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Mouse and litter

Idaho’s Howling Mouse {format} {format} 4:04 Jeff Rice

The howl of the Idaho rodent, short version.

Broadcast: Nov 19 2003 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Western Soundscape Subjects: Science, Environment

Profile: Myth of Idaho's howling northern grasshopper mouse

November 19, 2003 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: Finally, old-fashioned vermin: mice, howling mice. And a warning. You will actually hear these crooning creatures momentarily. It's all right. Take a breath. Relax. They are not in your car or cubicle. But you can find them near the home of producer Jeff Rice.

(Soundbite of car driving down road)

JEFF RICE reporting:

I'm on the edge of almost a thousand square miles of pristine sage prairie, part of the great sagebrush ocean of southern Idaho. And there's this little town called Atomic City, home to 25 people, 50 horses and three bars.

Unidentified Man #1: The wind blows a lot here. It rains often once in a while. We have some snowstorms in here in the wintertime; they do pile up.

RICE: If you want to stir up a debate in Atomic City, just go into a bar here and mention the northern grasshopper mouse. I say it's real, but not everyone is so sure.

Unidentified Man #2: I would dare say that's just a myth.

RICE: This mouse is what you might call a biological curiosity. According to scientific reports, it waits for the dark of night, gets back on its hind legs, throws its head back and...

Unidentified Man #3: Howls like a wolf.

(Soundbite of laughter; men making howling sounds)

RICE: I had read an obscure report written way back in 1931 by a naturalist named Vernon Bailey. He wrote that the howl of the grasshopper mouse is as smooth and prolonged as the hunting call of the timber wolf. And get this: apparently they live right out here in the desert, right near where I live.

(Soundbite of crickets; footsteps)

RICE: It wasn't long before I was spending my nights tramping through the sagebrush trying to hear one. I don't exactly know what I was thinking I might find. To be honest, I didn't have much luck. Just a lot of crickets, no howls, not much of anything. So I went home and kind of moped. But I didn't give up, and one day I got a phone call from the University of Arkansas. It turns out they really do exist.

Dr. ROBERT SIKES (University of Arkansas): The mouse will kind of sit back on its hind quarters, point its nose towards the sky and howl.

RICE: That's Dr. Robert Sikes. He's a biologist and he actually studies grasshopper mice. That's his job.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Dr. SIKES: OK. We're in the basic animal services unit at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We're housing currently just slightly over 600 of these grasshopper mice. These are northern grasshopper mice, onychomys leucogaster.

RICE: At exactly 7:30 every night here, the lights go out in Dr. Robert Sikes' grasshopper mice lab and every night the howls begin. Very quickly, I begin to understand why I didn't have much luck recording them in the field. As we stand here surrounded by hundreds of mice, Dr. Sikes gets very excited. `We can't hear anything,' he says. `Isn't that great?'

Dr. SIKES: Right now, they are vocalizing like crazy in this room. We simply can't hear it. We hear the tiniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg of what's actually going on.

RICE: It turns out that a lot of what grasshopper mice do is too high-pitched for us to hear. Researchers in the lab have discovered a whole lexicon of their ultrasonic chirps and other mysterious communications.

(Soundbite of grasshopper mice squeaks)

RICE: Scientists can make it audible through electronic processing.

(Soundbite of grasshopper mice squeaks)

RICE: If I slow it down, you can hear it better.

(Soundbite of high-pitched noise)

RICE: There you have it, the howling mouse of the prairie. High-pitched or not, the meaning of the howl seems pretty clear. Scientists think that it's territorial in much the same way that a wolf's howl is territorial. It's comforting to find that the same laws of nature that govern wolves also govern mice and men.

(Soundbite of person howling)

RICE: For DAY TO DAY, I'm Jeff Rice in the Idaho desert.

(Soundbite of person howling)

CHADWICK: So the question is: Is it better to hear a mouse and know it's there or not hear it and wonder?

DAY TO DAY's a production of NPR News and I'm Alex Chadwick.