As the seasons wear on, and we begin another year with our movements restricted by Covid19, it’s easy to see cabin fever creeping up on folks. People who wouldn’t ordinarily have conflict, begin to. Those who started out with strife and high tempers can’t be said to have improved. This plight turns my mind to the voles, and how much better they handle winter than us humans.
Voles are kin of mice – not true mice, biologists will tell you, as they’re more closely related to muskrats and lemmings, but functionally they behave much like true mice. Voles can be distinguished from mice by having shorter & blunter snouts, smaller eyes and ears, shorter tails, and classically bad teeth. To me their teeth bring British films to mind – Monty Python & The Holy Grail, for example.
Voles, genus Microtus, are territorial little beasties. While primarily herbivorous, voles do appreciate a varied diet, and some are fierce grasshopper hunters. Like many small mammals, voles seem to believe that one should encourage annoying neighbors to live elsewhere by devouring their children… (I’m rather glad most humans don’t espouse this belief). Sensible little creatures, voles will readily dine on carrion, and aren’t opposed to eating dead (or mostly dead) kin caught in traps.
Largely solitary-living, voles are ready to fight and kill in defense of their sovereignty in summer. This is particularly true for actively reproductive females, who tolerate no other reproductive female trespassers.
However, vole behaviors change with the seasons. Unlike you or I, voles become more sociable and tolerant of others during the cold of winter. Instead of eviscerating that annoying cousin, as their first inclination would be in the summer, when wearing winter’s brain, voles instead perceive that nuisance relatives could be of utility and might generate enough warmth to be worth keeping around.
Voles realize that they’ll only get through the cold harshness of winter together. You see, voles don’t make burrows deep enough to avoid the frost, and thus need the warmth of others to survive. And so they build wintertime nests of dry grass, and pile within those nests, keeping warm by shared bodyheat.
The importance of food:
But one can not survive on warmth alone – voles need to eat throughout the winter months as well.
To do this, they build tunnels leading away from their dry grass nests, and feed on plantstuffs wherever they can. This is the main reason why voles become pests in winter months. For such small animals, they can be quite destructive – they’re quite capable of girdling trees, if it’s what it takes for them to get food.
While this allows foraging, voles only forage a few at a time – always leaving a number of voles behind, sleeping in the nest to keep it warm. Once those voles that are foraging have returned, it will be others’ time to seek food.
The best means of controlling voles is by predators. Garter snakes will contribute, as will hawks, but for our geographic area, our various weasels are likely the best means of controlling voles. In the absence of good weasels, a cat or dog with aspirations of becoming a good mouser will be helpful as well – and oh, the joy if they happen to find the winter nest full of scrumptious voles.
In the absence of total control by predators, ringing the bases of trees you want to protect (either with wire hardware cloth or with protective plastic sheathing) is a wise idea. Regardless of what you pick to protect your plants, be sure to bury it 4-6 inches deep, so that voles will be less likely to tunnel beneath it. Reducing groundcover around plants you want to protect is a good idea as well – the voles won’t place their foraging tunnels across much bare ground.
If you’d like to take a more active approach, the thaw has been sufficient for me to find vole trails with little difficulty. Follow the trails long enough and you’ll discover their winter nests, little edifices of dry grass, about 8 inches across. Find one of the nests and you may well make a little dog’s day.