This shrew followed the footsteps of hikers hoping to pick up scraps. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: Naming of the shrews 



Frigid winds and winter snows keep many of us indoors this month. After a snowfall, our trees and shrubs glisten like diamonds and we know for sure it’s February. In spite of the weather, chickadees seem to enjoy a good snowstorm and kinglets look for food unconcernedly. Shrews hunt even in sub-zero temperatures for they need to always be eating to survive. Unless a cat brings one in and you recognize it as something other than a mouse, you may never know they’re around.  

Shrews are mouse-like mammals with long pointed snouts, short legs and tiny eyes often hidden in short, thick and velvety fur. Four different shrews are found here on our island. They are the northern water shrew, the pygmy shrew, the masked shrew and the longtailed shrew. 

The pigmy shrew is one of the smallest animals in the world. They are not often seen because they spend their time under old stumps, rotting logs and among the ground litter of sedges, ferns, etc. They are fast moving. Shrews catch mice so if one happens to come in your house, welcome it. They’re better at catching mice than any trap and they leave when the mice are gone. 

As she washed the dishes one night, a friend of mine was startled when an ermine ran across the sink in front of her, looking for mice. As soon as its mission was accomplished, it left. 

One evening, a starnosed mole was brought in by my neighbor’s cat. Moles are bizarre looking mammals. They are black with a long tail, but the most interesting part of their body is their nose where 22 fleshy projections growlooking a little bit like a star! 

GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

The star-nosed mole lives in damp meadows, fields and swamps and mucky pastures. They are good swimmers and use their paddle-like feet for oars and their tail as a useful scull. Their favorite food is earthworms. They, in turn, get eaten by cats, weaselsskunks and predatory fish. My late husband was a nature photographer and I well remember the night one of these moles spent in our bathtub so he could take photographs the next morning. We were digging worms all night to keep it well fed! 

Friends have sent me lovely photos of cardinals at their feeders this winter. A red bird in the Maine wintry scene does stand out! Cardinals have not always spent the winters here, but in recent years their habits have changed and they are now seen year-round. During the winter, males dominate the scene and may even dominate the females. Later in the spring when courtship begins, the males become solicitous and are very loving to the females. They may then even pick up food and present it to her. The cardinal is named after the high-ranking official of the Catholic Church who also wears red robes. 

Another resident owl, the great horned owlis getting ready for courtship and nesting in February. The female often has to sit with her feathers covered in snow as she keeps the eggs warm. These owls use an old crow’s nest or one made by a squirrels with a few improvements of their own added. 

The great horned owl is the largest resident owl here and measures roughly from your elbow to the tips of your finger. Their hoot is very low and, to my ears, sounds like a very big dog barking in the distance. On top of the horned owl’s head are two feathered tufts that look like ears, but they are not ears, just decorations. Their very sensitive and unusual ears are behind the eyes. This owl has excellent hearing and it serves them well as they hunt in the dark. Their nickname is ‘tiger of the night.’ If you’re lucky, you may see one on your walks someday as it sits resting in a tree. If you hear a number of crows calling and they sound agitated, see if you can find out what they are upset about. Quite often they have found a resting owl in a tree and they’re upset about it being there and are trying to make it move. You’ll have a nice chance then to see the owl! 

I have many reports of evening grosbeaks coming in from all over this island and the outer islands. This is their year! 

 Send any questions, observations or photos to [email protected]. 

 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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