The house mouse (Mus musculus) is one of the most troublesome and economically important rodents in the United States. House mice thrive under a variety of conditions; they are found in and around homes and commercial structures as well as in open fields and agricultural lands. House mice consume and contaminate food meant for humans, pets, livestock, or other animals. In addition, they cause considerable damage to structures and property …
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… and they can transmit pathogens that cause diseases such as salmonellosis, a form of food poisoning.
House mice are small rodents with relatively large ears and small black eyes. They weigh about 1/2 ounce and usually are light brownish to gray in color. An adult is about 5 to 7 inches long, including the 3- to 4-inch tail.
Droppings, fresh gnaw marks, and tracks indicate areas where mice are active. Mouse nests are made from fine shredded paper or other fibrous material, usually in sheltered locations. House mice have a characteristic musky odor that identifies their presence. Mice are active mostly at night, but they can be seen occasionally during daylight hours.
While the house mouse has not been found to be a carrier of hantavirus, other mice have. Most notable are the deer mouse and the white-footed mouse, which sometimes invade cabins and outbuildings in California. The house mouse is distinguished from the deer mouse and the white-footed mouse by its overall gray-colored coat. The other two species have a white underside with a distinct line of demarcation between the dark coloration on top and the white underside. In addition, the tail on the house mouse has almost no fur on it, whereas the tails of the deer mouse and the white-footed mouse are moderately to well furred and are light underneath and dark on top.
Native to Central Asia, the house mouse arrived in North America on ships with settlers from Europe and other points of origin. A very adaptable animal, the house mouse often lives in close association with humans, along with Norway rats and roof rats; however, mice are more common and more difficult to control than rats.
Although house mice usually prefer to eat cereal grains, they are “nibblers” and will sample many different foods. Mice have keen senses of taste, hearing, smell, and touch. They are excellent climbers and can run up any rough vertical surface. They will run horizontally along wire cables or ropes and can jump up to 12 inches from the floor onto a flat surface. Mice can squeeze through openings slightly larger than 1/4 inch across. House mice frequently find their way into homes in the fall of the year, when outdoor temperatures at night become colder.
In a single year, a female may have 5 to 10 litters of about 5 or 6 young. Young are born 19 to 21 days after mating, and they reach reproductive maturity in 6 to 10 weeks. The life span of a mouse is probably 9 to 12 months.
Because house mice are so small, they can gain entry into homes and other buildings much more easily than rats. As a result, house mouse infestations are probably 10 to 20 times more common than rat infestations. Effective control involves sanitation, exclusion, and population reduction. Sanitation and exclusion are preventive measures. When a mouse infestation already exists, some form of population reduction such as trapping or baiting is almost always necessary.
A key to successful long-term mouse control is the limitation of shelter and of food sources wherever possible. Trapping works well when mice are not numerous, or it can be used as a follow-up measure after a baiting program. When considering a baiting program, decide if the presence of dead mice will cause an odor or sanitation problem. If so, trapping may be the best approach. Removal of mice should be followed by taking steps to exclude them so that the problem does not recur.
Several types of rodenticides are used in baits. The anticoagulant rodenticides are most commonly available and can be used in and around buildings. Because all rodenticides are toxic to humans, pets, and wildlife, take special precautions to prevent the poisoning of nontarget animals.
Because mice can survive in very small areas with limited amounts of food and shelter, their control can be very challenging, especially in and around older structures. Most buildings in which food is stored, handled, or used will support house mice if the mice are not excluded, no matter how good the sanitation. While good sanitation will seldom completely control mice, poor sanitation is sure to attract them and will permit them to thrive in greater numbers. Pay particular attention to eliminating places where mice can find shelter. If they have few places to hide, rest, or build nests and rear their young, they cannot survive in large numbers.
Exclusion is the most successful and permanent form of house mouse control. “Build them out” by eliminating all gaps and openings larger than ¼ inch, through which mice will enter a structure. Steel wool makes a good temporary plug. Seal cracks in building foundations and around openings for water pipes, vents, and utility cables with metal or concrete. Doors, windows, and screens should fit tightly. It may be necessary to cover the edges of doors and windows with metal to prevent gnawing. Plastic screening, rubber or vinyl, insulating foam, wood, and other gnawable materials are unsuitable for plugging holes used by mice.
Identification and Range: The Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) is a stocky burrowing rodent, unintentionally introduced to North America by settlers who arrived on ships from Europe. First introduced into the United States about 1775, this rat has now spread throughout the contiguous 48 states. The Norway rat is found generally at lower elevations but may be found wherever humans live.
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Also called the brown rat, house rat, barn rat, sewer rat, gray rat, or wharf rat, it is a slightly larger animal than the roof rat. The nose is blunt, the ears are small, close set and do not reach the eyes when pulled down. The tail is scaly, semi-naked and shorter than the head and body combined. When distinguishing the Norway rat from the Roof rat, pull the tail back over the body. The tail of the Roof rat will reach the nose. The tail of the Norway rat will not reach beyond the ears. Adult Norway rats weigh an average of about 1 pound. Their fur is coarse and usually is brownish or reddish-gray above, and whitish-gray on the belly. Blackish individuals occur in some locations.
Habitat: Norway rats live in close association with people. They burrow to make nests under buildings and other structures, beneath concrete slabs, along stream banks, around ponds, in garbage dumps, and at other locations where suitable food, water, and shelter are present. On farms they may inhabit barns, granaries, livestock buildings, silos, and kennels. In urban or suburban areas they live in and around residences, in cellars, warehouses, stores, slaughterhouses, docks, and in sewers. Although they can climb, Norway rats tend to inhabit the lower floors of multi-story buildings.
Food Habits: Norway rats will eat nearly any type of food. When given a choice, they select a nutritionally balanced diet, choosing fresh, wholesome items over stale or contaminated foods. They prefer cereal grains, meats and fish, nut, and some types of fruit. Rats require 1/2 to 1 ounce of water daily when feeding on dry foods but need less when moist foods are available. Food items in household garbage offer a fairly balanced diet and also satisfy their moisture needs.
General Biology, Reproduction and Behavior: Norway rats are primarily nocturnal. They usually become active about dusk, when they begin to seek food and water. Some individuals may be active during daylight hours when the rat population is high, when disturbed (weather change, construction, etc.) or when their food source is threatened. The territories of most rats are between 50 and 150 feet radius of the nest. In populations where there are many rats and abundant food and shelter, the territories will be towards the lower end of the range. If need be, however, rats will travel 300 feet or more daily to obtain their food and water. In urban areas most rats remain around the buildings and yards which provide their necessities, and unless they are disturbed, they do not move great distances.
Rats have poor eyesight beyond three or four feet, relying more on their hearing and their excellent senses of smell, taste and touch. Norway rats are very sensitive to motion up to 30-50 feet away. They are considered essentially colorblind.
Rats use their keen sense of smell to locate food items and apparently to recognize other rats. Norway rats rely on their sense of smell to recognize the odors of pathways, members of the opposite sex who are ready to mate, differentiate between members of their own colonies and strangers, and to tell if a stranger is a strong or weak individual.
Norway rats use hearing to locate objects to within a few inches. This highly developed sense (combined with their touch sensitivity) can pinpoint someone rolling over in bed to a six inch area. The frequency range of their hearing (50 kilohertz or more) is much higher than that of humans (about 20 kilohertz.)
Norway rats have a highly developed sense of touch due to very sensitive body hairs and whiskers which they use to explore their environment. Much of a rodent’s movement in a familiar area relies heavily on the senses of touch and smell to direct it through time-tested movements learned by exploration and knowledge of its home range. Rodents prefer a stationary object on at least one side of them as they travel and thus commonly move along walls, a fact which is very useful when designing a control program.
Their sense of taste is excellent, and they can detect some contaminants in their food at levels as low as 0.5 parts per million. This highly developed taste sensitivity may lead to bait rejection if the rodent baits are contaminated with insecticide odors or other chemicals.
Norway rats usually construct nests in below-ground burrows or at ground level. Nests may be lined with shredded paper, cloth, or other fibrous material.
Litters of 6 to 12 young are born 21 to 23 days after conception. Newborn rats are naked and their eyes are closed, but they grow rapidly. They can eat solid food at 2 1/2 to 3 weeks. They become completely independent at about 3 to 4 weeks and reach reproductive maturity at 3 months of age, sometimes as early as 8 weeks.
Female Norway rats may come into heat every 4 or 5 days, and they may mate within a day after a litter is born. The average female rat has 4 to 6 litters per year and may successfully wean 20 or more offspring annually.
When eliminating Norway rats, remember that glue boards are not very effective on large rodents. Snap traps and live traps will work. The most effective control method for these rats is the use of weather proof bait blocks.
Identification: The roof rat (Rattus Rattus) is one of two introduced rats found in the contiguous 48 states. The Norway rat is the other species and is better known because of its widespread distribution. When distinguishing the Norway rat from the Roof rat, pull the tail back over the body. The tail of the Roof rat will reach the nose. The tail of the Norway rat will not reach beyond the ears.
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A third rat species, the Polynesian rat, is present in the Hawaiian Islands but not on the mainland. Rattus Rattus is commonly known as the roof rat, black rat or ship rat. Roof rats were common on early sailing ships and apparently arrived in this country by that route. This rat has a long record as a carrier of plague.
Three subspecies have been named, generally identified by their fur color:
- The black rat, R. Rattus Rattus Linnaeus, is black with a gray belly.
- The Alexandrine rat, R. Rattus alexandrinus Geoffroy has an agouti (brownish streaked with gray) back and gray belly.
- The fruit rat, R. Rattus frugivorus Rafinesque, has an agouti back and white belly.
- Crossbreeding between subspecies has often occurred, resulting in unreliability in identification by color. However, Roof rats do not cross with Norway rats.
Range: Roof rats range along the lower half of the East Coast and throughout the Gulf States and upward into Arkansas. They also exist along the Pacific Coast and are found on the Hawaiian Islands. The roof rat is apparently not quite as adaptable as the Norway rat, which is one reason it has not spread throughout the country. Its geographic distribution suggests it is more suited to tropical and semi-tropical climates. Occasionally isolated populations are reported from areas not within their normal distribution range; however, these instances are rare. Most of the Great Plains states are free of roof rats but infestations can occur.
Habitat: Roof rats are more aerial than Norway rats in their habitat selection and often will live in trees or on vine covered fences. Landscaped residential or industrial areas provide good habitat, as does vegetation of riverbanks and streams. They will often move into sugarcane and citrus groves. Roof rats are sometimes found living in or around poultry or other farm buildings as well as in industrial sites where food and shelter are available. Being agile climbers, Roof rats frequently enter buildings from the roof or accesses near utility lines which they use to travel from area to area. They have been found in sewer systems, but this is not very common.
Feeding Habits: The food habits of roof rats resemble those of tree squirrels, since they both like a wide variety of fruit and nuts. They also feed on a variety of ornamental and native plant materials. Like the Norway rat, they are omnivorous and will feed on most anything if necessary. Roof rats usually require water daily, though their local diet may provide an adequate amount if high in water content.
Reproduction and Development: Born in a nest about 21 to 23 days after conception, the young rats are naked and their eyes are closed. The 5 to 8 young in the litter develop rapidly, growing hair within a week. When they are 9 to 14 days old, their eyes open and they begin to explore for food and move about near their nest. In the third week they begin to take solid food. The number of litters depends on the area and varies with nearness to the limit of their climatic range, availability of nutritious food, density of the local rat population and age of the rat. The young may continue to nurse until 4 or 5 weeks old. Young rats generally cannot be trapped until about 1 month old. At about 3 months of age they are completely independent of the mother and are reproductively mature. In tropical or semitropical regions, the breeding season may be nearly year-round. Usually the peaks in breeding occur in the spring and fall.
Feeding Behavior: Roof rats usually begin searching for food shortly after sunset. If the food is in an exposed area and too large to be eaten quickly, yet not too large to be moved, they will usually carry it to a hiding place before eating it. Many rats will cache or hoard considerable amounts of solid food, which they may or may not eat later. When necessary, roof rats will travel considerable distances for food. They can often be seen at night running along overhead utility lines. They may live in trees or attics and climb down to a food source. This is important from the standpoint of control, for traditional baiting or trapping on the ground or floor may intercept very few roof rats. Roof rats have a strong tendency to avoid new objects in their environment and this can influence control efforts. These rats may take several days before they will approach a bait station or trap.
Senses: Rats see poorly, relying more on smell, taste, touch and hearing. They are considered to be colorblind, responding only to the degree of lightness and darkness of colors. Roof rats also have an excellent sense of balance. They use their tails for balance while traveling along overhead utility lines and are very agile climbers.
Roof Rat Elimination: Although spring traps (snap traps,) glue boards and live traps will work when eliminating Roof rat populations, the most effective control for this small rat is with the combination of glue traps and weather proof bait blocks.