Shrew or Mole? Mouse or Vole?

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

When it comes to nature, we tend to stuff things we don’t know into pigeonholes that are already defined by the familiar. If someone tells me their cat has left a “present” of a dead “mouse” on the doorstep, I ask the usual questions: How big is it? What color is the fur? How long is its tail? What size are the eyes and ears? How pointed is its nose? Chances are that it’s not a mouse.

Often, here in northern New England, the deceased is a 4- to 5-inch-long northern short-tailed shrew, with its dark gray fur, inch-long tail, pinpoint eyes, sharp nose, fur-covered ears, and stubby legs bearing sharp claws for digging. And the cat is not necessarily leaving the shrew as a gift: short-taileds have glands on the hips and belly that emit such a strong, musky odor that most predators can’t stomach the idea of eating one. Snakes and owls actually partake of the pungent, as do other shrews, which have a poor olfactory sense.

With a metabolism that is 60 times the rate of a human’s, shrews are more often the predator than the prey. Wielding sharp teeth, short-tailed shrews can consume more than their own weight each day, so they are not fussy about who or what they eat. Insects, worms, and spiders are fair game, as are centipedes and salamanders. Meadow voles are a popular item on the menu, along with mice, snakes, small rabbits, the hatchlings of ground-nesting birds, and even other shrews. Unique among mammals, the bite of a short-tailed shrew contains a poison that can paralyze and even kill its prey.

As they tunnel, short-tailed shrews navigate like bats and dolphins: they emit ultrasonic clicks that reflect back to their ears to create an aural picture of the surroundings. From as far as 2 feet away, a short-tailed shrew’s echo-location helps it to find solid objects, holes, and places where grass may block a runway. Their sixth sense may even serve to identify predators and prey.

When the north wind blows, the short-tailed shrew’s short summer coat grows longer and turns a darker shade of gray, making it appear very mole-like. But moles are larger and more robust insectivores with powerful front shoulders and outsized front feet and claws. The star-nosed mole has a 3-inch-long tail and an unmistakable sunburst-shaped nose bearing 22 pink rays that encircle the tip. Another species of local mole, the hairy-tailed mole, is about 6 inches long. They have a short, furry tail, and their backs are covered with fur that ranges from dark gray to black. Each day, one of these feisty, 2-ounce critters can eat more than its own weight in earthworms, snails, millipedes, slugs, and insects. Its winter tunnels lie 10 to 20 inches beneath the surface.

The short-tailed shrew most closely resembles yet another species, the meadow vole, but voles are tawny brown in summer, turn grayer in winter, have a blunt nose and a tail that ranges from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long. They have beady black eyes, short, rounded ears, and chunky bodies that measure 6 to 7 1/2 inches with the tail. Voles tunnel below the surface and create runways in the thick grass. Their food includes grass, seeds, grains, and tubers. Mice are blamed for much of the damage done by voles, which eat prodigious amounts of roots, countless flower bulbs, and are so fond of bark that they often girdle and kill young shrubs and trees. And meadow voles can produce up to 17 litters each year!

If you look carefully at short-tailed shrews, moles, and voles, they don’t resemble mice,  which have large, prominent eyes, big ears, and tails about as long as their bodies. Our two common species are the white-footed mouse and deer mouse. White-footed mice are reddish brown, with a dark patch running along the back. Deer mice have brownish-gray fur and are nearly 7 to 8 1/2 inches long, including the 3- to 4-inch-long tail. Mice eat as much as a third of their weight in food each day, including lots of seeds, grains, nuts, and fruits. A third or more of their diet consists of animal foods such as small insects, grubs, and worms. They cache sizeable stores of food as autumn days grow short.

When a wintering “mouse” appears in one of the live traps I set in our porous, Civil-War-era house, I look closely. Shrew? (Sharp nose, short legs and tail.) Mole? (Big shoulders, claws, and a longer tail.) Vole? (Brown, big, blunt nose.) Mouse? (Big ears and eyes, very long tail.) I handle them carefully on our journey of at least 2 miles, the minimum distance from which they won’t later return. And I am especially careful when moving a shrew so as to avoid its painful, toxic bite.

Michael J. Caduto is an author and ecologist who lives in Chester, Vermont.

 
Discussion
  1. Nancy Goodenow → in United States
    May 30, 2013

    I had a mole/mouse brought into the house this a.m. by a small dog.  It was wet, dead but not mutilated.  It is very small.  I photographed it pretty well up close.  The head is more pointed than I have seen on mice here in Oregon, USA.  The teeth are black.  Would you like to see the photos…I can email them.  It is very small.  I photographed in next to a penny.

  2. Susan → in Ontario, Canada
    Aug 01, 2015

    Nancy, from the description given above, it sounds like a shrew! My dog caught one this afternoon. My shrew had black teeth and a pointed head as well. If you managed to hear the capture, it gives out high pitched squeals.

  3. Barbara
    Oct 25, 2015

    A shrew wouldn’t eat birdseed, would it? So if what I caught in my birdseed bag in my house is definitely not a mouse, then it must be a vole, right?

    I have what I thought was a mouse in my house and I’ve been trying to catch it to release it.  This morning I saw something moving in the bag of bird seed so I quickly closed the bag and took it outside. Yay!!! It had a short tail so not a mouse, but it was mouse sized. The snout wasn’t really long but it wasn’t really rounded either. Its fur was brown.  I tried to get a picture but it kept moving and I let it go.  I think it was a vole, especially since they’re herbivores whereas shrews are carnivores, plus I think shrews are smaller than mice and more gray. I know that we have mice, shrews, voles, and moles around here; I live in Long Island New York if that helps. Thanks!

  4. Lois Hoyt → in United States
    Oct 28, 2015

    I live in Maine. Are there any short tail mice…or would it be a vole or mole??  I saw something yesterday about 6” long w/ a short tail. 

  5. Kendra Moll → in Du Quoin, IL
    Nov 14, 2015

    My 6 month old kitten has caught two of what I thought were mice, but they had short tails and I couldn’t see ears or eyes. She is an indoor/outdoor cat so I’m not sure where she is getting them from. I couldn’t see its teeth but I did hear a high pitched squeal before she killed it.

    Would anyone know what it might be? I tried to look it up and the only thing that came up was a northern short tail shrew. I know I have mice in the house but could there be shrews, too?

  6. Lisa Jean → in Ontario, Canada
    Dec 30, 2015

    I believe I have a shrew living in my house. At first I thought it was a regular mouse, but then I got a good look at it.  It’s approximately 3 inches long, dark in colour, and appears not to have a tail.  It’s very bold and loves my dog’s food.  I have been unsuccessful trapping with regular mouse traps.  Any suggestions?

  7. Patricia → in Bridgewater, NH
    Jan 20, 2016

    I’ve read your article dated 2005 and wondered if you were still available on that subject.

    I believe I’ve identified the critters to be shrews because of the sound they make…echolocation?? We have them in between our roof (metal) and insulation. They run along and then make this short ‘brrrr’ sound. We’ve set traps outside and caught mice, voles and only 3 shrews. We’ve been able to identify through your article…mice with white bellies, voles with golden brown fur and four ‘fingered’ toes and then finally the shrew with the pointed snout and five ‘fingers’. We’ve cut the noise down considerably with the catching of the three shrews but can’t seem to get the last (we hope) one. Now, with the cold of January on us and some snow on the ground, we don’t hear them much at all.

    My question was about the noise we hear….about every 2 feet or 10 seconds…is it the echolocation or are we not able to hear that frequency?

    Thanks
    Jon & Patricia

  8. Nancy Verba → in Wonder Lake Illinois
    Feb 17, 2016

    I am wondering what I have eating sunflower seed outside by my bird feeders. Long 4 or 5 inches dark gray no apparent ears or tail. I have some burrowed under choke cherry trees and under a bird bath. Are they shrews?

  9. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    To Nancy Goodenow:

    It does, indeed, sound like the small mammal that your dog brought home is a shrew. Please email the photo to me and I’ll try to identify it.

    michaelcaduto@p-e-a-c-e.net

    Thank you for writing,

    Michael Caduto

  10. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    To Barbara →
    Oct 25, 2015

    From your description, and the fact that your critter was going after seed, it does sound like a meadow vole.

    Shrews are largely carnivorous, but they will eat seeds, especially when food is scarce during winter months.

    Thank you for writing,

    Michael Caduto

  11. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    To: Lois Hoyt → in United States
    Oct 28, 2015

    Hi Lois:

    Setting aside the nursery rhyme, Three Blind Mice, there are no short-tailed mice. You likely saw a vole or mole, but it’s hard to tell without more specifics. Both can reach the size you describe.

    Keep looking!

    Michael Caduto

  12. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    To: Kendra Moll → in Du Quoin, IL
    Nov 14, 2015

    Dear Kendra:

    From your description—yes, it sounds like you had a northern short-tailed shrew. The fact that you couldn’t see any eyes or ears is a major clue, plus the short tail. I also know from experience that, when distressed, shrews emit a piercing, high-pitched call.

    Good observation skills!

    Best,

    Michael Caduto

  13. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    To: Lisa Jean → in Ontario, Canada

    Dear Lisa Jean:

    It’s hard to tell for certain without more details, but—judging from the size, color, boldness of the animal and it’s fondness of dog food—the animal that was eating your dog’s food was likely a northern short-tailed shrew. Hungry shrews will commonly come out into the open to get food.

    Best,

    Michael Caduto

  14. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    Patricia → in Bridgewater, NH

    The ultrasonic echolocation sounds made by a shrew are above the range of human hearing.

    Shrews do, however, make several other sounds that humans can hear, especially when they’re being territorial. It’s possible that, with the number of critters you had living in your roof space, the shrews were encountering other animals and marking their territories with calls.

    Thank you for sharing your interesting experience.

    Best,

    Michael Caduto

  15. Michael Caduto → in Vermont
    May 23, 2016

    To:  Nancy Verba → in Wonder Lake Illinois

    Hi Nancy:

    Most likely you’re seeing meadow voles and/or shrews. Meadow voles often frequent the ground beneath feeders to eat seed.

    Short-tailed shrews can often be seen in similar locations, but would most likely be stalking a meal of meadow vole.

    If, when the snow melted from around the base of your feeder this springtime, you noticed shallow burrowings along the surface of the ground, and little piles of bunched up grass, then you definitely had meadow voles.

    Best,

    Michael Caduto

  16. Kelsie Hammond → in Ontario
    Jul 19, 2016

    I caught what I believed to be a short-tailed shrew in the wall of my basement. It was incredibly easy to catch and actually let me touch it when getting it into a container to move. It had the five toes, dark grey velvety fur, pinpoint eyes and long nose, but the behaviors was really off from what I have been told.It seemed more frantic being in the wall then it did being trapped and relocated. Am I wrong in thinking shrew?

  17. PJ → in Durham, Ontario
    Jul 28, 2016

    We have lots of shrews up this way…myself and other households find drawers and boots stuffed full of dog kibble!  They tour the kitchen and dog dish whether we are there or not, at all times of the day.  I caught one easily by putting a dog kibble in a mousetrap.  Interesting to me, our Blue-Heeler/Husky cross dog kills mice, squirrels, groundhogs, even houseflies in a flash…but she shows absolutely no interest in these shrews strutting in plain sight, decimating her food supply.  I cannot smell the shrews, But do you suppose it is smell that is deterring our dog?

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