For Gary Marino, the telltale sign was a crouton.
He is a vegetable gardener and enthusiastic cook. And in the kitchen of his 1930s home in Buffalo’s University District, he had a bowl of croutons sitting on the counter.
“I woke up and there was a crouton on the floor,” he said. “At first I thought I had dropped it. But the next day, there were two of them on the floor. I thought, wait a minute. I know I didn’t drop two croutons and leave them in the middle of the floor.”
His heart sank. His suspicions were confirmed when, looking around, he saw droppings. He walked over to the computer and typed a despondent Facebook post:
“There is a mouse in my house.”
A mouse in the house. They are words that, every winter, everyone dreads.
It’s probably no accident that the words rhyme. A mouse and a house tend to come as a package deal, especially when icy winds blast and the critters creep in, looking for warmth and food.
Medieval nursery rhymes reflect that ancient partnership.
“Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock,” goes one. And the three blind mice, running away from the farmer’s wife. Mice are heroes in “Cinderella” and villains in “The Nutcracker.” They have always been among us.
And yet when one turns up, the homeowner usually feels shame.
Even Marino, whose imaginative bachelor pad was once The Buffalo News’ Home of the Month, worried people would think that if he had a mouse he was a slob.
“At first I wasn’t going to post anything,” he confessed. “I thought people would think I wasn’t clean. Then I thought, nah, I don’t care.” He took courage thinking of a fastidious friend who had the same problem. “She is meticulously clean. She’s the cleanest housekeeper I know. You could eat off her floors. And she gets mice.” So he went public with his problem. “And I get all these responses.”
Because every winter, almost everyone has a mouse story.
I know I do. Last week, we noticed our orange tomcat sniffing around the china cabinet. He would crouch for hours, watching and waiting.
Howard, the guy I married, shone a flashlight under the cabinet.
“You wouldn’t believe this,” he said.
It was as if a mouse equivalent of Rocco Termini had created a massive luxury housing development. There were banks of what looked like cotton, shredded newspaper and what appeared to be walnuts, probably from a Christmas bowl that had naively been left on the table.
This was war.
‘Yucky, but interesting’
Mus musculus domesticus, is the Latin term for the common house mouse. The “musculus” is a reminder of how athletic they are.
They can leap up to a foot in the air. They can run along wires like Nik Wallenda, only a lot faster. And if they cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound, they can scamper up and down the walls with amazing agility. They can collapse their skeletons and can squeeze through openings that are almost invisible.
Mickey Mouse is one thing. Mus musculus is another. The Cornell Cooperative Extension warns that though some call the critters cute, the droppings can carry disease and odors. Gnawing can ruin woodwork and clothing, and chewing on wires can cause fires.
All that explains why humans, when we see a mouse, are hard-wired to go “Eek!”
Mice may be more afraid of us than we are of them, but that does not mean they are an unworthy opponent.
“Next to us humans, the house mouse is the most successful mammal on the face of the earth,” said Lynn Braband of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, quoting the words of experts.
Braband, a biologist, is the author of “Beasts Begone!,” an online manual on dealing with pests. He confesses to a sneaking respect for mice’s minds and abilities. “On the one hand, they’re yucky creatures,” he said. “On the other hand, they’re interesting.
“They’re everywhere. They’re very adaptable. They’ll figure things out, if they’re motivated. Mice can get by with not very much food. And of course they can get into buildings and get into food. Good sanitation is still important,” he stressed. “But especially for a homeowner, to identify ways in which the mice are getting in, even in older structures, can do quite a bit.”
Braband said that the mice Western New Yorkers will encounter are either the common house mouse or one of two native species, deer mice and white-footed mice. Knowing what kind of mouse you have may offer a clue to how they are getting in.
“The house mouse, they tend to enter a structure around the foundation, pretty low,” he said. “The deer mice and white-footed mice – they look very similar, they’re very difficult to tell apart – they’re good climbers. If you’re going to exclude them you have to check the roof line. They can climb up to the roof in a variety of ways.
“Another major difference is, house mice, once they have been established in a structure, they stay inside. Native mice are out foraging. They are going in and out.”
Some of the suggestions Cornell offers are surprisingly simple. Close the doors, for one thing. Who knew mice usually enter your house through an open door? Fix holes in walls and screens.
Once those basics are taken care of, don’t skimp on traps. “Skimping decreases effectiveness.”
When is it necessary to call an exterminator?
“If you’re catching or seeing a lot of young mice, that means you have an established population,” Braband said. “That’s when you need someone with more experience involved.”
I have been breathing easier having a cat around. Wasn’t rodent control the original reason for the domesticated house cat, thousands of years ago? Braband, though, had bad news.
“A cat can help out in terms of catching that incidental mouse that comes in,” he said. “But if you have an established population, the mice can get into places the cat can’t.
“An established population should not be ignored,” he added. “Mouse proteins are a known asthma trigger. There are a variety of other diseases, infectious diseases, that mice and mice droppings can carry. In fact, and this particularly applies to native mice, for many diseases the risk comes when you stir up the dust in any enclosed place where mice have been.”
A very clean mouse
Occasionally, a mouse dies by accident. One woman took her laundry out of the dryer and found, among the clothes, a dead mouse.
“At least it was clean,” she said.
But usually, it is up to us to kill the mice. It’s not nice.
Another mouse harborer takes a cottage cheese carton lid, puts peanut butter on it and floats it in a tub of water. The mouse supposedly steps onto the lid and sinks to his watery grave. Gross! Who would want to fish him out?
Mousetraps are efficient, hence the phrase, “build a better mousetrap,” referring to do something that could not be done better. But just the thought is creepy.
One East Aurora woman laughed ruefully talking about the traps her husband set. They baited them with peanut butter – the smart mouse money is on peanut butter, not cheese – but then waited a few weeks before setting the traps, so the mice would get used to them.
When he finally set the traps, she could tell. “I would hear them at night. Snap! Flop-flop-flop-flop-flop. SNAP! Flop-flop-flop-flop-flop.”
Joan Fishburn, a petite, strong and agile woman of 81, has impressive capabilities that include running the Amherst Symphony. But when she lost her husband a few years ago, she was hit by one of those absurd, laugh-or-cry thoughts that hit people at times of grief.
“I thought, I can cut my grass. I do a million things,” she said. “But who is going to set my mousetraps?”
She learned. She uses rubber gloves, she explained. Then she picks up the mouse, trap and all, and plunks it into a paper bag. The paper bag goes into a plastic bag, and then the plastic bag is tied and into the garbage it goes. Trap and all.
“I throw it all away,” she declared.
Marino hopes he will not have to take such measures.
Naively or not, he is hoping his mice will leave peacefully. He has begun his mouse battle with deep cleaning.
“I had to take drawers out, sanitize all my stuff,” he said. “I cleaned everything really good because they really go for stuff like grease on the stove.”
“There were a couple days when I didn’t see any sign of the mouse. I thought it was gone. But a few days later, I saw droppings. Then I went out and got D Con,” he said, referring to a common commercial mouse bait. “I thought, this is it, I’m killing this thing. But the mouse was too smart to eat it. It was still around, but not nibbling at the D Con.”
Mysteriously, the mouse was also not touching other delicacies.
“I have bags of flour it hasn’t touched. Boxes of cereal. It hasn’t been near that,” Marino brooded. “It’s been around the stove. I think maybe there was stuff that’s spilled over. I cleaned the whole area good with all kinds of bleaches. And peppermint oil; I read on the Internet that they hate that. You get peppermint oil at the health food store, and pour it into all the cracks and crevices.”
He remains optimistic.
“I hate to kill it, I really do. I looked up on the Internet about how to catch it and set it free, but it’s too much work,” he said. And anyway, the mouse would probably just re-enter the house. “What, do I have to drag it down to LaSalle Park?
“I’m hoping if I get rid of the food sources, it’ll go away.”
Good luck to him. As for me, I am still too chicken to pull out that china cabinet and confront the mouse version of the Hotel@the Lafayette.
Could I maybe poke a vacuum nozzle under there and vacuum it all up? Just so I don’t have to – eek! – touch anything?
Whatever the solution, determination is key.
“Exclusion can be done,” said Braband.
“It takes something of a perfectionist, but it’s always a good idea.”