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29 October 2009 @ 06:26 am
An unusual visitor at the feeder  

While getting ready for work in the morning I frequently check the feeder in the backyard to see if I have any visitors. Lately I've been feeding four Blue Jays on a daily basis, as well as at least four black squirrels and one gray squirrel. Other birds that come regularly to the feeder are the neighbourhood House Sparrows and House Finches. The grackles are long gone, and I haven't seen any Chipping Sparrows since early October. Although I've been waiting for the juncos to find my feeder, I haven't seen any yet. My yard has been fairly quiet so far this fall...at least once the Blue Jays have had their fill and leave each morning!

I was surprised, then, when I looked out the window Monday morning and saw a small gray mammal beneath the feeder. It quickly darted into the long grass beneath the fence. About a minute later it came back out to grab some seeds, then quickly disappeared. I watched it for a few minutes, not quite sure what it was...could it be a mole? A vole? Something else? So I did what any enthusiastic student of nature would do: I grabbed my camera and went out on my back deck to wait for it appear again.

Northern Short-tailed Shrew

The tiny mammal moved quickly, making it difficult to photograph. This was compounded by the fact that it seldom came right out into the open, but instead kept to the grassy area surrounding the small patio stones beneath the feeder. We had put the patio stones there to make it easy to clean up the fallen seed, though this does not get done as frequently as I had originally intended given how attractive it is to wildlife such as squirrels, Mourning Doves, juncos, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, etc., all of which like to feed on the ground.

I didn't attempt to get too close, not knowing how the mammal would react. I was only trying to get enough photos to be able to identify the tiny mammal, and as a result, my photos were all taken from a distance and have been heavily cropped. This photo shows the head and the tiny paw of my latest backyard visitor. While the shape of the nose made me think it was a mole at first, the size of the paw clearly rules this out.

I began researching mammals commonly found in Ontario, and came across a checklist of mammals of Ottawa on John Sankey's website. That's when I realized that this was likely a shrew of some kind.

Shrews are members of the order Insectivora and feed primarily on invertebrates. The pointed shape of their snout probably helps them burrow into the ground as they look for prey items such as grubs. Most shrews are very small; their eyes are tiny, and their main senses are believed to be touch, hearing, and smell. Voracious eaters, shrews have a high metabolic rate and must eat very frequently. As a result, they are active throughout the day and night. The tiny eyes and pointed snout are visible in this photo:

I emailed my photos to Chris Lewis and Bob Bracken, and they identified it as a Northern Short-tailed Shrew. They based their identification on gray colour and the very short tail. The other two species of shrew found in the Ottawa area, the Common and Smoky Shrews, are much browner in comparison and have longer tails. The tail of the shrew can be seen in this photo:

Northern short-tailed shrews are found in nearly all terrestrial habitats and are common in cultivated fields, flower and vegetable gardens, fence rows, and beside country roads. They often construct elaborate runways under leaves, dirt, and snow, and require only sufficient vegetation to provide cover. Nests may be constructed in tunnels or under logs and rocks. In the winter, they often retreat into barns, cellars and sheds.

The diet of the Northern Short-tailed shrew consists mainly of invertebrates, small vertebrates, and plant material. Because of their ravenous appetite for insects, shews are highly beneficial to humans as they help to control pest populations. It is estimated that they consume and metabolize as much as three times their weight in food per day. This mammal will also store food for winter, including snails, beetles, sunflower seeds, and other edibles. Although it spends most of its time is spent at or below ground level, this species is an effective climber and has been observed climbing nearly 2 meters up a tree trunk to obtain suet from a bird feeder!

It was certainly fascinating to watch the shrew emerging from and then disappearing into the grass to devour the fallen seeds, and I regretted that I had to leave for work. I would have loved to have stayed out longer in order to obtain some closer photos; hopefully he will stick around and I will have another chance!

(Anonymous) on November 6th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
your posting
HI Gillian, Considering how difficult it is to capture shrews with a camera, you did amazingly well. You can see the short tail which certainly IDs this little shrew (we have quite a few species, most are never seen).

Cheers, Christine