THROUGH THE WOODS: How do I love thee?

Northern short-tailed shrew. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS ALMOST VALENTINE’S DAY and I was thinking about 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning as I threw the covers over to make the bed. There on the sheet was the usual realistic gray catnip mouse, my cat’s favorite toy. As I reached for it, I froze, took a closer look, and realized it wasn’t a toy. Fortunately, it did not move.

Growing up on a farm you get used to mice, so I didn’t freak out. Other cats have brought me these types of gifts, but the current house cat, Robbie, is indoors only. It was unchewed and fresh-caught, and where in the world did Robbie find it? I had gone out to fill the bird feeders and my habit is to leave the front door open to let in some fresh air. I can only guess that the small animal ran into the house at that time. Robbie’s instincts kicked in and he caught it. Putting it in my bed was an act of pure love, the best gift a cat can give.

I have received a half mouse in the past and this was the whole thing. What more could I ask? I picked up the small body by the tail to dispose of it when the biologist in me decided to study it further. Laying it on a white paper napkin I measured it. The length of the body was 4”, the tail was short, only an inch. The fur was soft, short, and dense and reminded me of a mole. The nose was pointed, not like a vole or mouse and the mouth had wicked reddish teeth. The eyes were small, maybe blind like a mole, and the ears were concealed. This creature’s front feet were too small for a mole. It was eventually identified as a northern short-tailed shrew. It is common and our largest shrew.

This was a new one for me. It is our only venomous mammal, and it produces a neurotoxin in its salivary glands to stun prey such as earthworms, mice, and even small rabbits. The toxin is introduced with the lower incisors during a bite. It can bite humans if handled although the toxin does not harm us. It has a voracious appetite eating 40% of its body weight per day during winter. It will also eat insects, berries and seeds, so my shrew may have been eating birdseed.

They tunnel under the snow and underground, living in burrows with food storage and sleeping chambers. They are nearly blind and use echolocation. Robbie probably didn’t eat it because the shrew has a “sour” odor produced by skin glands. The gift of love comes in many forms, so thank you, Robbie, for a most interesting gift.

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