Short-tailed shrews, all shrews in fact, live their frantic little lives just a few minutes ahead of death. The grim reaper starts nipping away at their pink hairless newborn rears from the get-go and never relents until catching up – an event which usually occurs in less than 18 months and often within a single year. As few as 6% of any generation of shrews will live to see the following spring due to the efforts of the reaper’s assassins: predation (the grim raptor, for instance), disease, starvation, parasitism, and even nervous breakdown.
So, the sight of a dead shrew on a crisp winter morning should hardly merit any deep attention, right? Well, this one – laying still and silent on the walkway covered by a light dusting of snow – did catch my eye. My attention was claimed not because the poor little thing was dead but because there appeared to be no obvious reason for it to be dead. This alerted my inner Sherlock Holmes response.
I have read of at least one instance of a shrew dying from fright due to a clap of thunder and there are numerous accounts of these beasts starving to death after only 24 hours without food, but I found it hard to believe that either of these circumstances was involved. Thunderstorms are rarer than hen’s teeth during winter and I failed to see why this individual would just suddenly stop, drop, and roll over in the middle of a walkway. I could, however, rule out an extreme case of intestinal gas or an inner attack of parasites because the thing had a small puncture hole in the back of his head. This, combined with the mussed fur and the presence of a few adherent cat-tail seeds, pointed toward an act of unfulfilled predation. Yes, my dear sirs and madams, this was a shrewicide.
It was a bloodless scene. Even though it looked as if there were blood about the shrew’s nose, this redness was due to being dead and frostbitten. What looked to be a raw piece of flesh nearby was only a bud cluster from a red maple. The puncture wound was deep but clean, my dear Watson, and it alone could have been the means of death. However, the fur about the mid-section was swirled and matted as if it had been slobbered upon and fatally crushed within the grip of some spitty assailant. I believe this to be the primary cause of death.
Having seen this circumstances many times, I, er…my inner Sherlock rather…should say this one was killed by a Red Fox. The canine killer seized his victim in the nearby marsh, brought it up to the walkway, and abandoned it to the elements.
This is the point in the story where my inner Watson agrees to certain parts of the deduction but claims some confusion as to the details. The fox connection is clear enough since Moriarity would never involve himself in such a small crime. It has been well documented that Red foxes are known for killing shrews then leaving them untouched. Other predators, such as cats and coyotes will also do this, but foxes seem to have the corner on this market. One study conducted in northern Michigan followed nearly a 1,000 miles of winter fox trails and discovered dozens of whole dead shrews along the way. In 1908, a naturalist reported over 20 dead shrews laying about the entrance of a fox den!
Short-tailed Shrews have a pair of glands on their flanks and a large belly gland that exudes musty secretions. These glands are employed in marking territories but they also tend to discourage predation. The acting principle here is that a consumer will not eat a jelly filled donut if it smells and tastes like ear wax. This principle has no affect on owls, who eat them with gusto (a jelly donut is a jelly donut). Shrew remains do show up in fox droppings too, but not too often. They are negatively influenced by this chemical smearing. Why do they bother killing shrews if they don’t like them? It is believed that foxes often react with instinctive killer efficiency when spotting small running mammals. In other words, kill first then ask questions later. If the answer comes in the form of a shrewy mouthful of bad taste then the thing is dropped.
Short-tailed Shrews also happen to be venomous. Should they land a nifty little bite while engaged in a death struggle they can inject some distasteful nastiness. There is enough toxin in one shrew to kill 20 mice, according to one study, and to leave a significant tingle in the lips of an overanxious fox. I do wonder if the scientists in that study actually lined up a bunch of mice and invited them in one by one – the nurse poking her head through the door and saying “next” to the terrified mice in the waiting room, but this is neither here nor there. That the dead shrew in question was there on the pavement was enough to prove just how nasty shrews can be.
Inner Watson did ask one more question upon summing up this case. How is it that you deduce that the shrew was killed in the nearby marsh and not right there on the walkway? My inner Holmes placed his fingertips together and leaned forward in his chair to answer his partner. “The cat-tail seeds adhering to the victim’s body fur were incorporated into it, you see. They were stuck onto to the dried slobber rather than randomly blown upon it,” he replied. “Our careless Reynard dove upon his prey amid the fluffy cat-tail heads. He got a mouthful of shrew and fluff and carried the disgusting combination over to the path before realizing his mistake.”
With that last interaction, I stopped talking to myself and moved on. The tiny body was missiled back over the hedge and into the marsh from whence…er, where… it came.