Before the warm weather melted all of our snow last week, there were lots of signs that small mammals were busy with their winter harvest. Rabbits, mice and beavers all root around in the snow looking for lunch….or dinner….or second breakfast. Rabbits aren’t considered to be rodents according to online sources, but mice and beavers both are; beavers are supposed to be the biggest rodents in North America. We see bunnies all the time around the Farmyard, but the mice and beavers aren’t so easily seen.
After a fresh snow the rabbit “pastures” are clearly marked where they dig down into the snow in order to “graze” the dry grass. Without the snow it’s hard to tell where the bunnies are eating. In addition to the dry grass, they strip bark off young trees and thin out the sage and other native plants that we have as landscaping around out house. They also eat the old asparagus plants from the previous season. That’s shown near the top of the second photo above a bunny pasture in the snow.
Here’s another asparagus plant getting chewed on by rabbits. We know that its rabbits because they left their calling cards in the snow next to their tracks. In some places around the house, these fertilizer pellets are so thick after the snow melts that they almost pose a health hazard. The melting snow also exposes old trails used by mice to get to their grazing areas. There are probably poop pellets here too, but they’re not as conspicuous in the old melting snow.
We may not see the mice very often, but on thin fresh snow their travels are pretty well documented. It’s like a map of mouse behavior. What’s surprising about these particular trails is how far they go without any protective cover to hide away in. The mice were probably moving pretty fast over the snow to avoid becoming a meal for the predators that are always on the hunt. Notice the trail that the tail leaves, especially in the track at the bottom of the photo.
Here’s a closer shot that shows the marks of the tails a little better. And, it looks like all tracks are leading to a clump of dry plants that’s probably like going to the mouse grocery store. The photo on the right shows tracks that are all leading home. That’s a mouse house there in the center of the picture. These guys were probably also moving pretty fast to avoid becoming someone else’s meal.
When the water started flowing over the ice in the Creek last week, this orange branch of plum wood got exposed. I think that it was probably “beaver-bit”. And earlier this winter it looked like some critter tried to get out of the water and up onto the snow-covered ice without much luck. Although we haven’t seen any beavers this winter, I think that both of these are clues that they’re around this year too. These pictures were both taken near a spot on the Creek that has had lots of adventures: an old horse fell into a collapsed beaver den; an old man lost both snowshoes when he fell through the ice; a big snapping turtle “attacked” a little girl; and a different little girl lost one of her mittens in the Creek as the ice was floating by. Some of these stories have already been told elsewhere in this blog, but some of them have not….yet.
Butterflies and birds are cool, but beavers and rabbits and mice are also all integral parts of the mosaic of life on the prairie. Beavers impact waterways and trees in both positive and negative ways. Rabbits’ job this time of year is probably to thin the thatch in a grassland. But, what possible good are mice? Small mammals like mice help to plant seeds with their caches and their burrows probably enhance soil health by providing direct conduits for water (like turnip roots in a cover crop mixture). And then of course, mice and rabbits are food for the hunting hawks and coyotes and eagles. They’re like an intermediate link between the plants and the predatory carnivores. “All God’s critters have a place in the choir” (Peter, Paul, and Mary) of life that makes the tall grass prairie viable and resilient.