A shrew's determination

Sunday, January 24, 2010

During our recent cold spell, I was out with my camera for a short time one evening just before dark on no more than a cold-weather lark.

I expected nothing, so the photo shown here was a surprising result. Investigating the distress call from an animal I could not immediately identify, I located its origin on an ice-covered pool near the discharge pipe below a pond levee. It was an adult bullfrog being harassed by a small hungry shrew maybe one eighth the frog's size.

As I approached for a photo the cold frog slid sluggishly to the edge of the pool and squeezed between the muddy bank and the surface ice, making its way down into the water below. In the dim light I tried unsuccessfully to photograph the shrew as it scurried haphazardly on the ice, scent trailing the frog. Disappointed at my lost opportunity I was surprised to see the shrew dive into the icy water exactly where the frog went in. I focused quickly on the spot and was rewarded when the shrew backed out tugging on the frog's left front leg.

The frog was too big for the shrew to retrieve and the frog pulled free. The shrew dived once more but came back out with nothing and hurried into the safety of nearby leafy ground litter.

The American short-tailed shrew is a mouselike animal, only smaller with a longer snout and shorter tail. Ounce for ounce, it may be the meanest of all North American animals. A shrew's diet is made up mostly of insects, snails, worms, small frogs and small fish. It is preyed upon by snakes, owls, cats and hawks. The shrew's life consists of sharply contrasting alternating periods of rest and high-energy activity spent hunting and eating. A shrew is old by the age of 20 months. Though short-legged, the shrew moves quickly and erratically. Using its sense of smell, a shrew will trail its prey much like a beagle trailing a rabbit.

Through the Woods is a weekly nature photo column by Aaron Horrell.

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