My husband says that he heard that shrews could be tamed. He hasn’t had much luck though and he’s been trying for thirty-five years. English class joke aside, I will confess that I didn’t know what a shrew was until last week. All I knew was that they tunneled underground like moles and chipmunks. But the endless conflict between prey and predator exposed the shrew to me.
The nature of man, the nature of dogs make for a perfect friendship, but it is not companionship alone that first brought man and dog together. The partnership most likely began in their mutual quest for food. Now I just open a bag of kibble and scoop out their meals but the dogs seem to think they owe me work. Taking me for a walk is an important job. So is fetching the ball. Sitting at my feet and growling at strangers is another. (I wish my children had been so diligent about chores.) Dogs are creatures of routine and instinct. We train them to expect routines. We breed them for certain characteristics that depend on instinct.
Three of my dogs are hunting dogs. They were bred to hunt; their instinct is to hunt; they want to hunt. The beagle used to love chasing rabbits, but he is thirteen now; so most of the time, he wants to sleep in the sun on the deck. The German short haired pointers, however, are high energy dogs. They are no longer young but they remain busy. They were bred to focus on upland game birds but, to be honest, the past few seasons were dismal so I had let them hunt lizards, squirrels and rodents in our California yard. They didn’t have much luck, just an occasional lizard or a fledgling raven. Once they cornered our neighbor’s escaped boa constrictor. The snake slipped under the fence where he was caught by his owner. Here in Connecticut, the dogs are prowling constantly, checking out the new scents and the new squirrels. They race back and forth. When they are in the house, they check the yard by looking out the windows. When the number of squirrels by the basketball court is too much to bear, they whine and beg to go out. I open the kitchen door, and the dogs push and shove their way through the opening, the beagle baying. The squirrels are gone before they are all out the door.
The squirrels taunt them, chattering from the trees, jumping from branch to branch in breath-taking aerial feats. This is the nature of squirrels. The Eastern fox squirrels in Southern Cal lived in the neighbor’s palm tree. To get to other trees and food, they would race along the fence, chattering their intentions. The dogs ran below, barking but rarely jumping up. Here the fences are gone, making the squirrels’ taunts irritating.
Sometimes the dogs get close. The other day a chipmunk, tail up like a flag, dashed under the deck, reappeared, chased out by the beagle, flew between Princess’s paws, under Peanut’s belly, and then dove between Dude and some plants near the air conditioner. They couldn’t find him. Most of the time, the dogs paw the stone wall and sniff the edges of the ferns. They watch the woods where they are not allowed.
One day this week the pointers ventured into the ferns on the edge of our grass. I confess that I was on the deck, with my laptop, writing so I did not notice at first that they had stepped over the boundaries into the ferns and decaying leaves. The sound of the leaves alerted me to their actions. First one, then the other dove into the ferns headfirst. Something was moving under the leaves. I thought it might be a toad. Twice in the evening, each had routed out a toad and tried to pick it up, only to spit it out and then make a smacking noise as if they were trying to get rid of a distasteful taste. (The toads got away.) Then I heard a squeak. This commanded my attention. The female pointer chased the creature into the way of the male pointer who picked it up. I screamed: “Leave it.” The male pointer spit out the creature. Wet and gray, it attempted to crawl into the leaves. The female pointer snapped it up. By then I was almost across the lawn. “Leave it,” I growled at Princess. She dropped the small gray animal. At first I thought it was a mouse, but when I arrived, I could see that it had a long nose and the wrong teeth. I didn’t know what it was.
The poor thing was gone. I had a lab mix that once caught a field mouse and dropped it live and unharmed at my feet. I had a Springer Spaniel who picked up an escaped pet mouse and released it to me unharmed. My male pointer does not have a soft mouth. He thinks he should make sure birds are dead before he drops them at my husband’s feet. Once he scooped up the little creature, it had no chance. Since there was nothing I could do for it now and I didn’t know what this was, I got my camera. The dogs sat and guarded its body for me. Warning: my last photo is not for the squeamish.
Photos in hand, I then looked for the creature. I thought it might be a mole but its feet were too small. Moles have Hobbit hands. The creature was a Northern small tailed shrew. I had never seen any shrews before so this was interesting. These are very useful creatures. I won’t bore you; you can read about them here: http://wildlifeofct.com/northern%20short-tailed%20shrew.html
Instead I leave you with my eulogy for our friend, the shrew.
An Elegy for a Shrew
10 Things I Like About Shrews:
- Shrews eat insects. Insects are important to the environment, but . . . enough said.
- Shrews use echolocation. This is impressive. This would be number 1 except for the insects.
- Shrews eat slugs, earthworms and other creepy crawlies that are technically not insects.
- The Northern Short Tail Shrew is venomous. The shrew has only enough venom to kill a small mouse but how many other venomous mammals are there?
- Shrews are good at digging tunnels but will also borrow other animal’s tunnels. Diligent yet resourceful.
- Shrews have poor eyesight. I can identify with this.
- Shrews can eat their body weight in a single day. I want a fast metabolism.
- Shrews are active all year round. Snow does not deter them.
- Shrews are not rodents.
- Shrews eat small rodents.