I know that many of us have discovered hitherto unknown treasures in our backyards during the pandemic, but none caused me greater surprise - or envy that I missed the sighting - than when Miriam showed me pictures of a shrew that had been visiting the yard.
Most of the shrews that I have ever seen have been dead, and I doubt that I have seen more than twenty living, breathing individuals in my life.
These voracious little creatures have an extremely high metabolism and spend most of their time eating, with brief bouts of sleep. They are fearless and will attack and consume almost anything they can subdue. Many species have poisonous salivary secretions to assist in rendering their prey helpless.
I have very little familiarity with shrews, but based on the research I have been able to do, and the likelihood of a given species being in our area, I believe this visitor is a Masked or Cinereus Shrew (Sorex cinereus). If anyone with expertise in this taxon is able to confirm or refute this conclusion I would appreciate their input.
Shrews are intolerant even of their own species and will readily fight with a degree of savagery that is truly remarkable. Females will not tolerate the presence of a mate except when rearing young.
According to Banfield (1984) the principal prey items of Masked Shrew are 65% insects (adults, larvae, pupae and eggs), 7% vertebrates (salamanders and young mice), and 7% centipedes, worms, molluscs, sowbugs, with vegetable matter accounting for the balance of its diet. Other than salamanders, I suspect that most of these items could be readily found in suburbia.
Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) returned from their breeding territories a week or so ago, and are now regular visitors beneath the feeders, where obliging goldfinches and sparrows knock down seed for them.
The Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) we planted about fifteen years ago is now taller than the house, and we will need to trim a couple of branches lest they find their way into our bedroom! The colour at this time of year is reason enough to make a Sugar Maple part of your landscaping.
And looking our from the deck towards the front of the house, autumnal splendour is equally on display.
A White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) pays little heed to the colours, spending its time gathering and caching food for the winter ahead.
Western Conifer-seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) is a beautifully patterned but unwelcome visitor.
It feeds on the developing seeds within the cones of pines and other conifers. Injured seeds fail to develop properly and seed production can be greatly reduced.
In recent years this strikingly marked insect has developed the habit of entering homes in the fall. It poses no threat and does not bite or sting, but is likely not welcomed in most residences.
Had the shrew and the bug been present at the same time, I am confident that the shrew would have dined on a conifer-seed bug that day!