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Jan 14, 2019 12:14 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Secretive Meadow Jumping Mouse

The meadow jumping mouse has oversized, powerful, kangaroo-like hind legs and feet enabling it to make bounds up to 5 feet long. MIKE BOTTINI
Jan 15, 2019 12:22 PM

This past weekend was New York City Audubon’s annual Montauk Winter Weekend, a trip I’ve been helping out with for nearly 30 years. It was organized and developed nearly 40 years ago by Jamaica Bay Guardian Don Riepe, who still leads the popular outing. Don is an excellent naturalist and wildlife photographer, an amazing flamenco dancer, and an all-around fun person to spend a weekend with.This year’s group of 40 included the usual mix of hardcore birders and folks just looking for a fun getaway from the city that included lots of time outdoors. Added to the mix was a very knowledgeable botanist, who corrected me on my wrong answer to the question, “Is Spanish moss a lichen?” while we were discussing old man’s beard (Usnea sp.) on a morning walk (Spanish moss is a flowering plant).

Among the scheduled field trips was a hike out to the seal haulout site on Montauk Point’s north side to coincide with low tide and a chance to view seals basking on rocks, and a trip to the point to scan the nearshore ocean and sound for gannets and razorbills, and the usual mix of winter seabirds including mergansers, scoters, eiders and loons.

I like to include a half day outing in the Walking Dunes, although not a particularly great area for birding, one of my favorite areas on Long Island and one I enjoy visiting through all the four seasons of the year. We’ve also had good luck in past January trips getting looks at snowy owls in the expansive marsh and grassland area between the parabolic dunes and Goff Point.

The temperature was a bit below freezing, and if that didn’t make one feel as if they were out on a winter’s day, the addition of a stiff northerly wind did. Not far along the trail we came upon a white-footed mouse, our most common native mouse on Long Island, which had mysteriously perished with no obvious signs of predation or injury.

An immature bald eagle flew over, a nice sighting for the birders and non-birders alike, but the find of the weekend for me was a meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius). Like the previous white-footed mouse, there was no sign of struggle or injury. But even more mysterious was the fact that this species hibernates for six months of the year, from November through April, in a den located two to three feet underground. It was found atop the sand in the hibernation posture, with its head tucked down on its chest and large hind legs and feet wrapped around either side of its head forming an oval ball.

In 30 years of leading nature walks and field ecology programs, and doing wildlife research in jumping mouse habitat, this was my first encounter with a meadow jumping mouse on Long Island. In his 1902 publication “Notes on the Mammals of Long Island, N.Y.,” naturalist Arthur Helme writes, “While not rare, and in some localities quite plentiful, it is the least numerous of any of the mice found on Long Island. Although a species that is supposed to hibernate, it is occasionally found abroad in mid-winter, when its tracks have been noticed in the snow.”

Did our warm, wet fall and early winter delay this individual’s urge to hibernate until it was too late? To avoid that issue, most plants and animals cue on day length instead of the more fickle temperature. Perhaps its underground winter den was flooded by the high water table.

This handsome creature had fine golden brown fur on its sides, a white belly and a band of dark brown fur from head to tail along its topsides. Most noticeable are its oversized hind feet and extremely long tail, the former giving it a miniature kangaroo appearance and the latter stretching longer than the head and main body together.

As with most of our small rodent species, the jumping mouse dines on seeds, fruits and insects, and is very nocturnal and short-lived, with a lifespan of only one or two years. It makes up for that by producing two to three litters of four to five young every year, so that one pair is capable of producing 15 young every summer. That productivity is kept in check by a wide array of predators, so we are in no danger of being overrun by jumping mice.

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