disappeared.

That wild creatures are eking out a living in the most inhospitable places are reason enough for us to venture out into the cold, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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