Visit from a Hairy-tailed Mole
Here’s the video our son Dave made of our hairy-tailed mole. Listen for a cardinal cheering, the calls of eastern wood-pewees and eastern towhees, train whistles, and a loud plane going over as well as vehicles from the interstate as background sounds.
On a cool, clear morning in late August, my husband Bruce came rushing into the bedroom where I was doing my exercises.
“Hurry, hurry outside,” he said with so much urgency that I ran out on the dew-covered grass in my stocking feet.
Bruce pointed at a small, black, furry creature digging in our lawn.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“A hairy-tailed mole, I answered as I looked at its short, hairy tail. But to be sure, I waited until it executed a quick turn and exposed its nose which was not star-shaped like a star-nosed mole but pointed.
Although we have lived here for forty years, only once had I seen a live hairy-tailed mole moving along the Short Circuit Trail, but quickly disappearing when it sensed my presence. This one, however, was going about its business of digging and snuffling as it worked.
Bruce called our son Dave, who lives in our guesthouse, and he came armed with both his still and video cameras. We stood over the mole, and Dave put his video camera practically on top of the mole to get its sound over the noise from the interstate, yet the mole ignored us.
I was so entranced by its plush, black pelt that I reached out and touched it. It never reacted. Even when we started to speak in quiet voices, it paid no attention to us. Had we been so inclined, we could have easily picked it up.
For ten minutes it snapped grass roots. Occasionally, it pushed at the long grass with its head and stopped to scratch. Then it shuffled off, its sausage-shaped, six-inch-long body swinging from side to side. Once it paused at a small section of dead grass to sniff. Then it continued on through green grass, pausing frequently to nose various areas like a miniature terrier.
When it wriggle-ran, we had an excellent view of its hairy tail, triangular-shaped head, moist, pink nose, and elongated forefeet, especially when it trundled across the cement floor of our veranda. As it careened past our rocking chairs, I was reminded of the Zuzu Pet toy our granddaughter Elanor had shown us months before.
From there the mole climbed up a small slope covered with the remains of daylily leaves, long grass, and clusters of blooming, brown-eyed coneflowers beneath a medium-sized black walnut tree. We could still hear the mole snapping roots and making cat-like purring sounds, not the harsh, guttural to quiet squeaks described by researchers, but our hairy-tailed mole was hidden by the plants. Finally, it disappeared, and we could not find any tunnel entrance in the mat of vegetation.
Still, for half an hour we had been immersed in the world of the hairy-tailed mole, and we felt privileged to have had the rare opportunity to observe a wild creature going about its business, seemingly unperturbed by our close observation.
Apparently, hairy-tailed moles can hear well, so I don’t know why it didn’t react to our voices, quiet though we were. These moles also rely on their excellent sense of smell and feel to navigate through their fossorial (underground) world. Their hidden eyes only allow them to distinguish light from dark, and even though they labor day and night eating three times their weight in food every 24 hours, they usually come to the surface only at night.
Their diet consists of 30% earthworms and 30% insect larvae and pupae, particularly those of beetles. They also eat snails, slugs, sowbugs, millipedes, and small roots. That snapping sound we heard had been the hairy-tailed mole eating grass roots.
Closely related to shrews in the Order Insectivora, hairy-tailed moles are one of 42 species of moles worldwide in the Family Talpidae. But the hairy-tailed mole is the only member of its genus Parascalops, which, in Latin, means “large, rounded forefeet that act as a shield,” according to Joseph E. Merritt in his wonderful Guide to the Mammals of Pennsylvania. Its species’ name breweri honors Thomas Mayo Brewer, a nineteenth century American naturalist who authored the three-volume A History of North American Birds with Robert Ridgway and Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1874.
A native of Massachusetts, Brewer was a friend of John James Audubon and contributed to Audubon’s Ornithological Biography. Audubon named Brewer’s blackbird for him as well as illustrated and named “Brewer’s duck” that ornithologists now agree was a mallard gadwall hybrid. In addition, Audubon’s good friend, Dr. John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina, named the hairy-tailed mole for Brewer, hence its alternate name “Brewer’s mole.”
Pennsylvania has three mole species—the aforementioned star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata), hairy-tailed mole, and, in eastern Pennsylvania, the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus). All three species produce molehills that are the bane of farmers, golf-course groundskeepers, and gardeners, which are formed when they push extra soil from below ground out of their burrows, but those of the hairy-tailed mole are smaller than those of eastern and star-nosed moles. Using their broad, front feet that are turned outward for digging, they also have powerful muscles in them and in their chests for digging.
The molehills of hairy-tailed moles are the result of their deep tunnel digging in fall and are 10 to 18 inches below ground. They are used for nesting in spring and as winter homes below the frost line because these moles do not hibernate. Those winter nests, as deep as 16 inches below ground, are eight by six inches and are well insulated with leaves and grass.
This complex of tunnels can be used for as long as eight years, and although hairy-tailed moles are mostly solitary creatures, with each home range from 49 to 79 feet in diameter, the males, females, and young of hairy-tailed moles may all use the same tunnel system along with several shrew, vole, mole, and mouse species, i.e. short-tailed shrews, meadow voles, white-footed mice, masked shrews, pine voles, southern bog lemmings, star-nosed moles, and meadow jumping mice.
Hairy-tailed moles also dig surface tunnels in the spring and summer for foraging that produce inch-high ridges of soil above ground and often follow boulders or logs. Once in a while, one crosses a trail on our property. They keep both their deep and surface tunnels and nests clean by depositing their scats outside their tunnel entrances.
Hairy-tailed moles live in a variety of habitats from southeastern Canada inland through the Appalachians as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina. They prefer a sandy loamy, dry to moist soil in forests, open fields, old shrubby pastures, cultivated fields and even along roadsides and are not deterred by stones in their loam such as we have on our rocky mountaintop. Their constant digging and foraging not only tills the soil but rids it of injurious insects. For instance, one researcher in West Virginia reported that they destroyed the nests of ground-nesting wasps and ate their larvae and pupae.
Sometime in late February or early March male hairy-tailed moles, which are somewhat larger than female hairy-tailed moles leave their winter tunnel quarters in search of females’ tunnel systems. After mating, females build their spherical nests 12 inches below ground, which are six inches in diameter and are made up of layers of coarsely shredded dried leaves with a roof of dead leaves and humus.
In four to six weeks after breeding, they have one litter of four or five hairless, blind, toothless young, although back in 1949, N.D. Richmond and H.R. Roslund, while engaged in a mammal survey in northwestern Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reported finding a female with eight embryos.
The young remain in the nest for a month under the sole care of their nursing mother, until they are able to eat solid food. Then they too, join in the burrowing life. At 10 months of age, females are able to have their own young.
Cats, dogs, foxes, opossums, owls, and snakes are known to prey on hairy-tailed moles. In Pennsylvania in 1949, Richmond and Roslund also reported that of the 2484 small mammal remains taken from barn owl pellets, 31 of them were hairy-tailed moles. An adult hairy-tailed mole was once found in the belly of a bullfrog in New York State, and three northern copperhead snakes in Virginia and West Virginia contained hairy-tailed moles. There is also some evidence that the voracious short-tailed shrews prey on nestling hairy-tailed moles.
But because of their usually secretive, mostly underground lives, not much is know about how they live and die. Their fossil record, though, is based on specimens from Pleistocene deposits in Frankstown Cave in my own Blair County, which proves that they’ve been around here for a very long time.