Illustration: Kam Mak
I heard it on the radio late one night, just as I was drifting off. The news came in on the lips of a BBC reporter, through the salt spray of an impending dream. Mice can sing. To one another, when they want to mate. You can't hear it, the reporter said.
But now I was awake, I was floating. They sing! Even though you can't hear it—you can only hear them skittering across your kitchen counter on winter nights, leaving tiny black, perfectly formed pellets in your fruit bowl.
What do they sing? Can birds hear it, and does it make them cock their heads in the early morning, just before dawn? Is it operatic, what the mice sing, a full-throated invitation to couple madly on your kitchen floor? Is it a love duet, a trilling affirmation of consensual desire? Do they nibble on a pear while they're singing, and does the soft fruit moisten their palates and put them in robust voice? Do girl mice sing, too, or do they lick their whiskers and wait?
I checked the local newspaper in the morning. There was a small item in the Lifestyle section:
"Scientists have long known that male lab mice produce high-frequency sounds—undetectable by human ears—when they pick up the scent of a female mouse… Audio recordings of the sounds, modified for human ears, reveal that the vocalizations are patterned songs, not random twittering…"
How long have scientists known? While the rest of us were marveling over whale songs, were scientists coyly bobbing their heads to modified mouse ditties? After they finally gave up on the music of the spheres, did they start randomly listening to the least vocally flamboyant of creatures? What if the expression "quiet as a mouse" set off a chain reaction of urgent questions, jotted in notebooks in the dead of night?
I turned to Google. "Mice can sing," I typed, and there arose a chorus of affirmations. "Picking Out the Faint Notes of Die Fleder-Mouse" headlined an article at Canada's GlobeandMail.com. "Romantic Rodents Give Secret Serenades" led off a jaunty piece from NewScientist.com. And, darkly, from someone at the white nationalist Stormfront.org, a posting that read, "This is of limited use to the cause…, but I cannot be alone in feeling that it is obscurely encouraging."
I hurried on, arriving at last at an online journal from the Public Library of Science. And there it was, the report from a team of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. It turned out that "Ultrasonic Songs of Male Mice" was number one in the journal's top 10 articles viewed within the past week, besting "First Observation of Tool Use in Wild Gorillas" (No. 2) and "Cro-Magnons Conquered Europe, but Left Neanderthals Alone" (No. 5), an event apparently auguring a global peace that so far has not materialized.