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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen

Harvest Mice

Title:     Harvest Mice
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

I had often wished to keep these interesting little animals, but as they are only found in some parts of England and are difficult to capture from their minute size and delicacy, I had to wait many years before they could be obtained. At length, through the kindness of a friend, six were sent to me from Norfolk, and for two years they lived in captivity and afforded me much pleasure.

They are the smallest English rodents, two of them only weighing a halfpenny; they are brown in colour with white underneath, very long whiskers and prehensile tails. They were made happy by finding all things needful for their comfort in a large plant case. A thick layer of cocoa fibre was spread over the bottom of the case, dry moss and hay provided, wheat-ears, oats, and canary seed, and a small cup of water. A flowerpot in which a number of small branches were fixed afforded opportunity for exercise in climbing, and a pleasant resting-place was formed by a half-cocoanut filled with cotton-wool and roofed over with dry moss, then slung by three wires in a tripod of sticks of corky-barked elm, a little hole for entrance being left at one side. Into this the mice went the moment they were turned into the case, and in it they mostly lived. I fancy its swinging a little as they moved inside was congenial to their ideas of comfort. As they live in cornfields and make a pendulous nest attached to an ear of corn, I supplied them with a pot of growing wheat, in the hope that they would incline to make a nest in it; but I could never induce them to rear a family. They would sit for hours in the corn-stalks and nibble them into a heap of shreds, but no nest ever appeared. Their greatest delight was a handful of fresh moss full of little insects on which they would feed. The greatest excitement was always shown when the moss appeared--little heads would peep out of the cocoa-husk, little noses sniffed in all directions, and then, with jerky runs, the tiny folk made their way to the attractive spot, and soon each would be seen sitting up like a small kangaroo feasting on a beetle or spider held in the tiny paws. Sometimes in their great happiness they made a low, sweet chirping like a company of wrens conversing cheerily together. When climbing in their tree-branches it was interesting to see how the fine wiry tail was always coiled round the stem as the creature descended, so as to keep it from falling and injuring itself.

Canary seed and brown bread seemed a favourite diet, and if I put a trough of growing corn into the case the mice made little burrows through it so as to be able to eat the wheat from below. I had heard a sad report that my fairy-like pets had a tendency to eat each other as spring came round! This I fancied might arise from lack of animal food, so once or twice a week I always gave them a small portion of meat and this seemed to prevent any tendency to cannibalism.

After keeping them two years several deaths occurred, so I thought the remainder should have their liberty, and I had the pleasure of seeing them enter one of my corn-stacks where I hope they found all that their little hearts could desire, and possibly they would stray to a neighbouring bank and found a colony.

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Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Harvest Mice