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Tracks and Sign: Masked Shrew

I was recently at the right place and time to find these lovely tracks from one of the Island’s smallest mammals: a Masked Shrew (Sorex cinereus).

Masked Shrew tracks in sand.

Tracking in dry sand can be difficult, as it’s both soft and ephemeral. Footprints will be blurry rather than sharp, features useful for identification will rarely be clear, and tracks will often appear larger than the feet themselves. The next gust of wind or drop of water may further distort the tracks or erase them altogether. In these situations, general size and gait are often your best clues. The sandy location and small size of these tracks narrowed the suspect pool to Meadow Vole, Deer Mouse, or Shrew. There is some overlap in size among these animals, with a small vole or mouse track being about the same size as a large shrew track. In this case, gait is the more important evidence. What you see here is a bound, much like a squirrel or hare. The paired hind feet land ahead of the offset front feet; the direction of travel is from the bottom of the photo to the top. That pretty much rules out Meadow Voles, as they rarely bound – their usual gait is a trot. Both Deer Mice and Masked Shrews commonly bound. In tracking, size is important. The distance from the tip of my index finger to the knuckle is about four inches, putting the distance between those bounds at a bit more than an inch. A typical short bound for a Deer Mouse is four inches (and can be as much as five times that when they’re really moving!). One inch is the typical short bound for a Masked Shrew, and so this is the likely culprit. Masked Shrews are common and native to PEI. If you have outdoor Cats, you’ve likely had them bring Shrews home uneaten. Shrews produce a musky, skunk-like scent that Cats, Dogs, Foxes, Weasels, Raccoons and other mammals find unpleasant; they’ll kill Shrews but not eat them. Avian predators such as Hawks, Owls, and Ravens have no such aversion to making a meal of a Shrew. My neighbourhood Ravens recently left a Masked Shrew on my front step, which I took as a compliment. I’ll have more information on Shrews in my next post. For now, enjoy these cool and sandy Masked Shrew tracks!

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