Close encounters of the uncaffeinated kind

I am not a morning person.  I’ve always wanted to be, and sporadically tried to be – but quite frankly, I am just not at my best before 8 am.  Which makes my decision to study birds – a career choice that often requires getting up long before the sun – perhaps not one of my smartest life choices.  Although I love most things about fieldwork, I can’t deny that there are parts I’m less fond of: the dreaded sound of my alarm going off in the dark, the wrenching realization that I actually have to get out of bed even though most of the world is still asleep, and the difficulty of finding my clothes and getting dressed with my eyes still mostly shut.

Once I’m up, though, I usually find myself enjoying the quiet, pre-dawn world – as long as I get my coffee and some uneventful peace and quiet in which to sip it.  Despite how that sounds, I’m not a coffee fanatic.  In fact, I didn’t even like the stuff until I started doing fieldwork and getting up regularly at 4:30 a.m..  Even now, I’ll usually only have one cup, first thing in the morning – but God help everyone around me if I don’t get that cup.

For me, coffee is an essential part of field life. And in the rare case where a field station doesn't come equipped with a coffee maker, improvising may be necessary...

For me, coffee is an essential part of field life. And in the rare case where a field station doesn’t come equipped with a coffee maker, improvising may be necessary…

Early one California morning, I stumbled into the kitchen of our field accommodation on the hunt for my morning coffee.  Navigating almost more by smell than sight (always a dangerous proposition in a house inhabited by six twenty-something field assistants), I bypassed the large stack of dishes in the sink and went straight to the stove to grab the French press and kettle.

As I leaned against the counter with my eyes closed, waiting for the water to boil and trying not to fall back asleep, I heard footsteps coming my way.  Within a few seconds, my friend Andrea entered the kitchen, carrying a small metal box: the Sherman trap we’d set out the night before in hopes of catching at least one of the mice making themselves at home in our living room.  (Yes, I realize that doing the dishes would have been a good move to make if we wanted to get rid of the mice.  But…like I said:  one house, six twenty-something field assistants.)

A Sherman trap - useful for live trapping small mammals in the field (and sometimes in your house).

A Sherman trap – useful for live trapping small mammals in the field (and sometimes in your house).

I’m never particularly surprised to come across mice in my field accommodations – in most places, they come with the territory.  But surprised or not, I am about as fond of them as I am of the sound of my alarm at 4:30 am..  Sure, mice can be cute.  In fact I do find them cute – outside.  But the second they start running across my bare feet while I’m eating dinner, all bets are off.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever had to deal with mice knows, they are extremely hard to get rid of – especially if you aren’t willing to kill them.  Live trapping mice, as it turns out, is singularly ineffective.  They are remarkably good at finding their way home, and will unerringly make their way back into your house unless you pick up the trap, get in your car, and drive for at least a mile before releasing them.  If you drive less than a mile, there’s a good chance the mouse will be back in your house before you are.

However, field biologists, as a rule, tend to be animal-loving types, and so we were waging our ‘war’ on our furry housemates using Sherman traps.  At first, we had some success.  But over the summer, the traps were becoming less and less effective – most likely because we weren’t all that careful about releasing the mice more than a mile away, so most of them had probably already experienced the trap and knew to steer well clear of it.

That morning, though, Andrea was clearly excited by our unusual victory, holding the metal box vertically and pushing open the small trap door at the top to peer inside.

“We got one!” she said in triumph.  “Hey – it’s actually pretty cute!  Come and have a look at it.”

Since I still hadn’t had my coffee, I was less than enthused about that.  But I took the trap from her anyway, and pushed down the trap door to gaze at the deer mouse huddled at the bottom.

At least, I assume it was huddled at the bottom of the trap.  I never actually saw it huddled anywhere.  As I depressed the trap door, a blur of greyish-brown fur came flying out of it – and landed in the middle of my chest, clinging to my sweatshirt and staring up at me with beady eyes.

I’m not going to lie: I may have screamed.  In my defense, while I dislike mice in my kitchen, I am not normally scared of them.  But mice on the floor are one thing; mice clinging to my clothing are an entirely different thing.  And – not to belabour the point – this was before 5 a.m..  More importantly, it was before my coffee.

I stared at the mouse.  It stared at me.  I’d be hard pressed to say which one of us looked more horrified.  We were at an impasse: it was clear that neither of us had the slightest idea what to do to extricate ourselves from this situation.

Luckily, the mouse was much more decisive than me.  A split second later, it released its death grip on my sweatshirt, ran down my jeans, and scampered next door into the living room – where it no doubt went right back to making itself at home.

I stood stock still, staring after it.  Beside me, Andrea started to giggle.  By the time the kettle on the stove began whistling, she was almost bent double with laughter.  “Oh my God – your face!” she said.  And still laughing, she headed out the door.

I, on the other hand, decided to skip the coffee and just go back to bed.

Deer mice are adorable...unless they're clinging to your sweatshirt at 5 a.m.

Deer mice are adorable…unless they’re clinging to your sweatshirt at 5 a.m.

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2 thoughts on “Close encounters of the uncaffeinated kind

  1. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

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