Nothing can beat Elizabeth Taylor’s shrieks of rage when it comes to shrews, but you might not want them in your garden. Then again, you might.
Shrews are found everywhere except in Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand. There are 385 known shrew species and an estimated world population of 100 billion, so they are probably closer to your garden than you realize.
Shrews may look like mice with long noses, but they are more closely related to hedgehogs and moles. They tend to be grayish-brown. Some shrew species have stumpy tails while others have longer ones. Unlike a mouse’s gnawing teeth, shrews have sharp, predatory incisors in front and grinding molars in the back. Most of these creatures are tiny. The Etruscan shrew, native to Eurasia, is less than an inch and a half long and weighs 1.8 grams. [An American nickel weighs 5 grams.] Asian house shrews are the largest species, weighing in at 100 grams and 6 inches long.
Shrews are like hummingbirds in that they eat almost constantly. Captive shrews eat as much as two times their body weight each day. They push their way through leaf litter looking for beetle larvae, caterpillars, centipedes, grasshoppers, grubs, slugs, and sowbugs. They also eat carrion and occasionally frogs, fruits, mice, nuts, and seeds. Shrews have been known to live in beehives and eat the bee larvae, though how they survive the stings is beyond me.
With so many shrew species, some variation in lifecycle is to be expected. For the most part, however, females have two or three litters each year. These litters are usually found in a burrow borrowed from some larger creature, or tucked away under a rock. Young are born blind, deaf, and hairless. Within a month or two, those young are sexually mature, but they generally don’t live longer than a year or so.
Most shrew species are solitary creatures except when breeding or raising young, but the American least shrew shares its food and shelter with neighboring shrews. Solitary or social, shrews hoard food but they do not hibernate in winter. Instead, they take more drastic steps to survive periods of cold. Unlike bears, who mostly sleep through the cold months, shrews enter a torpor in which they shrink their bones and organs by 50% to survive winter. [No wonder they eat so much!]
Shrews don’t see very well, but they have excellent hearing and smelling abilities. Some shrew species even use echolocation to get a sense of their surroundings. The American least shrew also has venomous saliva that it uses to defend itself. The Eurasian water shrew and the short-tail shrew have venom that can paralyze small prey. Nearly all shrew species have nasty scent glands that can really stink up a place. If you want to keep the potential stink away from your home, be sure to keep plants and mulch from providing shrew shelter near exterior walls.
When it comes to mammals in the garden, it ends up that shrews are beneficial helpers that keep many pesky insects in check.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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