Of Ice And Mice, Naughty And Nice

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration

It seems that winter has finally found us. For a while, it only flirted with us from the outside; a little frost here, a bit of nasty wind there, some flash black ice for some extra fun and a thin coating of snow that lasted about 10 minutes. All through these little wintry games, the temperatures hovered around or above freezing, which has been downright tolerable, for winter. Even the birds got a little lazy with lots of food available, both in the wild and in feeders.

In a mild winter people often complain about a lack of birds. When there’s plenty of wild food to choose from, many birds will feed where they feel protected and camouflaged. The woods and fields offer not only food but good cover to help keep them safe. Bird feeders, even those close to trees and shrubs, are riskier for many birds, especially since Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks have caught on to the easy abundance of prey all in one spot. These days almost every neighborhood that has a few bird feeders also has a resident bird-eating hawk. A bird busy eating isn’t always paying attention to signs a predator may be near.

On these last few frigid mornings, however, my own feeders have been mobbed. The jays and neighborhood crows have been on alert and all hawk sightings have been announced loudly and emphatically. A mix of snow, sleet and plain old drizzle has been in the air with a warning that more substantial winter weather may be on the way. I don’t have a crystal ball (which is really too bad) but when you read this, it may be during a snowstorm or just after one. Or we could get nothing but rain. It’s Cape Cod. Who knows?

In any event, the cold, below-freezing weather has brought with it a slick of ice across the ponds and lakes and even the harbors, bays and some ocean beaches as well. Our freshwater dabblers and fishers such as ducks, kingfishers and great blue herons are searching for areas that don’t freeze, and many have moved into saltwater areas. Kingfishers and herons need open water to survive. Many dabbling ducks can graze on land, as long as it isn’t covered with snow. Many are helped by people spreading grain and greens on the ground for them. If you wish to feed ducks or geese, please do some homework and offer nutritious grains, not bread or crackers which can actually weaken them and cause lifelong problems, if they survive. Like children, they will not turn away treats, even if they are bad for them. Think of bread and crackers as candy and cookies.

Some animals enjoy an icy surface. River otters may be seen sliding across the ice in ways that can be described as playful. Other animals, such as foxes and coyotes, may use an iced-over surface to quickly cut across a distance instead of shlep all the way around it. Deer, on the other hand, have a hard time finding enough traction to stay on their feet on the ice. In the wild, predators will soon be on the scene. In neighborhoods, a rescue team may be activated. As ponds ice over, dog owners should be aware that the ice may not be thick enough to hold their dog’s weight. Every winter dogs fall through the ice. Many are rescued but not all. Just be vigilant.

Small mammals such as mice may be actively seeking warmer quarters. If they can get into your garage, basement, attic or heck, anywhere in your house, they will. They may even bring their little friends and romp about in your walls and ceilings all night long.

Flying squirrels may take up residence in your attic as well. A friend of mine had what she thought were a few but in the end they counted over two dozen before they got the place cleaned out and closed off. No flying squirrels were injured, killed, or taken to strange places when they were removed. A large box house was put up in a nearby tree before they were expelled, and it didn’t take long for them to relocate. 

We have deer mice that live under our shed. I see them sometimes as they venture out on really cold days to grab a seed from under the feeder. Sometimes they get into the house, but every year we do our best to keep that from happening. We have two cats, but they are quite elderly now and not nearly as interested in catching mice as they used to be. One was a champion mouser, always leaving his little prizes lined up for us by the kitchen door early in the morning. He can still grab a mouse, but I think it may have to walk right up to him and dare him these days.

Remember that rat poison not only kills mice and rats but any animal that may eat them, including your pets. No one really wants to share their space with little rodents but there are other ways to humanely remind them they belong outdoors and not in your home.

Well, February is knocking on the door and I guess we’ll have to let her in. Hold onto your hats — winter may actually be coming with her.