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Northland Nature: Deer mice hop over the snow

Since it is nocturnal, this deer mouse was photographed at night. Notice the large eyes, and a tail about equal to the length of the body. (Larry Weber photo)1 / 2
The typical hopping gait of a deer mouse on the surface of the snow. Notice the footprints, with a central tail mark. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

It’s been more than 70 days since we first received a snowfall that covered the ground. This introductory snow at Thanksgiving time was followed a week later, in early December, by a heavy coat. About 2 feet descended on the region.

With the subsequent cold that has persisted since then (we have had only 2 days above freezing since this snow cover), the snowpack has remained.

January brought us plenty of cold, becoming the coldest January in 20 years, but overlooked was the snowfall.

The temperature was far below the normal (1.6 F for January 2014; normal is 10.2 F), so the snowfall received was much below the normal (9.4 inches for January 2014; normal is 19.4 inches). And so, the snow has continuously been with us, but not a lot has been added to the near-record setting amount of December.

I went out into the garden last week and checked the depth of the snowpack there. Out in the open, yet still surrounded enough to keep from drifting, this is a good place to take snow measurements.

Sampling at several sites, nearly all were the same: 18 inches.

This is not much different from the 20 inches that I recorded here in early December. The snow settled. We got small additions.

And in recent weeks, we saw drifting in open areas.

In walking, the untrammeled snow is still about up to my knees: passable, but not too comfortable.

And as I took my walks, I saw that many others were moving about too.

Deer have been making trails at several sites in the woods and sometimes chose to walk on my routes.

Foxes and coyotes left tracks along the edges of roads and woods, although I did see where a pair of coyotes managed to go through a swamp and the field beyond.

The cottontails in the yard have stayed mostly on their usual routes among the spruces, often coming to the bird feeders at night. Their cousins, the snowshoe hares, revealed hopping tracks in the woods, as did the ermine.

I found a well-used path of a porcupine, as it shuffled through the snow in its travels from den site to food site.

But the most abundant tracks that I located were those of the deer mouse.

Native mice in the region can be discerned by the length of the tail — small, medium and large.

Those with the short tail, of about an inch, the voles, such as field mice, move about through the cold season in relative comfort under the snowpack. We usually do not see them even though they are common and often in our yards and fields. Their fur is almost a uniform dark color.

Mice with the mid-sized tail, about equal to the body length, are the deer mice. (They are also called white-footed mice; although there is a slight difference between the two, most of us cannot tell.) These mice with the large eyes, brown back and light underneath, are the ones we are likely to see in the cold times. Often in fall, they try to move into our dwellings and we don’t always appreciate their presence.

The one mouse with a large tail, the caudal appendage much longer than the body, is the jumping mouse — so named because it uses its large back legs to hop long distances. This two-toned brown-gray mouse is a true hibernator and not seen at all through the winter.

Deer mice may join their cousins, the voles, under the snow, but since their gait is that of a hopper, they find moving better and easier on the surface of the snow.

Mammal movements, as seen in tracks on snow, are by basically the walkers and hoppers. Although some of the walkers such as porcupines and muskrats will show tail marks with their footprints, almost no hoppers do.

Squirrels are hoppers and even though they have large bushy tails, they do not leave tail marks in the snow.

The only hopper that does is the deer mouse, with obvious footprints and a central line that reveals the tail. They are light enough to stay on the surface of the snowpack.

And I continue to see their movements across the long-lasting snow that now extends into February and probably far beyond.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o