Howling MOUSE!

elder999

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Some might say that what I'm about to tell you is just a myth, like the story of bigfoot or the jackalope. I would say otherwise. I've actually seen it. And heard it. This is what I know, and this is what happened.

I was going through the natural history stacks of my local library when I came across an obscure report written way back in 1931 by a biologist named Vernon Bailey. He wrote that there is a creature out in the sagebrush with a howl "as smooth and prolonged as the hunting call of the timber wolf." And that this howl "is made with raised nose and open mouth in perfect wolf form.” He was referring to the northern grasshopper mouse.

It's a regular-looking mouse in most respects. About the size of a small hamster. But in the dark of night — preferably moonless nights — this mouse is Allen Ginsberg. It is Walt Whitman. It howls at the wind and the stars, sending its squeaky yop into the desert. It is what you might call a biological curiosity. And you can find it throughout the West. This species ranges from the sage prairie of Idaho and Oregon, to Colorado, through to the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada, through New Mexico on into Texas and as far north as Canada.

I'd lived on the edge of sagebrush deserts for close to 6 years at that point,and had spent huge chunks of my free time in the bush, but I had never heard one of these mice before, and I was intrigued. Nay, obsessed. I was sure that if I had come across a howling mouse, I would have noticed it.

How could I have missed it?

One of the things I used to do in my spare time-when I still had "spare" time- is make field recordings. Some people like landscape photography. Instead of a camera, I used microphones and made recordings.It's perfectly reasonable to me, but others find it sort of odd. Like wearing a funny hat. Or taking up an obscure sport like curling. My search for the northern grasshopper mouse didn't help enhance my image.

I found myself wandering around late at night in the sagebrush with my microphone. I heard distant coyotes, plenty of crickets. I saw strange, red-eyed bats and startled a few free-range cows.One night, I even recorded a mountain lion-try operating a microcassette recorder and parabolic mike while crapping your pants! But no grasshopper mice.

This went on for about a year, and I was beginning to wonder if these mice really existed at all, but I didn't give up. I called all over the U.S. trying to find anyone who might study these creatures. It turns out there were a few people, and one day I hit the jackpot. I came across a scientist from the University of Arkansas, Dr. Robert Sikes. He confirmed that not only do these mice exist, and not only do they howl "very much like a canid howling at the moon," he said, but that he had a lab of several hundred of them. And that they howled every night. He and a graduate student had been making recordings of the howls, and they were doing some studies. If I wanted, I could come out there and see for myself. I had a little more time on my hands then, so I promptly bought a ticket to Little Rock.

When I got there, I began to understand why I didn't have much luck recording grasshopper mice in the field. Dr. Sikes, along with graduate student Tommy Finley ("People pretty much think you're crazy when you tell them you're spending your nights listening to mice howl," Finley says) escorted me into the lab. We were surrounded by mice. There was the distinct sound of food pellets being chewed and the rattling of cages. It was a clean, nondescript lab, but it seemed to have a really squeaky door. Nothing that a little WD-40 wouldn't fix ... ….but then I realized the door was closed.

No one was coming in or out. It was the mice. They were starting to tune up.

Every once in a while, there would be a high-pitched whistle, so high that it was at the very upper range of human hearing. In the field, you would really have to know what you were hearing to distinguish it from a small insect or even the wind through the grass. Some people with high-frequency hearing loss couldn't hear it at all, but the form was unmistakable. As I put my face close to one of the cages, one of the mice reared up on its hind legs, threw its head back and howled right at me. There it was, I had seen it for myself!

Shortly after this, the lights went off in the lab and the howls really picked up. It was pitch black, and I couldn't see an inch in front of my face. This was perfect for the mice because they prefer the cover of darkness for their howling. Studies have shown that they are less likely to howl when the moon is full, which cuts back on their "weremouse" cachet, but makes sense from the point of view of an animal that could be scooped up by an owl or other predators. But when it's dark, they have no qualms. As we stood there, Dr. Sikes commented that often what we were hearing were choruses of mice. "One mouse will start howling and another one will chime in," he said. It's a stretch, but I've heard coyotes and dogs do the same thing.

The meaning of the howl seems pretty apparent. Scientists think that it is territorial in much the same way that a wolf's howl is territorial. Grasshopper mice have large ranges for their small size — up to five acres — and the high-pitched howl will carry over a large distance. Dr. Sikes explained to me that the fact that this mouse howls and looks like a wolf when it is doing it makes perfect sense. "That would be the posture that I would take," he said. "You want to channel that emission where there's going to be the least interference, ie: up. Not down into the ground. Not into the vegetation, but up."

At the lab, Sikes and Finley are making some revealing discoveries about grasshopper mouse vocalizations. Through the use of high-end microphones and sonograms, they have discovered that apparently the howl is just the tip of the iceberg. They have shown that these mice also communicate with ultrasonics, sounds at frequencies way, way above human hearing. It turns out that the desert night is full of a whole lexicon of mouse chirps and howls that we never hear.

Which, of course, makes it even harder to convince people of my story.:argue:


"You mean to tell me that there is a mouse that howls like a wolf? It lives right out there in the sagebrush, but most of the time you can't hear it because its howl is too high pitched? And in essence these mice usually only howl when they become invisible behind a cloak of darkness?"

Yep. That's exactly what I'm telling you.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Don't believe me? Have a look here. I'm sure there's one howling on youtube somewhere, but I couldn't find it.

Audio file Here
 

crushing

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I believe you.

Your story reminds me of the poem Reapers by Jean Toomer. It's short poem, but I'm not sure I can post it here because of copyright.
 

Bill Mattocks

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Reminds me of the infamous Vargas Barking Spider. At least, that's what I call 'em.
 

MA-Caver

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WOW... it is amazing how you can learn something new everyday if you pay attention. Thanks Elder for that really (honest it is ) interesting tidbit about one of the smallest creatures in nature.

Thanks Sherry for that NPR tape/link.
 
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MA-Caver

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You meant SheLLey...right?? ;) LOL

:duh: That's what I get when the OP was one two hours past my bedtime ... :banghead: You've my permission to :boxing: :whip: me. Because yesterday at work I did the same thing with a co-worker called him by another name. Sheesh.

We need a head up the *** smilie. :lol:
 

ShelleyK

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:duh: That's what I get when the OP was one two hours past my bedtime ... :banghead: You've my permission to :boxing: :whip: me. Because yesterday at work I did the same thing with a co-worker called him by another name. Sheesh.

We need a head up the *** smilie. :lol:

Hahaha Dont feel so bad, Im from a Filipino family and I even still have my old high school graduation cards that say Sherry on it because theyve never been able to pronoounce Shelley...so they spelled my name the way they pronounced it!
Ive also been called Rachel...because my given name is Rachelle (pr. rah-shell) Shelley is just a nickname I got stuck with LOL
 

Stac3y

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That is SO STINKIN' COOL, Elder! Thanks for posting it.
 
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