Mating of the Shrews

northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda)

Northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda)
Northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda)

I saw my first Northern Short-tailed Shrew in fall of 2008 in Dunn Woods. I was walking along the east-side path towards the Well House, when I heard a great small rustling in a pile of leaves that the grounds crew had piled on the woods side of the path. I stopped and listened, there was another flurry of leaves rustling inside the pile. All of a sudden a shrew popped out of the pile, and squinted in the daylight. I doubt it saw me (they have poor eyesight, just like their close relatives the moles). Another popped out, then back int the leaves. Although I did not know them by sight, I immediately researched and realized they were not voles or mice, but the northern short-tailed shrew. The distinguishing characteristics are the blunt nose, small, almost hidden eyes and ears, clawed feet with the front ones canted outwards, and the short stubby tail. I learned they hunt insects, live under the leaf litter, are venomous, and sleep a lot.

During May of 2009, I happened across a pair of shrews in Dunn Woods, they are quite secretive and shy, nearly blind like their cousins the moles. So today as I was taking my daily walk through the woods listening to a new bird’s song, in the northwest quadrant I heard rustling in the euonymus. I assumed it was one of the many chipmunks that have moved into the woods this spring.

I didn’t know if the shrews had made it through the year, and after I walked around a bit more, I headed back towards the Von Lee. I then heard the same sort of rustling in the same spot, then it grew louder and louder. I could see the progress of 2 animals as the euonymus above trembled as they ran around. They circled up near the path, and started vocalizing, squeaks and little grunts, and I could hear that they have a different timbre to their voices either mice or voles, .

There was more bustling around and suddenly one of the shrews ran out of the vines and across the bricks right in front of my feet. It had gray fine fur, a squared off snout, and sure enough, a short tail. This behavior was very similar to what I saw last year, and I realized they were “fighting” or mating. I waited around for a few more minutes, but number two shrew just stayed on where he was, probably took a nap.

Sometime in the winter of 2011-12 Eileen and I were walking on the path behind the MAC, and the ground was covered in three to four inches of snow. I saw a 5 inch wide tunnel popping up from under the snow. We watched, and the tunnel kept growing. So I took a stick and removed some snow in front of the growing tunnel, and in a quick moment, a shrew popped out, and then quickly dug back into the snow.

In October 2016, I found the dead shrew in the pictures above. He/she was lying on the side of the B-Line Trail under the train tracks on the north end of the trail. I could see no signs of trauma, and it appeared well fed, so it’s death is a mystery. I had never seen a shrew not in motion, so I took the few shots above.

If found this great info about the Northern Short-tailed Shrew at the Illinois Natural History Survey website.

Species Spotlight: Short-tailed Shrew

While Shakespeare’s farcical portrayal of the ill-tempered Kate in Taming of the Shrew may raise a few politically correct eyebrows today, a firsthand encounter with the tiny but ferocious short-tailed shrew leaves little doubt why the term “shrew” is applicable to someone with a nasty disposition. Even old rough-and-tumble Teddy Roosevelt was impressed with the aggressive demeanor of his pet shrew, writing “certainly a more bloodthirsty animal of its size I never saw.”

One of the most ubiquitous and abundant mammals to inhabit Illinois and Indiana, the short-tailed shrew is seldom seen in its natural habitat and is most likely to be encountered when it becomes “something the cat dragged in.” If they are seen, shrews are often mistaken for mice or voles because of their small size, but they are not rodents, belonging to a separate mammalian order, the Insectivora. Weighing only an ounce and stretching a mere five inches, the short-tailed shrew is still the largest shrew species found in our area. Its cylindrical body is covered with short, velvety gray to black fur; but the long, pointed, flexible nose, tiny beady eyes, and small ears hidden in its thick fur give it a somewhat demonic appearance. Add to this a distinctive, but mysterious, red or brown pigmentation of their teeth and it’s no wonder the shrew has historically received more than its share of bad press.

Just about any habitat can sustain a population of shrews: upland or bottomland forests, grasslands, weedy fields, wetlands, and occasionally even buildings. Population densities most certainly vary among these habitats, but can reach 80 per acre in moist forests with a thick layer of leaf litter and numerous logs. Shrews are active year-round and spend most of their time in underground burrows or scurrying through grassy tunnels in open fields or through leaf litter on forest floors. Because of poor vision, they rely on their sensitive snouts and abundance of whiskers to navigate; adding to their mystique they also use a form of echolocation, more often associated with bats and dolphins.

Female shrews construct a bulky, oval-shaped nest of partly shredded leaves and grasses beneath a fallen log or stump. The young are born in the nest from early spring until late September with usually four to six per litter. Three to four litters are produced per year. When born the shrews are naked and their eyes and ears are closed. They are the size of a honeybee, but within one month they are half grown.

Shrews are without a doubt one of the most ferocious mammalian predators–as one naturalist put it, “the tigers of the small animal world.” But thankfully, due to their small size, their prey consists largely of earthworms, snails, slugs, insects, and other invertebrates. Occasionally they will resort to small amounts of plant material, but the real “beasts” are more likely to take on other small rodents, salamanders, and snakes. To further add to their charm, shrews are one of the few venomous mammals in the world. Their saliva contains a powerful toxin that can cause a painful reaction in some humans, but is more useful in immobilizing its prey. The immobilized prey can be cached alive to serve as a larder of food that will remain fresh for several days.

Some shrews do end up on the wrong end of the food chain. Owls, hawks, snakes, and weasels are known to feed on shrews, but other predators make the kill, then leave them uneaten–like those gifts the cat sometimes leaves on the doorstep. Though the shrew paid the ultimate price, it gets the last laugh–a foul, musky odor produced by scent glands on its flanks gives it a taste as bad as its personality.

Susan Post and Charles Helm, Center for Economic Entomology; Joyce Hofmann, Center for Biodiversity

Northern Short-tailed Shrew, Blarina brevicauda
Northern Short-tailed Shrew, Blarina brevicauda

Inky Caps

New photo by Mitch Rice / Google Photos

Coprinopsis atramentaria, and Inky Caps in general, encompass the group formerly known as coprinoid fungi, but which in 2002 were divided into 4 different species (The Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatas, remained as the type species for Coprinus, in the Family Agaricaceae, while the others were dropped into the Psathyrellaceae Family as Coprinellus, Coprinopsis, and Parasola.)

The common feature that had early mycologists convinced they should all be in the same species was that they all fit the description of “inky cap”, delequising quickly into a black liquid as a methodology for distributing spores.

The ones in the picture above were found in the grass behind Bryan Hall, and are known as the common inky cap, Coprinopsis atramentaria, aka Tippler’s Bane. Inky caps contain a chemical named coprine, which inhibits the body’s ability to break down the acetaldehyde which results from drinking alcohol. This can make you feel very puny, do not drink and eat the otherwise edible inky cap family! (Symptoms include facial reddening, nausea, vomiting, malaise, agitation, palpitations and tingling in limbs, and arise five to ten minutes after consumption of alcohol.)

The three species that I see often in Southern Indiana are the common inky cap the mica cap (Coprinellus micaceus), and the shaggy mane (Coprinus_comatus).

Shaggy Manes, Coprinus comatas
Shaggy Manes, Coprinus comatas

Pileated Woodpeckers in Dunn Woods

I heard the distinctive and insistant call of a pileated woodpecker, (Dryocopus pileatus) in Dunn Woods today. I am relatively sure that is what I heard, as I pulled out my phone and opened Merlin Bird ID, and listened to the various other calls of other peckers: red-bellied, red-headed, downy and hairy woodpeckers, as well as the flicker. The call of the flicker was the only one that came close to the raucous call of the pileated, a repeated ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki. I made the call for pileated woodpecker over the flicker by the habitat. Dunn Woods has quite a few trees that have died since the big winds in 2011 when so many maples were downed. Dead standing trees are a cafeteria for pileated (and other woodpeckers), but flickers prefer to eat in more open habitats, walking on the ground to scare up ants and beetles with their curved beaks.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus
Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

Pileated woodpeckers have been in Bloomington for many years. Before the property on Curry Pike became Cook Inc, it was a large beech grove, and everyone seemed to know that the woodpeckers nested there. So no one was surprised to see one in town working on an old silver maple. When that property was logged, I think the larger group dispersed around town, but I have no proof.

Over a decade ago I noticed that there were pileated woodpeckers in Winslow Woods park, they have been nesting in the many beech tree cavities in the park. I remember seeing them silhouetted against the sunset while I was working in community garden, and the sound of them calling in mature beech forest that covers that sinkhole rich park.

So it is easy to see why there was one in the woods today. There are quite a few large dead trees that make q buffet of carpenter ants and other insects for the peckers to eat. A lot of trees (a majority of them hard maple) were lost in the decimating winds of May 2011. But these trees most likely died from draught stress in the years that followed, and they are still standing and providing food and shelter for the woodpeckers of Dunn Woods.

White Trout Lilies

White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum
White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum
Dunn Woods has a large colony of Erythronium albidum, the White Trout Lily, which is rarer than its cousin the yellow trout lily, Erythronium americanum. The white lilies appeared just after April Fool’s day, and are still going strong on April 12. A few yellows have appeared, but the main body of them is still dormant. Both are spring ephemerals, and come out a bit later than the early birds like Harpinger of Spring, Cutleaf Toothwort, and Spring Beauty, all of which have been in bloom for a while. Today I found that the white version blooms fully before the yellow variety. A couple of yellows are out in some sunny spots, but the whole colony of white trout lilies is blooming now. Some folks use the term Fawn Lilies for either type, as it is the leaves that remind one of the mottled skin of brown trout, or a young fawn.

This colony is growing en masse on both sides the path highlighted here. They certainly seem to enjoy growing together in a homogenous swatch. Underground the elongated bulbs can be dug (not in Dunn Woods!) and cooked like any root vegetable, or dried and ground into flour. The bulbs are small compared to potatoes, but with with hundreds/square foot, they are an abundant forest crop.

The yellow version is sometimes called dogtooth violet, but this seems to me to be a poor name for it as it is not related to the violet family, even though it appears at the same time of year. But the violets last long into the summer, while the Erythroniums are true ephemerals and will stop blooming in a few weeks. So take a walk through the southeast quadrant of the woods, and you will see these beautiful spring ephemerals.

Erythronium albidum

White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum
White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum
White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum colony in Dunn Woods
White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum colony in Dunn Woods
Yellow Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Yellow Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum

Barred Owl in Dunn Meadow

Early last evening, during the light rain, I was walking home through Dunn Meadow. I noticed a student close to the wooded bridge, and she was off the path and staring into the darkness near the creek. She noticed me looking at her, and said excitedly: “There’s an owl!” 

I looked and sure enough there was a large owl sitting on a limb hanging over the Jordan. It’s stripped breast and size were a dead give away. She assumed the owl was fishing, but I opined that it was more likely looking for mammals or birds coming to drink, but after checking my books, I realized she could be right. That part of the Jordan has a fairly large shiner population, as well as the numerous birds, chipmunks, squirrels, shrews, raccoons and others who visit the Jordan for water. 

The owl flew to another low branch on the mulberry tree that crosses the creek near the bridge. I was able to get pretty close and watch his/her movements, and could see that the bird was definately watching the water. I got a couple of dark, grainy pics. From one angle you can see the outline of bird and branch, and in the other the barred breast is quite visible. I can testify that even in the rain, owls make very little noise when flying.

From Animal Traces in the Hoosier Uplands
From Animal Traces in the Hoosier Uplands

Cooper's hawks, trout lilies, and spring beauty

I was walking in Dunn Woods at lunch today and heard the unmistakable call of a Cooper’s hawk nearby. I looked at the nest they used last year, and sure enough I saw a tail hanging over the edge, then turn and disappear in the sticks that make up the nest. I walked to the top of the hill where I had seen a patch of trout lily (Erythronium americanum) leaves a couple day earlier. Sure enough, there were dozens of the the little yellow wildflowers, sharing the forest floor with the Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) that is widely dispersed in Dunn Woods.