I worked as a naturalist at Lowry Nature Center in Carver Park Reserve for about 20 years, and we had a wildlife-feeding setup for the masses.

We had about a dozen seed-and-suet feeders placed within 20 feet of the many large windows, giving people fantastic views of northern cardinals, blue jays, downy woodpeckers, and other birds that came to feed. The elementary school students especially liked to see the frisky red squirrels, lightning-quick short-tailed weasels, and hungry deer.

An excited student on occasion would come running to get me and say something like: “There’s a mouse or whatever that popped up through the snow under the big tray feeder.”

Most often when students spotted one of these animated bundles of energy below the feeders, it turned out to be a short-tailed shrew that had ducked for cover. These shrews are slate gray and come to feed on spilled seeds.

While the smallest of Minnesota’s mammals, the short-tailed shrew is the largest of the six Minnesota shrews. It weighs a bit more than a half-ounce and is 4 to 5 inches long. Because of its size and color, this shrew is most likely to be mistaken for a mouse. However, the pointed snout, tiny eyes and absence of visible external ears identify it as a shrew. The other Minnesota shrew species are pygmy, masked, Arctic, northern water, and smoky.

A variety of animals prey on shrews, although the strong musky odor they carry makes them unattractive to some carnivorous mammals. In winter, I sometimes see fox tracks near a dead uneaten shrew in the snow. The odor does not seem to offend hawks and owls, and shrews in moist habitats are sometimes eaten by frogs.

Short-tailed shrews occupy many habitats, both open and wooded, damp and dry. Their home range is probably about a half-acre in area, with populations of 25 or more to an acre. The ability to eat a variety of plant and animal foods may account for their being found throughout Minnesota and often in high numbers. Their populations fluctuate markedly, and so they may abound in an area one year and be seemingly absent the next.

Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.