OUT ON THE California desert, a colony of mice has been placed in artificial burrows where its activities are watched closely by various electronic devices. The goal: to see if these little animals know something that human beings should know - and don't. The project, funded by the Geological Survey, is not frivolous. There is some evidence that certain kinds of animals, mice among them, begin to behave in unusual ways shortly before earthquakes strike. After years in which such tales were pooh-poohed, many scientists now take the evidence seriously enough to justify a full-scale investigation.

This interest in animals and earthquakes is not new. Reports of unusual behavior by various species prior to earthquakes go back almost 200 years. But these reports were widely disregarded until the Chinese, who have done a great deal of earthquake research in recent years, claimed to have connected odd behavior of creatures as different as snakes and birds with the timing of earthquakes. While there is still great skepticism about those claims, there is substantially less than there was a decade ago. And given the need for a reliable system of predicting earthquakes, the mice (and some other animals whose behavior is also being monitored) are worth checking out.

There would be considerable irony in a discovery that mice, of all things, have the ability to know something about the earth that all of mankind's sophisticated equipment has not revealed. We might have to start being nice to the mice - at least a few of them. And it would open up, at least for some people, questions about those other old wives' tales that all of us learned in our childhoods couldn't possibly be true - about the groundhog and spring, the mule and rain, the cattle and tornadoes and what have you. We're not sure that would be a good development: There's much less evidence - in fact, practically none - to support any of those tales. But, given the public's need to know (about earthquakes), our best wishes go to the mice - and to the mice-watchers as well.