Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/November 1878/Singing Mice

617405Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 November 1878 — Singing Mice1878Henry Lee (physician)



A FEW days ago I was invited by a medical friend to visit him at his house, and hear two musical mice sing a duet, the performance to begin punctually at 8 p. m. I had never heard a singing mouse, though I had read and been told a good deal of the vocal accomplishments the little animal occasionally displays; so I gladly availed myself of the opportunity, and duly arrived half an hour before the commencement of the concert. My friend explained to me that every evening two little mice came out from behind the skirting-board in his dining-room, and sang for their supper of cheese, biscuit, and other muscine delicacies, which he took care to place on the carpet for them always at the same hour. One of them had received the name of "Nicodemus"—an allusion, I suppose, to a certain furtive visit by night—and the other was known as "The Chirper." To "make assurance doubly sure" that they would fulfill their engagement, and not disappoint me, their supper had been withheld from them on the evening previous to my visit.

True to time, just as the clock struck eight, and while we were conversing, there came from a corner of the fireplace, "Chirp, chirp, chirp," the same note being repeated several times at the rate of about thrice in a second, and gradually becoming louder. Presently a slight movement was visible about one end of the fender; and, after some hesitation, a little brown mouse came out upon the carpet, leisurely sniffed about for its accustomed meal, came close to my chair, looked wistfully up to my face, and I was introduced to "The Chirper." As a critic, I am bound to say that "The Chirper's" performance was of second-rate quality; but it was merely a kind of levée de rideau, and the principal artist was yet to appear.

We had not to wait long. At the conclusion of "The Chirper's" ineffective solo, a prolonged trill was faintly heard from behind the scenes, followed by others, each more audible than its predecessor; and ultimately "Nicodemus," the soprano, came forth before the audience, perfectly self-possessed, and showing no signs of "stage-fear."

The song to which the little creature gave utterance again and again in our full view was as sweet and varied as the warbling of any bird. It most resembled that of the canary, but the melody of the nightingale was occasionally introduced. Every note was clear and distinct, but withal so soft, so gentle, tender, and pianissimo, that I can only compare it to the voice of a bird muffled by being heard through a down pillow. In the room was a canary, whose cage was suspended in one of the windows. He had settled himself to roost, and his head was under his wing, but at the sound of "Nicodemus's" serenade he awoke, and listening attentively, and fantastically leaning alternately to right and left, peeped curiously down to the floor. I learned that mouse and bird were intimately acquainted with each other, and that the former frequently visited his feathered friend and staid to supper. Accordingly, while we looked on with interest and pleasure, "Nicodemus" climbed up the drawn curtains, entered the bird's cage, and partook of the seed—the canary showing no symptom of disapprobation or disturbance, but merely from his perch peering down on his visitor in a ludicrously quaint and odd manner. During his supper-time "Nicodemus" obliged us, from the cage, with several repetitions of his song, "The Chirper," down below on the carpet, occasionally coming in with a monotonous contralto accompaniment, and sometimes emitting a sound like the squeaking of a corkscrew through a cork. The two little songsters, having done their best to please us, were rewarded with all that mice could wish for as components of a feast, and, after selecting the portions they severally preferred, gracefully retired.

The singing of mice has been attributed to various causes: 1. It has been thought to proceed from disease of the lungs or vocal organs, and to be akin to the wheezing characteristic of asthma. 2. It has been propounded that the singers are always pregnant females; but this statement has been made on very insufficient data, and may, I think, be dismissed. 3. Dr. Crisp informed Mr. Buckland that he thought the singing was caused by a parasite in the liver; and Mr. Buckland tells me that he has at his museum at South Kensington a specimen in spirits in which this parasite is plainly visible in the liver of a singing mouse once alive in his possession. "But," he says, "I am not at all sure that other mice also who are not musical have not this parasite." This I believe to be the case, for it is well known that mice and rats, whether singers or not, are peculiarly liable (perhaps from their promiscuous feeding) to become the hosts of parasites such as hydatids in the liver, and trichina in the muscles.

Of course, I can say nothing about the condition of the livers of the two mice I heard sing last week; but they did not act as if they were afflicted with disease of the liver, or any other organ. Brisk and vivacious in all their movements, darting now and then back to their hiding place, as if to keep open their means of retreat while foraging, they looked the impersonation of vigorous health and bright activity; and, like every one else who has heard them, I feel quite sure that their song—especially that of "Nicodemus"—is not involuntary, nor the result of any disease of the respiratory organs, but an intentional and conscious utterance of a series of notes in musical sequence. As Mr. Buckland says (loc. cit.), "The song is a genuine song, as good and as musical as that of a lark on a fine summer morning,"

Prof. Owen tells us that the anatomy of the mouse is very similar to that of birds; and all who have seen this little rodent in the act of singing have noticed that the throbbing of its throat is like that of a bird in full song, and that it then elevates its snout as a bird does its beak.

Whether the singing of mice may be due to an imitative faculty which leads them to mimic the vocalization of birds, I am not prepared to say. There is great apparent probability in favor of this supposition, but there is, also, strong evidence against it; because well-authenticated instances have been adduced of mice bred in captivity, and apart from any caged bird, having exhibited capability of song.

It is remarkable that in almost every case of a singing mouse having been seen as well as heard, it has been described as very small, much browner than the common gray or slate-colored mouse, and as having very large ears. This exactly applies to my little entertainers, "Nicodemus" and "The Chirper." They are both very tiny mice, their coats are very brown (not so much so as to be fawn-colored), and their ears are abnormally big. I should be tempted to regard the singing mouse as a peculiar variety, if this idea had not been contradicted by the recorded fact that one out of a litter of common mice has become a "cantatore" or "cantatrice," while the rest have remained incapable of "favoring with a song."

The fact is that, although singing mice are not very rare, they are not common enough to have permitted any competent zoölogist to note their birth and parentage, observe their habits in life, and dissect them after death in a series so complete as to give assurance of scientific accuracy.

I was amused on reading in a paragraph in Nature of the 25th ult., that, in reply to a letter from Dr. Berdier in La Nature, affirming that mice sing, "a distinguished herpetologist, M. Lataste, suggested that Dr. Berdier might have made confusion with the singing of a raniform batrachian, the Bombinator igneus; but Dr. Berdier said there was no marshy ground near the room in which he had heard it, and he stuck to his assertion," There certainly was no "raniform batrachian, Bombinator igneus" in the comfortable dining-room in Gower Street, where I was introduced to "Nicodemus" and "The Chirper," and one would suppose that the instances of mice having been seen, as well as heard, singing, have been sufficiently numerous and well attested to render unnecessary so extravagant an explanation as that of the "distinguished herpetologist." The subject was, however, regarded as worthy of being brought before the Société d'Acclimatation at its last meeting, when M. Brierre confirmed the observation of Dr. Berdier, and stated that he had himself heard mice sing, though not more recently than 1851-'53.—Land and Water.