Pick from the Past
Natural History, February 1937

The Indoor Explorer


HREE SINGING MICE: Radio listeners throughout the country were recently astounded by the announcement, broadcast from a Chicago station, that they were about to hear the vocal efforts of the much publicized singing mouse lately discovered in a children’ s industrial home near that city. No listener could have been more nonplussed than your indoor explorer as this strangest of radio debuts, a series of quite musical chirps and trills, reached his incredulous ears.

Having had no previous experience with the vocal achievements of mice other than the usual squeals of fright followed by a scuttling into nearby holes, the writer had supposed that their voices were never more than a means of expressing the most fundamental emotions as briefly as possible. The idea of a mouse radio-entertainer trilling and chirping with professional nonchalance into a microphone gripped your explorer’ s imagination, and caused him to murmur: “What wouldn’ t I give for a singing mouse story of my own?”

Though not so suddenly answered, it was almost as if a fairy god-mother, hearing the wish, had waved her wand; in fact she must have waved her wand thrice for, a week or so later, the writer was invited to a concert given by, not one, but three singing mice.

The concert took place in, of all places, a New York apartment; but this was not an ordinary apartment—in fact it is probably the only one of its kind.

Tenanted by Mrs. William Le Roy Cahall, a member of the American Museum, it contains a living collection of approximately 300 tropical birds ranging from a 30-year-old large-sized parrot, to a tiny song bird about the size of your thumb. Sleeping at night in cages, all these birds have the complete run of the apartment during their waking hours. A flock of canaries, fifty strong, sweeping into the living room, circling, and flying in close formation out along the hall again is a common every-day sight for Mrs. Cahall’ s visitors.

The extraordinary breeds the extraordinary. It was therefore fitting that with all the apartments in this particular building to choose from, the three minstrel mice should have selected Mrs. Cahall’ s as their winter residence.

Of course, what really attracted them was a small room which Mrs. Cahall has set aside as storeroom for the large quantities of grain and seed necessary to feed her magnificent bird collection.

One evening, a short time ago, Doctor and Mrs. Cahall heard a soft trilling sound which, to their astonishment, evidently came from this storeroom.

The song resembled that of a female canary.

“One of canaries has slipped in there instead of going to his cage to sleep,” concluded Doctor Cahall.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” replied his wife, “they have never disobeyed me before. When I call them each and every one has always gone to his own cage to sleep, and besides the storeroom door is never opened at bed time.”

Fearing that one of the canaries had perhaps hurt its wing and had been unable to get out of the storeroom before it was closed, Mrs. Cahall entered and switched on the light—what she saw sent her running into the living room shouting to her husband to “come and see mice—three of them—that sing like canaries, nibbling at one of the seed sacks.” Doctor Cahall laughed. “Impossible,” he said. When she returned with her husband the mice, frightened, had disappeared. Doctor Cahall enjoyed his joke—but not for long.

The next evening, at about the same time, the singing was heard again. This time Doctor Cahall saw the mice: a little one with a shrill, melodious “soprano,” a medium-sized mouse with (shades of the three bears) a medium-sized voice, and a big fat one with a deep “chirrup.”

These mice have continued to provide the Cahall’s with entertainment.

They form a trio and harmonize rather well. As they are quite wild and shy, you must crouch in the dark storeroom to hear them. When the light is flashed on they soon run to cover, usually, however, continuing their song in flight. The little soprano is the most proficient of the three, Mrs. Cahall asserts, and is also the most persistent. Sometimes, unaccompanied by her “supporting cast,” she will give solos while on a solitary forage in the storeroom.

“I say ‘she’ because the little mouse seems like a female,” explained Mrs. Cahall. “Although she is the tamest of the three, I have not succeeded in getting on sufficiently good terms with her to examine her very closely. But I am making progress. Just the other night I got her to eat a bit of cheese out of my hand. I want her to get accustomed to the smell of my hand and to associate it with food. In this way I hope gradually to tame all three mice and add them to my pet collection.”

The three songsters have all the physical characteristics of the common house mouse. They are steel grey in color. When singing they often sit upright on their haunches, place their fore-feet about their heads and twitter in their respective keys very much in the attitude of dogs baying at the moon.

Mrs. Cahall says that she has every reason to believe that these songs are not indications of impaired breathing or of a diseased condition of the vocal chords. Her opinion is that the mice sing because they want to, and that, if the song means anything at all, it means that the mice are enjoying themselves. She bases this assumption on the fact that the songs are usually forthcoming at feeding time.

Just why the mice did sing was indeed puzzling. The writer made the tentative suggestion that they might have learned the habit from the canaries. This, Mrs. Cahall doubted, since the mice never sang in the daytime when the canaries were singing, and could scarcely be expected to wait modestly until their unwitting instructors had gone to roost before piping their soft-toned imitations.

Nor does one find any support of the “imitation theory” among the papers of Prof. Lee R. Dice of Michigan, who has done considerable laboratory experimentation with singing mice. Not only is Prof. Dice skeptical of the idea that singing mice imitate birds but he doubts that any musical sounds influence them very much. Says Prof. Dice: “. . . the captive male [singing mouse] in my possession did not respond in any way to musical sounds of many different sorts produced for his benefit by the phonograph and by various instruments. This does not agree with the observation of Brehm who states that singing mice are stimulated to sing by piano music.”

Despite exhaustive research on the subject, Prof. Dice does not make a definite statement as to the cause of the rare occurrence of a musical song in certain otherwise normal house mice.

After examining many suggestions by others and stating the number of alternatives that occur to him, he concludes that there is a possibility that all mice are singing mice. His experiments do not show, however, that this odd vocal condition (or whatever else may he the cause of the song) is an inherited character, but that ordinarily their song is pitched too high for the human ear and that only an occasional mouse with an oddly constructed vocal apparatus gives song that is audible.

Prof. Dice was able to study the heredity factor in minute detail in his breeding laboratory and found no combination of mates that would result in offspring capable of even approaching the vocal qualities of their sire. However, he feels that more research is needed before this matter can be finally settled.

So your explorer is forced to conclude that singing house mice are simply unpredictable. A person who doesn’t take the slightest interest in animals, usual or unusual, may wake up some bright morning with a whole family of singing mice twittering cheerfully at the foot of his bed. While someone who would give his eye-teeth to possess one of the rare creatures might spend a lifetime in fruitless search.

Reports of their existence have emanated from every quarter of the globe. In certain countries where song birds are scarce or too expensive for slim purses, singing mice have been kept in cages as songster pets. Travelers in China during the last century told of the value set upon singing mice as pets in that country, and communities in southern France were said to keep them in notable numbers.

However, so far as your explorer knows, no one has succeeded in setting up, side by side, a collection of every type of canary together with a family of singing mice. And if Mrs. Cahall is able to tame her mice and bring about this unprecedented relationship, she will have accomplished something that is not only unique in itself but is of value to scientific knowledge.

Both the Department of Mammals and the Ornithologists of the American Museum would be intensely interested in the possibilities of such a liaison.

If she is successful, it will not be the first time Mrs. Cahall has benefited science. She has been a sort of avian cornucopia for the Central Park Zoo, having contributed over 700 birds of all types for public exhibition.

She has also made a study of bird ailments and has learned to cure many of the diseases she has studied. Although the wife of a physician, she took no special interest in the pathology of birds until such an interest was forced upon her. “I learned to care for sick birds,” said Mrs. Cahall, “because I could find no veterinary to heal my pets when they fell ill.”

It is curious how the various problems that present themselves in the course of pursuing a hobby grow so great that, to solve them, one’s avocation must rapidly become one’s vocation.

Your explorer is wondering to what lengths Mrs. Cahall’s latest hobby, her singing mice, will lead her. He for one is prepared to await developments with the greatest of interest.

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