by Sidney Campbell, Education and Outreach Coordinator
If you’ve only read one novel by American author John Steinbeck, I’m willing to bet it was Of Mice and Men. The tragic tale of the failed American dream is a popular choice in high school literature classes. The title comes from a 1785 poem by Robert Burns which was originally written in Scots, so it can be hard to understand if you aren’t familiar with the dialect. Luckily, you can find translated versions just about anywhere, including Wikipedia.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Steinbeck chose the line from this stanza for his title because it embodies the over-arching theme of his story. In spite of our hard work, sometimes our plans fall apart. However, while foresight may sometimes be in vain, we are left an opportunity to try again and improve.
Coexisting with mice and other “pest” can be distressing for some and downright disgusting for others Many try to alleviate the perceived problem by eradicating the mouse, and often this is done with rodenticides. These products are covered in warnings about use near pets or children to prevent accidental poisoning. For many it may come as a surprise that heeding these warnings can still result in the death of a non-target animal. The nature of rodenticide is to take effect long after consumed so that the target dies out of sight. Imagine, for a moment, that you are an owl. You’re sitting silently above a field. Out into the field wanders a mouse—slow, disoriented. An easy target. You swoop down without ever making a sound, catch the mouse, and consume him in one swallow. Mice who are dead or dying of rodenticide poisoning are easy meals for wildlife, and they’re also walking poison traps. The ingestion of a poisoned rodent by another wild animal often results in death. You can find an expansive list of peer reviewed literature about secondary rodenticide poisoning here.
In a given ecosystem, there are always more prey species than there are predators. Small rodents like mice are fast breeders because they are always under threat of predation- the more babies, the more likely that some of them will survive. When the predators in an area die, the mice are then unchecked by predation, leaving them to breed and multiply to greater number than before. Through the use of rodenticides, we often unintentionally exacerbate the problem by removing the very predators who are controlling the rodent population. For further reading on the downside of removing predators from ecosystems, you can go read my last blog.
Happily, there are many alternatives to rodenticides that won’t harm raptors and other predators. Avoid leaving pet food or bird seed outside where it’s an attractive meal for rodents. Make sure garbage is securely stored for the same reason. Decorative English ivy is a haven for rodents- consider replacing it with something less appealing. You can also encourage natural rodent control by building owl boxes in your yard. If you feel you absolutely must use lethal traps like snap traps, make sure they are placed somewhere other wildlife like songbirds won’t be caught unintentionally.