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

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