Sunday, January 16, 2011


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You may have a predator eating the birds at you backyard feeders...shrews. They live mostly on insects, but are ravenous creatures. Grasshoppers, wasps, crickets, snails and earthworms compose their main diet, but they also eat mice, small birds, snakes, nuts, berries, and slugs. Not surprisingly, they feed on seeds around bird feeders and can devour eggs in bird houses you placed in your yard. Once you get them in your yard, they will readily feast on the nectaring flowers you planted, along with fruits, vegetables and plant bulbs. Since they have a fast metabolism, shrews will generally feed every few hours and don't ever rest. They can consume their body weight 2 or more times every day.

Scott Shalaway, a biologist and writer, wrote this article about shrews killing birds at backyard bird feeders: If you find a clump of feathers on the snow beneath a bird feeder, suspect the work of a sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk. But if just a few feathers lie beneath a feeder, a different predator may be responsible. Look among the sunflower seed shells for a one-inch hole in the ground.

Watch the hole for about 30 minutes and a small head may emerge. Grab your binoculars for a better look. If you see a pointed snout and beady little eyes, you've seen a shrew.

Small, mouse-like mammals, shrews are voracious insectivores that often kill prey larger than themselves. Pygmy shrews, the smallest mammal in North America, weigh 2 to 4 grams (about the weight of a dime) and eat more than twice their weight in food every day.
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Short-tailed shrews are abundant and widespread in the Eastern U.S. They inhabit both deciduous and coniferous forests as well as old fields, thickets and hay fields. Their only habitat requirement seems to be a thick layer of leaf litter that keeps the surface of the ground moist. The thick mat of sunflower hulls under feeders certainly qualifies.

No doubt the ground around the bird feeders makes an excellent place to hunt. There is always a supply of food. After digging its burrow, a shrew needs only to sit at its entrance and wait for an unsuspecting bird to hop by. 

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