Shrews Like Popcorn?

By , February 17, 2010

Shrews are classified as insectivores, which implies they eat mostly insects, arthropods, and invertebrates like snails and earthworms. Some species of shrews apparently eat mice and small birds, and one of our nature manuals says they also eat “some plant matter and fungi”occasionally.

Okay. So . . . what’s with the popcorn?

Shrews are truly amazing creatures. They’re among the smallest animals, and the smallest mammal—so small that they must eat constantly to stay alive. Their metabolisms are incredibly fast; they must consume more than their body weight each day to survive. They can be literally frightened to death, their hearts racing till they burst if picked up and handled.

Nine varieties of shrew live in Alaska. We see them often on our homestead, probably masked shrews, mostly. Most of the time we know we’ve seen a shrew when a gray streak crosses our path. Other times, they’ll move slowly enough that we can observe them for a bit. In snow, their tiny trackways tell entertaining stories, spiraling from place to place in search of bugs and other fare. Now and then they get into the cabin—we’re not sure why. One day we joyfully watched a shrew foraging around our veranda, while a humpback whale fished off the rocks just yards away. What a contrast!

Recently, Michelle opened one of our compost bins and found a pair of shrews at work within. They scurried around the waste pile, totally oblivious to the huge creature looming above them. Michelle says they were racing around collecting “old maids,” unpopped popcorn kernels! They rooted around until they found one, then they’d grab it and disappear down a tunnel. Shortly, they’d return, looking for more.

Our nature guides don’t say anything about popcorn. We can’t figure out what would tempt a shrew to sink its needle-like, predator’s teeth into a popcorn kernel. Our most trusted guidebook admits that because of their tiny stature and high metabolism, “the biology of most species is poorly known.”

Yeah, well, when they’re ready to compile a new edition, have we got some field notes for them!

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