What would you say is the most populous mammal in southwest Mississippi? Rabbits? Squirrels? Deer?
I might have picked one of those — until my two cats introduced another candidate: shrews.
Cats have always brought up an occasional mole, vole, mouse, rat or shrew from our yard. But my current two cats — Luke Skywalker and his sister, Princess Leia — appear to be specialists. Every few days they bring up another shrew.
As the death toll mounted, so did my astonishment. Just how many of these little critters can one yard hold?
Apparently a lot.
“Although seldom seen or recognized by the average person, they rank among our most numerous animals,” says “Wild Animals of North America” by the National Geographic Society.
Shrews have pointed noses and sharp little teeth. They’re rapacious eaters, consuming their body weight each day in seeds, insects, nuts and worms. They’ll even attack mice, scorpions and snakes. One species, the short-tailed, has venom, though not enough to bother us.
National Geographic has an incredible video of a shrew encountering a much bigger garter snake. There’s no contest. The shrew jumps on the snake and rips it apart like a buzz saw.
It’s not much count against a cat, though.
n n n
Shrews are just one of a number of tiny creatures that live among us yet are rarely seen.
Lynda Swan of the Terry’s Creek community called recently to report seeing a chipmunk on the wheelchair ramp in front of her house.
“I’m 78 years old and that’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen one,” she said. “I cannot believe this chipmunk was on the ramp playing.”
Actually, chipmunks are fairly common. But since they’re tiny and live in the trees, we rarely see them — except when they move into an attic or shed.
Other tiny critters among us include moles, voles, flying squirrels and weasels.
n n n
Moles have webbed front feet to dig the tunnels that mess up our yards. They eat earthworms and other insects.
I used to have a dog named Pirate who had a talent for catching moles. She could hear them and would perch over the ground, ears alert, then suddenly start digging. Soon she’d come up with a mole, which she’d chew on for hours. She caught plenty in her time.
One particularly odd variety is the star-nosed mole, which has a weird fleshy appendage in front. Their range is far to the east of us, which is why a wildlife biologist was astounded some years back when one of my cats brought one up. I didn’t realize it was a rare find.
The biologist told me to save the next one my cat caught, but it never caught another.
n n n
Then there are voles, which look a lot like mice. One of my cats caught one just the other day, for variety I suppose. It had round ears and big black eyes.
Voles eat bulbs, roots and other parts of plants, making them highly unwelcome to gardeners.
Flying squirrels are like chipmunks in that they’re tiny tree dwellers. One day a litter of three appeared on my porch. I have no idea how, but suspect my cats may have had something to do with it as the mother was missing.
I gave them to my son and his children. One of the little squirrels survived and lived to a ripe old age as a family pet.
n n n
All of those little creatures have reason to fear the weasel, a 7-8-inch killing machine.
The only time I’ve seen weasels in the wild was when Angelyn and I were driving up the road from our house when we saw a strange furry thing undulating on the pavement in front of us. I hit the brakes and we watched as an entire family of weasels crossed the road, nose to tail.
Notice I haven’t mentioned mice or rats. That’s because we’ve all encountered them, probably too often.
Our prior house had a small laundry room, and one time we heard a tremendous racket in there. I opened the door to see our big orange tabby cat on one side of the room and a gigantic rat on the other.
I closed the door and left them to it. As with the shrews, there was no question how things would turn out.