Copper River Record October 25, 2018
By Robin Mayo
What cats are actually good for is a debatable topic. They provide warm and fuzzy, if somewhat aloof companionship, rodent control, and entertainment. Both my cats are black, so they aren’t even very good at posing for pictures, most photos end up looking like a cat-shaped void in the fabric of the universe. So to earn their kibble my cats have taken on the responsibility as guardians of my integrity, keeping me honest and looking out for falsehoods.
If you’ve ever come on a WISE hike, you may know that one of my pet peeves is inaccurate names for our local flora and fauna. I cringe a little every time I hear a reference to pine trees, since our evergreens are spruces. When someone refers to mice, I often correct them, saying that most of our tiny rodents are actually voles. And I try to be polite when someone refers to bunnies or rabbits, as our native lagomorphs are Snowshoe Hares.
My cats have decided to school me on the mouse issue. Both cats are avid vole hunters. Redbacked voles are those fuzzy little oblongs we often see scurrying around, characterized by short legs, stubby tail, and you guessed it, a decidedly reddish back.
Thankfully my cats do not present me with gifts of dead rodents, but I do occasionally find remains on the porch or front yard that tell me what they are catching. There are a lot of voles, and occasionally a shrew. But several times this summer I found distinctively long tailed, big footed remains that can only be a meadow jumping mouse. Curious, I did some reading, and it turns out they are not uncommon in this area. Like flying squirrels, their solitary and nocturnal habits keep them secret much of the time.
Meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius) can be found over much of North America, including Alaska. They prefer damp, relatively open habitat to dense forests. Unlike voles, meadow jumping mice hibernate, which may partially explain why we see less of them—they are unlikely to move into our houses for the winter. They are about 5 inches long, more than half of which is their very long tail. The other very distinctive trait is large, kangaroo-like hind feet, over an inch long. Between the tail and the feet, there is no way you can confuse a jumping mouse and a vole if you get a good look.
The most remarkable thing about jumping mice is, of course, the jumping. Normally they hop along in steps of one to five inches, but they can jump up to 3 feet when alarmed. They are diggers who prefer to live underground, and are mostly nocturnal, although it seems like in Alaska they must compromise and feed during the daylight or they would never get fattened up for winter. They prefer seeds, but are omnivores who will eat almost anything. And of course they are an important prey species for hawks, owls, foxes, ermines, and other predators.
So, I stand corrected on the mice! Next my cats moved on to the hare issue, and proceeded to make friends with a very large black rabbit which hangs around in our neighborhood. He lounges with them on the porch sometimes, reminding me that we do have rabbits, although they are not indigenous to the area.
Which leaves Pine trees. I’m going to stay on my high horse for this one, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the cats bring home some evidence of a lodgepole pine alive and well in the neighborhood. Forestry used to give out seedlings at the fair, and they can thrive in the right spot. We are going to have to sit down as a family and have a serious talk about the difference between native, domestic, and invasive species. But I do appreciate the subtle ways they have chosen to manifest their superior intelligence.
Meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius) photo courtesy of Animaltown.com
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.