Most years our house is host to a mid winter invasion of antechinus. Antechinus are small marsupials that look like large mice, but are actually tiny predators with much fiercer habits.
Antechinus spend most of the year roaming the bush in pursuit of insects, spiders, centipedes, skinks, mice and pretty much anything they can subdue. Antechinus are amazingly fast and agile, can scale vertical walls and even grip onto the underside of projecting surfaces. They squeeze into unbelievably small spaces, their skulls flattening and deforming to let them through. Their skulking skills make them impossible to exclude from just about anywhere they want to go.
All antechinus, including the most common species around Sydney, the Brown Antechinus, live to a highly synchronized annual cycle. Brown Antechinus all breed over a couple of weeks in mid winter. At the end of this short breeding season nearly every male dies. The females carry the next generation free of competition from males. Once born the babies are carried around on the females teats, and soon enough the youngsters are independent and ready to start their short year.
Antechinus seem to be attracted to the warmth and shelter of buildings during the breeding season. The result is that every few years all the drama of the crazy competition of the males takes place in our house on the edge of the bush.
At first the only sign is a faint rustle in a dark corner, but as the breeding season progresses the males become bolder and start appearing all around the house. That means running up walls, peering out from impossibly narrow gaps between wardrobes and bookcases and scrambling around in plastic bags.
A couple of years ago the invasion was driving my son to distraction. He used an Elliot trap, a non lethal device, to catch the antechinus in his bedroom. He would carry them a hundred metres down the nearby firetrail to release them. After making thirteen captures in a single night he belatedly concluded that he’d been catching the same handful again and again. They must have been getting back to the house almost as quickly as him.
After a fortnight or so of frantic activity it suddenly comes to an end. I’d always assumed that this coincided with the males dying and the females heading out to find enough food for their developing offspring. I still think that is the basic situation, but this year I photographed a female who was already dragging around a litter inside the house. Maybe the next generation has decided to move in!
Notwithstanding this twist, I can’t think of any more definitive marker of the march of seasons than Sydney’s Brown Antechinus. Each mid winter they come in from the cold, run through a fortnight of frantic breeding, then all the males die and bequeath the world to the next generation.
Odds and sods