Insatiable Short-Tailed Shrew
short-tailed shrews are exceedingly common in the Northeast,
many country dwelling people think they have never seen
one. They mistake the small gray creature skittering
through the leaves for a mouse!
The short-tailed shrew, known scientifically as Blarina,
is about four inches long, and covered with silky, dense
fur that can be brushed in either direction. He has
small ears and minute eyes, almost hidden in fur. His
eyesight is poor, but his senses of smell and of touch
are acute. He has a very long, sensitive snout that
he uses to probe in moist leaf litter and sniff out
prey. Although shrews are our smallest of mammals, they
are ferocious. Because of their exceedingly high rates
of respiration and heartbeat, their metabolic needs
make them voraciously hungry, always! They must hunt
by day and by night, in the most inclement weather,
with no time to hibernate. Within a day, if three shrews
are confined in a box, first, two will kill and eat
the third, then, by nightfall, only one victor will
remain his stomach quite full!
Although classified as an insectivore, Blarina is opportunistic
and enjoys a varied menu. His long probing nose discovers
in the leaf mold: insects, earthworms, slugs, snails,
centipedes, salamanders and carrion. He also eats vegetable
matter especially beechnut kernels and seeds,
some of which he may cache.
Even amongst shrews Blarina is unique. He has poisonous
saliva! Woe to the young mouse noticed by voracious
Blarina. He pounces on the hapless creature and bites
it with his long, strong, hooked incisor teeth. Into
the wounds flow the poisons whose effect is much like
that of the cobra, and the mouse is paralyzed. Then
he devours it with his numerous sharp teeth, tipped
with red pigment. He can eat several times his own weight
in a day!
Blarina has a gland on each side of his body that produces
a strong odor, so disagreeable that some predators won't
eat him. Birds don't have a good sense of smell, and
owls, hawks and shrikes take him readily. He is also
preyed upon by weasels, foxes, coyotes, wolves, bobcats,
and house cats.
Blarina builds a spherical nest six to eight inches
in diameter that incorporates dry grasses, shredded
leaves, and, if available, rabbit hair. The entrance
is a small opening on the side. Some shrews may shore
up the edges of the nest with small stones! The nest
may be built in a hollow tree, under a wood or brush
pile, or in an abandoned mouse burrow. From spring to
early fall, shrews may produce three litters with three
to ten babies in each. The babies are born naked and
helpless, and look like tiny, pink, wrinkled honey bees.
Within a month, the baby shrews are independent and
are able to pursue their fierce, short lives. Because
of their metabolic rate, most shrews "burn out" and
survive less than one year!
Articles by Miriam Sanders