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 les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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