Quoddy Nature Notes – What’s Everything Eating?

by Fred Gralenski

Male Pileated Woodpecker. I don’t know if this was the guy that made the hole or not.

I like to watch critters to see what they are doing, and this time of year most are looking for something to eat.  Bird feeders are a good place to start.  We use black oil sunflower seeds in one feeder, fine cracked corn in another, Nyger seed in another and a cage with suet.  We also put out the foodscraps that we don’t compost, like fat and bones.  This buffet attracts Blue jays, Chickadees, Red-breasted nuthatches, Mourning doves, Crows, Juncos, now and then a Hairy woodpecker and, of course, Red squirrels.  Our sock of Nyger seed gets the least use, as the Finches and their irruptive cousins haven’t visited us, but the Chickadees and Nuthatches might land on it if everything else is empty.  In the barn I may put out meat scraps or slices of old hotdogs left in the back of the freezer, and quite a few different critters will help themselves, including Red squirrels, Deer mice, Weasels and Shrews.  I was reminded of this the other day when I was filling my chain saw and a shrew ran by my boot.  We have five species of shrews here in the Quoddy region, but he didn’t seem to be a Short-tailed or a Pygmy or a Water shrew, so he must have been a Masked or a Smoky shrew.  Besides hotdog parts, this time of year shrews eat insects (cluster flies hibernating in my barn) and anything else they can find,  including each other.  Pretty secretive critters, I plan to study them more sometimes.  Outside, shrews are usually at the snow/ground interface foraging for any bug or critter. Shrews may surface when crossing my driveway and, if the snow is soft, will push through and make a little tunnel.  They have pretty weak legs and don’t normally hop.  The shrews may prey on voles and Deer mice under the snow cover.  The voles are living on plant parts that they have stored and are also digging down to bulbs and chewing the bark off of woody shrubs in the flower garden.  They also may surface to cross a driveway to find some other goodies.  Deer mice are living on seeds some of which they might have stored themselves.  They are a little more apt to come into buildings than voles or shrews.  Jumping mice are hibernating, unless they come into a building and find a sap (like me) to feed them.  Whatever that critter is, it doesn’t like peanuts.

Hole where a Pileated got his dinner. The hole is 2″ wide by about 3″ high and the bird had to go through 2″ of solid Red Spruce to reach the punky area where the ants were hibernating. Imagine the work going into that? The hole was about 2 1/2 feet up from the ground, and was out of the snowline because it was right on the side of my driveway, and this is why I cut it down. I felt that it would blow down at an inopportune time. The woodpecker did find some ants, but there were many more closer to the ground.

The deep snow is great protection for the small animals, but bad for the foxes, bobcats, coyotes and other predators like hawks and owls.  I think that even Pileated woodpeckers are having more of a problem.  Pileated woodpeckers eat Carpenter ants during the winter.  Ants may hibernate ten to fifteen feet up in a dead tree, but in my experience the great majority of hibernating Carpenter ants are within two feet of the ground.  With two feet of heavy snow on the ground, many of the hibernating ants are not having nightmares about the ‘Cock of the Woods’ rapping on their bedroom door.

And, of course, with heavy snow we have to worry about the deer, and there have been articles about whether or not we should feed them.  When we lived in Northern New Hampshire the deer would browse the cedar quite heavily, and the browse line could be noticeable.  Cedar is one of the better foods for the deer in the winter, and probably the mainstay of their winter diet, but I notice the deer especially like tree lichens.  If cedar is the bread and butter for deer then tree lichens might be considered their cake, or here in Maine, Whoopie pies.

So looking into my (ice) crystal ball, I’ll make a prediction for the coming summer:  Mice and voles will be more numerous, as many will survive the winter and their predators will be fewer, but I don’t predict a plague;  deer will be OK around here as the food seems to adequate and the predators few, but further inland the deep snow will have a detrimental effect;  owls will take a beating, but the survivors for the summer will have easy pickings, and my Pileated woodpeckers?  I hope they make it OK.  I’ll cut down on my ration of ants just so they can have more, even though Pileateds seldom come to the feeders.


  1. I think they’re masked shrews. They’re eating cluster flies I toss out for the birds. The cluster flies are trapped between the windows. When they get cold again I gather them up and put them on the snow for the birds. I’ve tried to photograph them but between them being so quick to come and go and the wavy old farmhouse windows, I haven’t had any luck yet. Robin

  2. I have been told that when you have shrews you have few mice. This has proven true for us. We have shrews eating beneath the bird feeders and no signs of mice in the house.

    • Fred Gralenski says

      Hi Robin
      Shrews are in the order ‘Insectivora’ and I think the invertebrates make up most of their diet. I think mice are a minor part of their groceries. What are your shrews eating under your birdfeeders? Can you tell the type of shrew? I’ve seen a red squirrel take a pork chop bone up a tree and chew on it.