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Wednesday, April 4, 2007
OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK
Breakfast with rodents
By C.W. NICOL
Iwas home alone the other evening when I heard a scuttling sound coming from the kitchen. Two mice had climbed up a strut in the woodwork of the sink counter and jumped down into the compost bucket below, which just had a few centimeters of food scraps and vegetable peelings in the bottom. It's a red plastic bucket, with slippery sides, and it's too deep for the mice to jump out. I reached into the bucket and gently grabbed them, then transferred them to a large glass pickle jar. I wanted to get a good close look at one of our major enemies in the woods.
The English name for these little pests is long-tailed field mice (or wood mice) -- Apedemis sylvaticus in Latin and aka-nezumi (meaning "red mouse") in Japanese. Their normal habitat is in the woods and fields, where they burrow and hoard seeds and acorns. When it gets cold and there is lots of snow, some invade our house up here in the Kurohime hills of Nagano Prefecture.
One of their infuriating habits is that they chew on the tender roots of young saplings, especially -- it seems -- the ones we plant. Some years we have lost 90 percent of our plantings due to these mice, with even young trees 2- or 3-cm thick getting attacked. The mice nibble at the roots and the base of the sapling until it looks like a badly sharpened pencil. This obviously kills them.
That is why I and our forester, Mr. Matsuki, are delighted when owls, snakes, weasels and martens make their appearance and help keep the mice down. Mr. Matsuki's little hut in the woods is constantly being invaded by these little rusty-colored mice, so he traps them.
When I was working on a series of lakes, some 20 minutes' flying time by float plane out of Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories, we were living in log houses that we built ourselves. Being in such a remote location we had to lay in stocks of food, and this attracted deer mice, which are in appearance and habits very similar to the Old World field mice.
One of the technicians at headquarters had described to me a very efficient (he claimed) mouse trap that could catch and kill multiple mice without being reset. I built one. First, you take a 5-gallon fuel can or something similar. Then you take an empty round milk can, one which still has both ends on it. You thread a wire through holes in the middle at either end of the can, then lay this across the top of the larger container. Then you smear peanut butter on the wired can and lean a wooden ramp with little dabs of peanut butter on it against the lid of the container. Finally, after pouring about 10 cm of water into the can, all you have to do is leave the trap in a suitable place. In our case it was the kitchen and dining hut, where the cook slept and where the mice were most likely to come out at night to raid and rampage.
A mouse is attracted up the ramp, then jumps onto the can, which has a lot more peanut butter on it. The can rolls around on the wire and drops the mouse into the water.
Splashing and squeaking
The trap worked wonderfully. In one night we got 16 mice in the trap, but the trouble was that the splashing and squeaking kept the cook awake most of the night, and he was awfully cross and grumpy the next day. Believe me, having a bad-tempered cook in a remote field camp is no fun.
Unbeknown to me, one of the deer mice took up residence in a deep pocket of my rucksack, where I kept some emergency rations of chocolate and dried fruit. This mouse jumped out at the end of the season, when I was unpacking the rucksack at home in Winnipeg, Manitoba -- much to the delight of my three kids. We just couldn't catch that mouse, but we knew it was somewhere in the house, because we kept on finding droppings.
Finally, the mystery of the mouse's hideout came to light. The bag of the vacuum cleaner was full, and I was asked to empty it. I took it outside to empty the dusty, hairy mess into the garbage container and, lo and behold, the mouse jumped out. He had made himself a little nest right inside the vacuum cleaner. Did he stuff up his ears, or did he just go deaf? The machine was an old Hoover that made a hell of a lot of noise!
Anyway, back to Kurohime and my two captives. Mr. Matsuki came for tea while I was sketching and making notes of the mice. They seemed quite unafraid, grooming themselves and each other, sniffing around, stretching up with long whiskers twitching. We shared tea with mouse and rat stories for almost an hour before he left.
"What are you going to do with them? If you skin them, chop them in half and roast them on a stick they're just like roasted sparrows," he said. I said that I'd keep them alive for a day and show them to my buddy Kaito, the 6-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Ishii, my housekeeper. Kaito was fascinated for a while, but soon got bored when the mice in the jar didn't react to his toy Tyrannosaurus rex.
I just got back from a trip to Kyushu last night and Mr. Matsuki dropped by.
"What did you do with the mice?" he asked.
I hung my head with shame and answered in a weak and pitiful voice. "I let them go in the woods outside . . . "
"Idiot! That was a really stupid thing to do! They're just pests! They will go on breeding, nibbling our trees and making a nuisance of themselves!"
"I know, I know, but after watching them for a while we seemed to get to know each other's faces, and they were rather cute . . . "
Mr. Matsuki is right, of course. Rats and mice are very fertile. Gestation is 3 to 4 weeks, with litters of 3 to 14 young at a time. Depending on the food and other conditions they can have 2 to 7 litters a year. I read an estimate somewhere that a pair of rats or mice under ideal conditions could have 20 million descendants in three years.
I should have executed them . . . but how? Apply a deadly karate chop to the back of the neck? Whack them with a hammer? Slit their little throats with my bush knife? Drown them? The thought made me shudder; they looked so cute holding each other's tails. It was hard to tell, but I think they were a little boy-and-girl pair -- you know, like Mickey and Minny.
It's an awful thing to admit, but I have to face up to it: Old Nic has gone soft with age.
PS: Hard to believe, but the day after I wrote this story, when I went downstairs in the morning, what do you think I found?
As I was filling my kettle at the sink, I heard something moving below in the compost bucket, looked down, and found two more of the blighters there -- or, who knows, perhaps the same two just pushing their luck that it wasn't Mr. Matsuki who found them instead of me . . .