Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The harvest mouse (Mus messorius or Mus minutus)

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Many persons would be surprised if they were told that a new quadruped had, within some few years past, been discovered in this island; and yet it is so. Mr. White of Selborne was the person to do this, and his researches were rewarded by his introducing to naturalists the harvest mouse, certainly the smallest four-footed animal we have. We will proceed to give some account of it, and it will be found from its manner of life that it is possessed of equal sagacity with the larger kinds.

We have stated that Mr. White was the first person to bring these animals into notice, although from the account he has published in his charming “Natural History of Selborne,” he was evidently ignorant of many of their habits. We will endeavour to supply this deficiency, and the account may prove interesting to those who are little acquainted with the animal in question.

The length of the harvest mouse, including the tail, is four inches. Its colour a beautiful reddish yellow on the back and sides, the whole of the under parts being a pure white. The head is small, the nose sharp, the eyes large and prominent and jet black. The whiskers are numerous but weak, ears short, the fore-feet small, with four toes and a rudimentary thumb. The nails are long in proportion, and with them the animal firmly holds its food, and conveys it to his mouth. The hind feet are much longer and stronger, having five distinct toes, long and covered with fine hair to the nails. The tail is equal in length to the body, prehensile, thus greatly assisting them when climbing amongst the grass. Weight, two penny weights and eighteen grains. All the movements of this little creature are agile and graceful. When seated on their hind legs they are capable of extending the body to a considerable angle like the kangaroos.

A nest, containing a female and three young ones, was taken in a hay-field in the month of June. The young were apparently about a month old. They were all placed in a cage, where the young ones grew rapidly, and in a short time could feed themselves, although the mother continued to suckle them. They were the most playful, as well as diminutive of all quadrupeds, being in constant motion during their hours of exercise, climbing about the wires of their cage, and holding by their prehensile tails, frequently hanging by one foot and the tail. They sometimes fed during the middle of the day, but more generally in the evening, at which time they are most active between the hours of nine and eleven, and perhaps most part of the night. In their gambols the eye can scarcely follow them, such is the rapidity of their motions, for they dart like lightning, scarcely appearing to touch the ground. Their cage was six inches high from the bottom to the top wires, and it was a favourite exercise to leap from the bottom to the top, in the same manner as the leopards and tigers in confinement. This feat was done by all in succession, as if they were following their leader. When the height of the animal and the spring are taken into consideration, it may be considered enormous, being twelve times as high as itself. They are fond of canary seed, barley, bread or biscuit. They drink frequently, by lapping like a dog. In their state of freedom, the pearly dewdrops must be their beverage, as the fields where they were taken are dry, having no water of any kind.

The nest of this pretty little animal is made of grass, formed into a ball about the size of a cricket-ball, and is suspended on a plant about five inches from the ground, sometimes, as Mr. White informs us, on the head of a thistle. He also says that it is so compact and well placed, that it will roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contains eight little mice that are naked and blind. As the nest which he saw was perfectly full, Mr. White asks how could the dam come to her young, so as to administer a teat to each? Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which, moreover, would be daily increasing in bulk. This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field, suspended in the head of a thistle. In winter, the little animal burrows deep into the ground, and makes a warm bed of grass.

Edward Jesse.