Douglas-fir and the mice

Going for a walk in the forest becomes so much more interesting when you have a sense of which plants and wildlife live in the area. One of the trees all kids in BC should know about is the Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Identifying trees can be daunting as you first start out but let us share an easy way to identify the Douglas-fir based on its cones – and it comes with a story that any child will be sure to retell to their friends and family.

A Pacific Northwest indigenous legend tells that there was once a great fire in the forest. All the animals began to flee to escape the fire; the birds flew away and the deer and other animal were able to run away. However, the mice with their tiny legs were not quick enough to outrun the fire.

They asked the maple tree, the western hemlock and the western red cedar for help, but they were unable to offer help. Then they reached a Douglas-fir who encouraged the mice to climb up its thick, fire-resistant trunk and hide in its fir cones. The mice took shelter inside the cones and survived the devastating fire. Even to this day, if you look at the cones of a Douglas-fir closeup, you can see the little hind feet and tails of the mice sticking out from beneath the scales of the fir cones.

Facts about Douglas-fir:

  • There are two varieties of Douglas-fir – a coastal variety (Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island) and an Interior (southern BC) variety.
  • A fast-growing, “pioneer” tree which reaches heights of 85 meters on the coast and half of that in the Interior.
  • Mature trees have a long, branch-free trunk and a short cylindrical crown with a flattened top.
  • Needles are flat with a pointed tip, stand out around the twig.
  • Douglas-fir is not a true fir but belongs to the pine family. This is why its common name is hyphenated.
  • Fossil records trace this species to the Early Tertiary period about 50 million ago.
  • Named after David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who introduced many of BC’s native conifers to Europe.
  • In Halkomelem language, the Coast Salish name for this tree is lá:yelhp.
  • There are many wildlife benefits of the tree. The seeds are eaten by many birds and mammals; birds such as chickadees and nuthatches eat insects from the tree; and deer, voles, beavers and moth larvae eat its needles. Bears like to rip off the bark of the young trees and eat the sap underneath.
  • Aboriginal people used the wood as fuel for pit cooking as well as for fishing hooks, handles and as flooring in lodges.
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6 Replies to "Douglas-fir and the mice"

  • Janne Perrin
    12/11/2018 (10:15 pm)

    Great article. I’ll be loooking for the feet and tails.

    • Valerie
      14/11/2018 (4:30 pm)

      Ya ! me too ! Love the story

  • Shelley
    23/11/2018 (11:25 am)

    I remember this story from when I was a little girl 40 years ago:)
    Have taught it to my kids and many other children over the years.
    The story makes it easy to always identify a Douglas Fir tree on a hike.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  • Cynthia Berg
    23/11/2018 (12:39 pm)

    What a great story for getting children out in to the forest and looking for those mouse tails and feet in the cones of the mighty Douglas Firs. Once they find them they will never forget that identifying feature.

  • Michael Galligan
    05/01/2021 (3:31 pm)

    What is your source for this PNW native legend? I have never been able to find one.

  • Yoav Litvin
    03/05/2021 (3:30 pm)

    Do you know the source of this legend?

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