April 20, 2018
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Small mammals show a meaner side

By Judy Kellogg Markowsky, Special to the BDN

In the Maine woodlands there are vicious, violent, savage mammals. I’m happy to say that these are small mammals — not lions or wolves. Two such mammals are the short-tailed weasel (in winter called an ermine), which is the size of a hot dog; and a masked or cinereus shrew, which is 2 inches long.

While visiting the Orono Bog Boardwalk with my cousin Kit Pfeiffer and her 2-year-old grandchild, Maisie, we loved seeing the flowers of the pitcher plant, watching three brown creepers and a black-and-white warbler searching for food on the trunks of trees.

When we started to leave the boardwalk, something jumped onto the path in front of us. At first, I thought it was a young red squirrel jumping in the grass next to the path. A second time, I saw it better, and it was a weasel.

The weasel would hide in the grass, came back to the path, then disappear again. This happened about four times. We were amazed at how fast the weasel could run. First it ran one way, then changed direction and went another way. I thought the weasel would run away from us, but it stayed in the grass. We soon found out why the weasel was staying — a mouse was there. On the last dash, the weasel grabbed the mouse and ran away with its prey. This all happened within about eight seconds.

In addition to mice, weasels eat voles, chipmunks, shrews, frogs, small snakes, birds and large insects. In summer they are red-brown in color, and in winter their fur changes to white.

On another day I went on a walk with Rosemary, Joseph and Laura Giebfried at Moose Point State Park in Searsport. The forest there is beautiful, and we heard or saw black-and-white warblers and ovenbirds. Over the sea we saw cormorants and an eagle.

Laura suddenly saw a masked shrew, also called cinereus shrew. In two seconds it was gone, but the tiny shrew was the show of the day. Shrews are the smallest mammals in Maine, but their reputation for ferocity is huge. They eat mostly insects but occasionally eat worms, small mammals, salamanders and seeds. They have been known to kill prey larger than themselves.

The masked shrew’s habitat is moist forest, and they are active day and night, searching for food. Masked shrews eat more than their weight in food each day.

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