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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/July 1872/Musical Mice

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578506Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 July 1872 — Musical Mice1872Samuel Lockwood



THE study of geographical range is of extreme interest as affecting the life, forms, and functions of animals. In this way has come about that convenient division of the Monkey order into two great sections—the Simiadæ, or Old-World monkeys—and the Cebidæ, or New-World monkeys. And this distinction is based on differences easy to be understood. The monkeys of the Old World have their nostrils so nearly terminal, and so near to each other, and their teeth in sort and number so much like those of man, as to give them traits more human-like than those of the New World. They have also cheek-pouches, but none of them have prehensile tails. The New-World monkeys have their nostrils wide, lateral, and sprawling; they have more teeth than man has; they have no cheek-pouches; and with many the tail is prehensile. But does this law of geographical distribution, whatever it may be, affect "mice, and such small deer?" It does. A very large order is that known as the Rodents, or Gnawers, well represented by the squirrels and rabbits. These animals are all characterized by two chisel-shaped teeth in the front of each jaw. The order contains several well-marked families, and some six hundred species. Of these families, one is known as the Muridæ, which embraces the rats and the mice, and their allies. Now, it is interesting to know that the Muridæ, namely, the true rats and mice, as well as the monkeys, naturally divide into two geographical groups: the one called the Mures, or Old-World rats; and the other known as the Sigmadontes, or New-World rats. Each of these divisions includes the true rats and mice, indigenous to the New and the Old World, respectively. And these distinctions are founded on a real difference in anatomical structure. Let it suffice to mention the most striking, that of the teeth. The Mures, or Old-World rats and mice, have comparatively "large, broad molars, and those of the upper jaw have three tubercles: the Sigmadontes, or New-World rats and mice, have narrow molars, and those in the upper jaw have two tubercles." The word sigmadont means sigma-toothed, from a marking on the enamel, resembling the Greek letter sigma, which really would be like our own letter S, if the latter were made by uniting two angles, instead of two curves.

The writer has elsewhere expressed his belief that among the Rodents is a good deal of latent or undeveloped musical capacity. The squeal of the frightened rabbit is musical; while the whistle of the woodchuck enlivens its burrow with its homely, merry little sound.

That our little cosmopolite, the Old-World mouse, whom Linnaeus, on account of its smallness among its fellows, named Mus musculus, has achieved some distinction in the musical line, almost everybody knows. Indeed, these musical house-mice are almost ceasing to be uncommon. Even his less graceful, big relative, the rat, has tried his hand at the pipes, and not wholly without success. And, among these little erratics, some have been known that might be called more comical than entertaining—certain eccentrics, known as hiccoughing mice. But these and the above are all, wherever found, directly or indirectly, of the Old-World race. That any New-World species had done aught of this sort was to naturalists unknown. A late friend of ours had a domestic mouse—"a singer, that is," as the old man said—"not much, but it would whistle a little—chirrup, you know." Now, it happened that, one day, our friend caught two wood-mice, real natives delicate, white-footed things, that looked too innocent to do any thing else than step mincingly around in their delicate white-satin slippers. So they were put into the cage with the singing-mouse. Whether, like some other folks, they had no appreciation of foreign airs, we have no means of answering; but alas! in spite of their silken ways, they at once set upon and murdered the little musical mouse.

These wood-mice are often called white-footed mice. They belong to a genus of the Sigmadontes, known as the Hesperomys, or Vespermico, and are indigenous to this our Western Continent. There is a number of species in the genus; but those best known are diminutive things, not so large as the house-mouse, their sides are yellowish-brown, the back considerably darker, the abdomen and feet almost snowy-white. Their home is the woods. With but little sympathy for man, they will occasionally intrude for a time into his dwelling, when, as I believe, the domestic mouse withdraws. My friend Philip J. Ryall, Esq., in the spring of 1871, when at his Florida home, near St. Augustine, was disturbed, at night, by what he supposed to be the chirping of birds in the chimney. The mystery was cleared up in an unexpected way. A very small mouse came up from a crevice in the hearth, and, with singular boldness, took position in the middle of the sitting-room floor. Here it sat up on its hind-feet, and looked around with the utmost confidence, all the time singing in a low, soft, yet really warbling style. This visit became a daily business, until it paid the penalty of its temerity by being captured. About a month after, this prodigy was intrusted to the custody of the writer. Of course, it came introduced as a "singing house-mouse." What was our astonishment at recognizing, in the little stranger, a true Hesperomys, and no house-mouse at all! It was one of the wood-mice, and among the smallest of the species. It is a female, and fully grown, yet not so large as a domestic mouse. Every pains was taken to secure the comfort and well-being of my little guest.

And what an ample reward I reaped! For a considerable time she carolled almost incessantly, except when she slept. Day and night she rollicked in tiny song, her best performances being usually at night. To me it was often a strange delight, when, having wrought into the late hours, and the weary brain had become so needful and yet so repellant of sleep, I lay down, and gave myself up to listening to this wee songster, whose little cage I had set on a chair by my bedside. To be sure, it was a low, very low, sweet voice. But there was, with a singular weirdness, something so sweetly merry, that I would listen on, and on, until I would fall asleep in the lullaby of my wingless and quadrupedal bob-o'-link. The cage had a revolving cylinder or wheel, such as tame squirrels have. In this it would run for many minutes at a time, singing at its utmost strength. This revolving cage, although ample as regards room, was not over three and a half inches long, and two and a half inches wide. Although I have now been entertained by these pretty little melodies for a year, yet I would not dare redescribe them. In the American Naturalist, for December, 1871, the music is given with that elaboration which was possible under impressions so novel and delightful. She had two especially notable performances. I called these rôles—one the wheel-song, because it was usually sung while in the revolving cylinder, and the other the grand rôle. A remarkable fact in the latter is the scope of the little creature's musical powers. Her soft, clear voice falls an octave with all the precision possible; then, at its wind-up, it rises again into a very quick trill on C sharp and D.

I must quote from the above a paragraph entire. Let me simply premise that in our household this little creature goes by the pet name "Hespie."

"Though it be at the risk of taxing belief, yet I must in duty record one of Hespie's most remarkable performances. She was gambolling in the large compartment of her cage, in intense animal enjoyment. She had just woke from a long sleep, and had eaten of some favorite food, when she burst into a fulness of song very rich in its variety. While running and jumping, she carolled off, what I have called her grand rôle; then, sitting, she went over it again, ringing out the strangest diversity of changes, by an almost whimsical transposition of the bars of the melody; then, without, for even an instant, stopping the music, she leaped into the wheel, sent it revolving at its highest speed, and, while thus running in the wheel, she went through the wheel-song in exquisite style, giving

several repetitions of it. After this, without at all arresting the singing, she returned to the large compartment, sat upright, resumed again the grand rôle, and put into it some variations of execution which astonished me. One measure, I remember, was so silvery and soft that I said, to a lady who was listening, that a canary able to execute that would be worth a hundred dollars. I occasionally detected what I am utterly unable to explain—a literal dual sound (a rollicking chuckling), very like a boy, whistling as he runs, drawing a stick along the pickets of a fence. So the music went on, as I listened, watch in hand, until actually nine minutes had elapsed! Now, the wonderful fact is, that the rest between the rôles was never much more than for a second of time; and, during all this singing, the muscles could be seen in vigorous action, through the entire length of the abdomen. This feat would be impossible to a professional singer; and the nearest to it that I have heard was the singing of a wild mocking-bird in a grove."

The point which I think I have demonstrated elsewhere in this matter is, the invalidity of the position taken by some, that the singing faculty of these little creatures is due to a diseased condition. The specimen above dwelt on has been for a whole year at least in perfect health. It now appears, from a late number of the Naturalist, that a gentleman in Maryland amused himself in breeding white mice, in the hope of raising a singer. After raising several hundred, he procured one that manifested a little musical ability. It sang in six months about half a dozen times. He says that it is in perfect health, and that its offspring are the largest and the finest, and that it is an amiable, playful little pet. This was a domestic mouse, and at best but a very moderate singer. But Hespie differs in all respects. She is the wild wood-mouse, and an incessant singer, and one of very remarkable parts in musical ability. She has also many interesting differences pertaining to habits and food. Cheese is not relished by her; but insects and grass are choice morsels. Her greatest luxuries are worms, and maggots out of nuts and fruit. She will take an earthworm into her little hands, and, holding it up to her mouth at one end, will cause it to gradually shorten and disappear, as some bipeds from Faderland might dispatch a favorite sausage. Her agility in catching flies is wonderful; she leaps at the object, and rarely misses a catch.

A singular fact is this: she is subject to occasional attacks of nostalgia. They are brought about in this way: For her health, as well as for our comfort, the cage must be regularly cleansed. This is at all times annoying to her. But occasionally the little bed of cotton-wool, in a small box in her large compartment, is taken out, and burnt, and a new one is supplied. This occurs about once a month, and invariably this change of bed is followed by a day or two of homesickness. She is unhappy, seems not to like the situation, tears her bed up, pulls it out, then pulls it in, in part, and goes off somewhere, and lies down, a habit she does not like to indulge in outside of the privacy of her little box. The tiny being is undoubtedly sick, and has not much appetite. After at most two days, she becomes reconciled, and is as merry and rollicking as ever, proving that to animals and men contentment is a continual feast.

She is not without imitation, for she has appeared to listen to, and to aim to imitate, the canary's song. Of course, imitations are seldom to be admired, and perhaps, even in music, mimicry may be set down as in the main base. I have known her to be excited into song by the playing of the piano, especially if the playing was in the natural key. There are many things that might be said, but the proverb on brevity is suggestive; so we will add only one thing more, and we regret that this last say is not in keeping with the Christian moral of speaking the last word kindly. Alas for little Hespie! She repels every gentle approach, even the hands that lovingly minister to her comforts; and, notwithstanding her great accomplishments, she is a capricious and unamiable little vixen.