Twenty Questions, More-Or-Less

Jonathan wasn’t 100 percent certain, but was prepared to bet it was a vole, not a shrew.

I was about to begin the article I have wanted to write when I realized Jonathan Townsend, CWC Lands manager, had already published more than I could possibly dig up about “Shrewd Shrews.”

I knew little about these critters beyond the photographs in my hand. The animal was very dead (not of any cause of mine) but in perfect condition to allow me a closer look — and the pictures.

Townsend had written that four, possibly six, species of shrews live with us here in Chautauqua County. The Peterson Guide seems to take very little interest in any of them, saying simply, “many shrews are difficult to identify; if recognition questionable, they should be sent to a museum.” Hardly!

But a closer comparison of those in Plate 1 with my pictures, made me flip the pages to the next portion: “Moles.” My animal has a lovely black coat, for starters, and is larger than the tiny shrew. Mine has a pug nose that is black (sorry, book), as is its tail. “Hairytail mole” is found in these parts (thank Heavens!) so that got my quite uneducated preliminary guess.

As the name suggests, moles prefer to live underground, making burrows through our yards as well as through the winter snows. Disliked because of their inclination to rearrange our gardens, grassy areas (and golf courses), not to mention farmland, they are generally considered pests. The Peterson Guide in fact suggests placing poisoned raw peanuts or poisoned earthworms in their active tunnels. However, they warn, “these should not be used by the inexperienced person.” I, for one, wouldn’t dream of it.

Like the shrew, the mole is a member of the Insectivera family. They are not mice or even rodents which have chisel-like incisors. Wish my book was a bit more detailed for my little friend certainly has what might have been an incisor, definitely a tooth.

As I continued my reading by now I’m intuiting I’m in way over my head. Is it even a mole? or can it be a shrew after all? And then there are the voles.

I feel terribly blessed with the people who, in coming to my aid, seem to also become friends. This time my deepest gratitude flows out to the Jonathan Townsend mentioned above.

Mr. Townsend immediately got me on a first-name basis. (I imagine there are some people who wouldn’t take as kindly to opening an email from a stranger to see pictures of an animal definitely deceased.) He supported my third guess: “If it has the typical rodent-like incisors, it can’t be a shrew or a mole.” Could I send some clear close-ups of its teeth?

Unfortunately, this was not a recent find. (In all honesty, I couldn’t even guess when my pictures were taken.) The only two shots (top and tummy) were all I have.

The best I could do was to enlarge the portion of the shot which shows the open mouth and what appears to my uneducated eye as a single tooth.

Jonathan wasn’t 100 percent certain, but was prepared to bet it was a vole, not a shrew.

Could he narrow it down further? Not really (especially since, for unexplained reasons, my vole has a long tail in one picture and is short-tailed in the other.) Three species can be found in our area.

Was he OK with the black fur which doesn’t seem to match the illustrations in Peterson or Audubon?

“Fur can be variable in many mammals, and this is particularly true of our voles.”

Funny, by now I’ve checked those pictures (the books and mine) so often that the little animals are starting to really look quite cute.

Must be time to move on.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at