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  • Writer's pictureKen Campbell

Small Mammals

9 March 2022

Earlier this week, I was taking video of a coyote in the hayfield when the coyote suddenly made a jump and pounced with her front feet on something in the grass. She grabbed an object with her mouth and quickly lifted it clear of the grass – it was a small mammal of some kind (Note in the picture the indistinct grey lump with tail in coyote’s mouth). She killed it, turned, and dropped it back in the grass. She did not eat it but rather went back to doing what she was doing previously which was watching for her mate to emerge from the brush.

I thought she had killed a vole and was simply not hungry; Jean thought she may have put the vole aside to return to it later and take it to her pups. It turned out that we were both wrong.

Later that afternoon I went into the hayfield to look for evidence regarding the predation of a chicken that had been attacked under our kitchen window only a couple of hours earlier when I wasn’t looking. I did not know what the predator was but the coyotes were prime suspects. I found no evidence in the hayfield to link the coyote to the chicken predation but when I got to the spot where I earlier saw the coyote catch and dispose of the small mammal, I found not a vole but rather a shrew.

This solved the mystery of why the coyote did not eat its catch. Shrews have glands that secrete malodorous scent. I have read that this scent is so disliked by predators that it discourages them from seeking shrews as prey. Apparently, this scent also discourages predators from eating them. Thus, the coyote discarded its unpalatable catch rather than eat it.

As I processed this information of what I knew about shrews and related it to what I had seen earlier, I looked around the hayfield. With the expansive stand of hayfield and pasture grasses within brushy perimeters and intrusions, one would be hard-pressed to find better habitat for small mammals. We are well aware that voles and moles are plentiful in the pasture as in the hayfields and in the grassy edges everywhere. We knew of the rabbits in the orchard and along the driveway, of the squirrels (both Douglas and Grey) in the forest, and of the also numerous rats and mice up by the barn. Jay occasionally sees a weasel by the barn and a mink down by the creek. The creek also harbors beavers, otters, and muskrats. We pick up occasional opossums and skunks on the trail cameras as well as larger critters such as deer, elk, bobcats, and bears. But shrews? I just never thought of them as a component of the mammalian fauna. Why not, this is a perfect place for them. Their small size and habits just make them difficult to see. I bet that shrews are abundant on the farm.

The picture shows the actual shrew discarded by the coyote demonstrating its size relative to a quarter and a scale of inches.

Now, as I watch the hummingbird at the porch feeder, I think of the shrew in the grass under the porch – the world’s smallest bird hovering in the air just above the world’s smallest mammal furiously seeking its meal in the grass below. Both these little animals have heart rates so high that you couldn’t count them and both, being homeotherms with very small bodies, have incredibly high metabolism to sustain their body temperatures. This requires that they feed nearly continuously. Without food, neither would last the day, although both have torpor-like states that may save them in some circumstances.

It is unlikely that the hummingbird and the shrew would ever encounter one another – one lives in the air, the other lives in the grass. One eats flower nectar, the other eats bugs, grubs, worms, small snakes, and mice. One is beautiful and can be quite friendly while the other is, shall we say, not so pretty, and furthermore, friendly is not an attitude that its nervous system could abide – never ever attempt to handle a shrew.

I think about these things – large and small mammals and birds; their habits and interactions - as I take in the full ambiance of the farm and I wonder about the complexity and beauty of it all.


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