As free as the grass grows…

So, the mice have gone into the Big Wide Wood.

They're out there somewhere...

They’re out there somewhere…

Their departure was delayed by about a week due to the Curious Incident of the Mice in the Pear Puree, which saw said animals roll in said fruity mush and then lick it off each other with relish – and great chunks of each other’s fur, resulting in this kind of arresting look:

Baldies

Baldies

So their release had to be postponed until their fur had grown back.

Mind you, even if they hadn’t given each other rebellious teenager haircuts, their release would still have been delayed as I didn’t want to let them go when the temperature was still going down to feeezing at night, whatever the state of their fur.

Despite this, for two of them, release almost came a little early. One evening, I heard scuttling noises coming from the blanket box next to the mouse box, which I dismissed as my mishearing due to a cold in the head. The mice terrarium (large plastic box with a pair of tights stetched over a hole in the lid) looked secure, but the noises persisted in coming from about two feet to the left of where they should have been coming from. I opened the blanket box and lo!, two meecelets were having a lovely time dropping droppings on the pillowcases, having apparently teleported over there.

Oh, and there are so many other fond memories of the Great Mouse Adventure; working out the best way to mimic dew so they could get some water; waking up in a hot sweat having left the heating on to keep the teeny mice warm; going to bed in a jumper and hat having had the heating off for days to acclimatise the bigger mice to the outside temperature; laughing at seeing the mice try to escape down a leg of the pair of tights covering their box; and weighing them at about two weeks and finding them tipping the scales at less than 20g all together:

Less than 5g each!

Less than 5g each!

That was probably about the last time I managed to hold them all in my hand:

A handful of mouseness

A handful of mouseness

It was amazing how they grew so quickly from stumpy,

8-day old mice and a penny

Stumpy mice

to gangly:

Gangly mice

Gangly mice

Gangly mice encore

Gangly mice encore

Hungry gangly mice

Hungry gangly mice

Gangly mouse

Gangly mouse

to sleek and plump.

Sleek and plump, with regrown fur

Sleek and plump, with regrown fur

It was lovely making them different dwelling places as they got bigger. When I introduced them to the big homemade terrarium full of wonders such as soil and bricks and paving stones and twigs, it was stunning to see them instantly start digging, gnawing, climbing and making their own nest. They instantly became Real Mice as soon as they were given the opportunity.

Inside the homemade terrarium

Inside the homemade terrarium

Taking some bedding back to the nest

Taking some bedding back to the nest

Despite having stopped handling them and having kept the house cold for several days, I was still worried about how to release them. I wanted to give them a chance of not getting eaten while they worked out what the Woods were all about. A few days ago, I had a midnight brainwave and realised a little nesting box would be the perfect transitional residence for four orphan mice leaving their foster home to make their way in the world. However, at the pet shop, I found that nesting boxes are rather large and deluxe this season, but Pickle’s Cottage seemed a good alternative:

Pickle's Cottage - the Halfway Mouse House

Pickle’s Cottage – the Halfway Mouse House

I lined it with a cardboard inner box and nailed the roof down on one side, so curious foxes couldn’t knock it off, and put bedding in one side and a week’s worth of grub on the other. I put it in with the mice so they could get used to it. They jumped straight in:

Trying out the house

Trying out the house

But for their last night chez moi, they preferred their own nest.

Last night in captivity

Last night in captivity

When I looked in their nest the following morning, there were only two mice.

‘Oh, Sod’s Law’, I thought, heart sinking. ‘Why must you be enacted now, at the final hurdle of the eleventh hour, why?’

I couldn’t see any signs of escape and calmly, sadly concluded they’d teleported off again. To somewhere in my house. Where they would no doubt breed without restraint. Then I noticed two tiny, tiny holes in the layers of tights acting as a lid to the terrarium. What clever, persistent creatures to chew an escape route while hanging upside down from a 60 denier American Tan reinforced gusset! Reminding myself that lightning doesn’t strike twice, I looked in the blanket box, just in case. And there they were. Dropping droppings in the pillowcases. Much frustrated squeaking (mostly from me) later, I had caught the Houdini Mice and popped them, their more stay-at-home siblings and their nest in Pickle’s Cottage, shut the lid and put the other half of the roof on.

Thus at quarter to seven this morning, I found myself setting off to the woods, clutching a bag of mice and a trowel. I didn’t meet anyone else in the woods. Which was probably best.

Though their fur tends to look greyish in the snaps, these mice are actually the browny colour of dead leaves. So I thought I’d set them up where they would be well-camouflaged. In a suitably isolated part of the woods, I climbed off the path, up a slope and into a holly bush. There, I dug the house into the ground:

The release house

The release house

And then pulled the masking tape off the mousehole.

The boldest mouse catapulted out of the hole and bounced away into the woods.

A few seconds later, the second boldest mouse peered out of the window:

First sight of the world

First sight of the world

He considered the new situation for a few seconds and then bounced off into the woods in the opposite direction to his brother.

Then there was silence and stillness.

Suddenly worried that the other two might have died of shock on the way, I took off half the roof, opened the cardboard interior box and there they were. Absolutely fine. Making themselves at home. So I shut them up again, covered up the house with leaves and twigs and left them to live their lives as mice.

Going...

Going…

Going...

Going…

Still going...

Still going…

Gone.

Gone.

So I’m now suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome.

Good Luck Meeces!

Rooting for the runt

I side with the underdog.

When I was nine, I brought home an undercat.  In my memory, she was the most beautiful creature ever with silken fur and intelligent eyes. Adults who witnessed the animal at this time recall a thin, sickly, moth-eaten, fleabag of a thing. (Naturally, she grew up to be an undisputed Ubercat).

Recently, I forged a relationship with an undermouse.

Runty Mouse - about 10 days old

Runty Mouse – about 10 days old

The poor little Runty Mouse had been causing me concern for a few days. Whenever I rudely awakened the mouselets, three would be curled up together and poor little Runty would be out on his own, away from the warmth of his siblings. I would put them all back together every time, but he’d always end up on his own; pushed out of the nest, as happens to the runt in nature. The poor little thing was so thin. Skin, a little bit of fur and an oversized skull. (Now, see, here, I want to write ‘like a rodent Calista Flockhart‘ but I feel unkind doing that. Oh, I’ve done it anyway. Oops.) And a forlorn tail, thin as a thread. He was clearly having a bit of a rough time starting out on this old life business, and his brothers and sisters weren’t showing him much fraternal or sororital love. All because he was small. Now, I know this is what happens to runts in the wild, but life at Burlington-Taylor Towers, though generally unkempt and occasionally unruly, isn’t yet feral, so I stuck my oar in, hoping that Runty would grab it with all four feet and hold on tight.

When they were 10 days old, some sort of mouse-empathetic-supersense kicked in and I was certain that this particular day was make-or-break day for Runty; if he could just get through this day, then he might stand a chance. So, I kind of cancelled everything apart from feeding mice. Which, in retrospect, puts me firmly into Mad Cat Woman territory, even though this was a mouse-related issue. So, having rearranged a few things and called off seeing a friend (I somehow feel that  ‘I have to feed the runt’ is worse than ‘I’m washing my hair’), I braced myself for some intensive paintbrush action.

The stronger three got their usual 4-hourly paintbrushings, but Runty was fed every hour. For about 36 hours.

I made him a super-saturated solution of kitten milk. And squashed molecules of banana onto the paintbrush as well. He was probably cursing me for depriving him of sleep, but he most definitely perked up over the intensive feeding period. You could almost see him fattening up.

And heck, you think of all manner of odd things, sitting there in the half-light, stuffing a paintbrush into a mouse runt’s mouth.

But odd things aside, the thought that I kept coming back to, as we went through the Long Dark Night of the Runt, was a song sung at junior school. Hymns at my junior school (St Paul’s C of E primary in Wokingham) were interesting; Mrs Aveling ruled the musical roost and had an aversion to traditional tunes for anything, (which is why I associate ‘Away in a Manger’ with something that is basically a rock ballad) but, at the same time, this long-haired, flamboyant, moustachioed, brilliant woman seemed to love more modern, twee-er hymns, such as:

There are hundreds and thousands, millions of sparrows;
Two a penny, far too many there must be.
There are hundreds and thousands, millions of sparrows;
But God made every one and God made me.

Except  on this particular night, I was singing about millions of meecelets and how God loves every one including Runt-y. Genius, huh?

I’m not particularly into God, but you don’t need to be to have the sentiment that everyone and every one matters. Especially at five in the morning with a minature mouse gulping down hope for tomorrow from your hand.

And thus Runty got through the night to shed his runt status and become simply the littl’un.

The next night, he wasn’t pushed out by the others. Hurrah! He’d just needed that little extra boost to be deemed mouse-worthy by his siblings. And, putting my Carrie Bradshaw hat on for the moment (Heck – wouldn’t that have been a great show if she’d been writing about small mammals? Mice and the City? Sex and the Mice? No, no, that’s just all wrong. Anyway, Sex and the City was basically He-Man with cocktails – have a problem, have an adventure, learn something and tell us about it in a little moral coda. [Shhh, Claire, you’re supposed to be telling the mouse tale]) Ummm, where was I? Oh, yes, Carrie Bradshaw… yes…. We all sometimes need just a tiny little extra boost to keep going, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it. And, sometimes, we can be the ones to give it. That little boost, which is usually just a minor inconvenience for the giver (eg a cancelled date with a buddy; sorry, Carl), can mean the difference between triumph and disaster – or even  life and death – for the recipient. And, well, that doesn’t just go for meece.

 

Making mice at home

Small creatures of any kind need warmth, shelter and food. With regard to the Burlington-Taylor Mouse Quartet, shelter and warmth were pretty straightforward. I initially kept them in a small box in a larger box, with a hot water bottle under the small box. I got rid of their old nest and gave them a red flannel to sleep in with some pieces of toilet paper and torn-up newspaper as additional bedding. I kept the box on a chair next to a radiator until one of the cats became too interested, whereupon I kept the box in the cat-proof kitchen cupboard where the mouse nest had originally been found. I did chuckle at myself, earnestly taking a cardboard box of mice in and out of the kitchen cupboard (and putting an extra hot water bottle down the side of it…) but not for long – it’s a serious business, looking after blind, deaf, orphan mice.

The original mouse boxes

The original mouse boxes

The question of food was more problematic. After their initial apparent acceptance of the paintbrush, the mice seemed to start struggling to eat. So I went into mother mouse overdrive, trying all manner of things to try to make the process of staying alive easier, warmer or containing more calories.

I trimmed down a range of paintbrushes to see if a different shape or different bristles would be preferred. I kept the milk warm for the duration of each feeding session on a hot water bottle. I tried a piece of wool soaked in milk squashed to a tiny point by encasing it in a trimmed down straw – that worked for a few drops with the tiniest one, which felt like a major triumph. I went to the chemist and came away with a 10mm syringe and a small eyedropper. Both dwarfed the mice. Seriously dwarfed. Like a baby would be dwarfed by that giant escaped breast in that Woody Allen film. Trying to feed them with syringe or eyedropper would only end in drowning, so I persevered with paintbrushes. I went to the pet shop and picked up some powdered kitten milk formula (also good for baby guinea pigs, rabbits and other orphaned small animals). I explained to the lady behind the counter what I was up to and asked if they had any 1mm syringes as a paintbrush alternative. She immediately rushed out to the back and returned proffering a handful of tiny syringes and refusing any payment, which was very kind of her. Back home, I realised that the mouth of a 1mm syringe is the same size as the mouth of a 10mm syringe… At one point, at about four in the morning, when a mouse was struggling to accept the paintbrush, I thought of Harry Harlow’s Mummy Monkey experiments (Love is… something to eat and something to cuddle – especially something to cuddle) and did consider wrapping my hand in furry material, before the stickiness of the formula milk made me decide to hope that my inate spiritual soft-and-fluffiness would do.

And pretty swiftly, they became expert at accepting the paintbrush.

About 9 days old and a bit milky

About 9 days old and a bit milky

Then I asked the internet for its opinion on hand-rearing field mice.

Well, thank goodness I did. Baby mice need a bit of a hand (or, well, strictly speaking a tongue. A mouse tongue.) with the old excretion, so mimicking mother mouse washing them would be essential if they weren’t going to expire from terminal constipation. Mine didn’t seem to be suffering in that area, but, heck, that would be a horrendous way to go, so I followed the advice. A hot tip from the world wide web of field-mice rearing enthusiasts (mostly from the States) was to use a damp ‘Q-tip’ or piece of toilet paper, so that’s what I did and it worked beautifully. I appreciate that the word ‘beautifully’ may not be the first to spring to mind when considering the process of elimination in rodents, but I assure you, it’s appropriate.

To make sure everymouse was fed and, er, assisted each session, I put them into a separate tupperware box (on the radiator or hot water bottle) after they’d had their first go at the paintbrush. So the mealtime routine became:

  • Feed with milky paintbrush,
  • Stimulate bowel/bladder event,
  • Pop in tupperware box on the radiator
  • Repeat previous three steps with the other three mice
  • Feed with milky paintbrush
  • Place in nest box
  • Repeat previous two steps with the other three mice
  • Place all four mice in milky hand in the hope they’ll get some milk on their feet and fur and lick it off
  • Return to nest box

And then once a day, I’d add the following:

  • ‘Wash’ mouse with a larger damp, warm paintbrush
  • Replace in small tupperware box on radiator and rub gently with warm toilet paper until dry
  • Repeat previous two steps with the other three mice
  • Return mice to nest box.

It took blinkin’ ages.

The internet recommended feeding tiny mice every two hours. As the feeding process was taking about an hour, I upped that to every three to four hours, slightly less frequently in the day and slightly more frequently at night. They seemed to be doing OK. They were getting proper fur. They were starting to walk, rather than crawl or seep. They were demanding the paintbrush, open-mouthed like baby birds and then grabbing a firm hold of it with their front feet. They were amazing!

Mice - about 9 days old

Mice – about 9 days old

Life through a paintbrush

So, life at Burlington-Taylor Towers has, of late, largely been of the non-theatrical variety. Obviously, la vie de Claire is one long musical comedy, but this act has been filled with copywriting, personal and family admin, decision-making and hand-rearing baby field mice.

You know. As you do.

I had an uncharacteristic bout of tidying up. So extraordinarily uncharacteristic that the kitchen cupboards were turned out. And it was while I was poking about in the faintly remembered world of bleach bottles and J-cloths that I came across the mouse nest. Such a cleverly constructed mouse nest in the middle of a pile of dusters, with chewed up yellow duster fluff for cosiness and torn up scraps of newspaper for structure.  Mamma Mouse was there, but took one look at my ugly mug and turned tail, leaving a pulsing bundle of warm baby mouseness behind.

Four tiny, tiny mouselets. Stumpy-legged embryonic piglets with skin like suede. Part-developed ears completely flat to their heads. Eyes shut.

I shut the door, terrified that I’d scared the mother away from her babies.

It was worse than that.

The next morning, there was a very happy cat sitting next to a very deceased Mama Mouse on the kitchen floor.

Disaster.

I checked in the cupboard. The pulsing bundle of warm baby mouseness was not quite so pulsing and warm.

I was honour-bound to take over where I had unwittingly forced Mamma Mouse to leave off.

And that’s where the paintbrush came in.

Mouse nipples are very small. I don’t know this from personal experience; I’ve never knowingly seen a mouse nipple, let alone measured one, but I’m fairly confident that they really are quite astoundingly petite. So the question was, how could I replicate a mouse nipple sufficiently accurately to dupe the teeny meeces into suckling from it? The answer seemed to be to dash to the shop to pick up assorted milk products (soya milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, cat milk…), trim a fine paintbrush down to just a few hairs and hope for the best.

I put their nest in a small cardboard box, sat the nest box on a hot water bottle and got on with trying to keep the miniscule creatures alive.

They took to the paintbrush impressively swiftly. I had to find the best way to hold them (wrapped in three fingers, so head is poking over index finger, held there by first finger and thumb) but they did latch on and suck, after a fashion. Warmed cat milk went down best, though the droplets they were consuming were really little more than molecules. They must have been starving, having had 18 hours or so (which, if they were 5 days old when I found them – as my later internet research indicated they were – would be 15% of their lives) with nothing to eat, so an iota of anything must have been so welcome, even if it was coming from something that neither smelt nor felt like Mamma Mouse.

A few days later, having gained confidence in my brush technique, I thought of taking some snapshots:

The Meeces - about 8 days old

The Meeces – about 8 days old

8-day old mice and a penny

8-day old mice and a penny

And that’s how Great Mouse Adventure began…