An Outdoor View: Shrews

Author’s note: The Clarion first published this column on Sept. 18, 1987. I’ve edited it for brevity. — LP

Unless you live in Australia or Antarctica, you have shrew neighbors.

Don’t panic. Shrews are good neighbors. Most people live next-door to them for years without knowing it.

Don’t mistake shrews for mice. If mice were indigenous to the Kenai Peninsula—they aren’t—shrews would eat them for lunch, as they eat the mouse-like red-backed voles that live here. Shrews are to voles what bears are to moose. A shrew grabs and holds its prey with tiger-like fangs while it decides whether to start at the head or the tail. We’re lucky they’re not the size of bulldogs.

Another un-mousy thing about a shrew is its long, pointed snout. Always in motion, this quivering proboscis is designed for digging, with nostrils on the sides, so they don’t plug up during tunneling operations.

Shrews are so small, many people say they’ve never seen one. They range in size from 3 to 6.5 inches, including the tail, which typically is one-quarter to one-half their total length. To my eye, they look about as big around as a furry No. 2 pencil.

As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Ed Bangs has studied and trapped shrews.

“Things that live in the north are usually big, round, fat things,” Bangs says, “but the shrew isn’t, so it has to eat a lot to maintain its internal temperature. They only live about a year, then they’re completely worn out. Their teeth are worn down to the gums, and the hair is even worn off their tails.”

Bangs says that, here on the Peninsula, the masked shrew is the most common, and that it usually lives in mature forests under moss, leaves or in rotten logs. Another “local,” the vagrant shrew, usually lives in grassy places. The pygmy shrew, the tiniest of the teeny, also lives here, but it’s rare, he says.

Boyd Shaffer, a local teacher and walking nature encyclopedia, says he thinks we also have water shrew, which dive for tiny fish and underwater larva as if they were miniature otters.

Shaffer says shrews eat mostly insects and insect larva, but they’ll also eat other meat.

“I was on a fire detail during the Russian River fire,” he recalls, “and we were in our sleeping bags, when my partner felt something biting his back. He started slapping and yelling, then I felt something biting me, and I started slapping and yelling. It was shrews, eating us alive!”

Shrews zip along in the dark through existing tunnels most of the time, and they have a tendency to fall into holes people dig in their paths. Some wag named this klutzy trait the Andrea Doria Phenomenon after the ocean liner that collided with another ship and sank in a regularly traveled shipping lane. Another Boyd Shaffer story illustrates this quirk:

“I was building a reproduction of an early Native dwelling with some students, and we had to dig a hole about four feet deep,” Shaffer says. “We got it dug, then we quit for the day. The next day, we found 61 shrews and 11 red-backed voles in the hole, along with numerous bits of fur and a lot of vole tails. Before anyone would get down in there, we had to make a ramp to let everything get out!”

According to Sterling trapper Don Card, nothing with meat on it lasts long around shrews.

“They’ll make a hole about the size of a dime in a dead rabbit,” he says, “and they get inside. In 24 hours, all that’s left is the pelt.”

If all this seems a bit creepy, just think: Shrews live near you, and you probably didn’t even know it. You can’t have better neighbors than that.

Les Palmer can be reached at

More in Life

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: This and that

Organizations are running out of people to keep them going

This Al Hershberger photo of his good friend Hedley Parsons was taken in Germany in 1945, after World War II had ended. Parsons and Hershberger came to Alaska together a few years later, and in 2010, when Parsons was interviewed for this story, he may have been the last person living who had actually attended George Dudley’s messy funeral
This parting was not sweet sorrow — Part 2

The funeral was scheduled for 2 p.m. on May 5, and spring break-up was in full, sloppy bloom at the Kenai Cemetery

Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion
A copy of “People, Paths, and Places: The Frontier History of Moose Pass, Alaska” stands in sunlight in Soldotna on Friday.
Off the Shelf: Community history project a colorful portrait of hometown

The book features the work of students at Moose Pass School and integrates further stories pulled from a community newspaper

The Anchorage Bowl Chamber Orchestra performs. (Photo courtesy Anchorage Bowl Chamber Orchestra)
Anchorage orchestra group to visit Kenai Peninsula for 10th annual tour

Anchorage Bowl Chamber Orchestra will play four shows from May 30 to June 2

Minister’s Message: Boasting only in Christ and the Cross

The Reverend Billy Graham advised every president since Truman during his lifetime

Corn cheese is served alongside grilled beef, kimchi and lettuce. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Planning barbecue with all the bells and whistles

Expect kimchi, lots of side dishes, piles of rice, marinated meat for the flame and cold fruit for dessert

Noa (voiced by Owen Teague) in 20th Century Studios’ “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)
On the Screen: New ‘Planet of the Apes’ expands, brings new ideas to franchise universe

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” tells a story that feels more rooted in fantasy than the post-apocalypse vibe of its predecessors

A mural depicting imagery and iconography of Kenai brightens the entryway of the Walmart in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
‘Visible art raises people’s spirits’

Local artist’s mural introduced as part of Walmart renovations

Former North Kenai resident George Coe Dudley, seen here during the winter of 1950-51, was a hard-drinking man. His messy funeral in 1967 in Kenai echoed his lifestyle. (Photo courtesy of Al Hershberger)
This parting was not sweet sorrow — Part 1

“Dudley was an easy-going, laid-back sort of guy, always laughing and joking, as well as hard drinking.”

Most Read