Community, Wildlife

Winter changes voles’ moods, too.

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.

This handsome gentleman made the mistake of trying to fight the little Pomeranian mouser.
He reared up on his hind legs, squeaking menacingly… and the other Pomeranian grabbed him from behind.

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.

Here’s a vole foraging runway, partly uncovered by melting snow. These paths are about 1.5 inches wide. Note that the tunnel branches like a “Y” at the top of the image.

Vole control:
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.

Community, Wildlife

I carry a gun

I carry a gun when I go for walks.  Occasionally I see an article about carrying an everyday pistol – yet these folks might as well be in a different world.  I don’t need the pistol to protect myself – I have two small dogs that are at some level of risk when we run across coyote or cougar.  Come to think of it, the last encounter was when Kiki decided to protect me from 2 grizzlies – they ran for about 80 yards, and then one must have realized that there wasn’t much dignity in 2 grizzlies being chased by a 7-year-old Pomeranian. 

The nice lady who handles problem bears for FWAP explained the advantages of bear spray to me.  I even kind of agree that my aging, overweight Pomeranian has an awesome ability to make a stressful grizzly encounter worse.  That said, bear spray is short range – 7 to 10 yards sticks in my mind.  My little companions can range 50 yards from me, and they have already encountered coyotes, a cougar, and an eagle that regarded them as prey.  I’ve had a wolf kill a fawn within 150 yards of the house.  They’ve all been beyond the range of bear spray, and they have all backed off at my confident approach.  Still, at 71, that confidence is enhanced by the pistol on my hip.

Robert Ruark penned the phrase, “Use enough gun.”  I believe – but it is inconvenient to carry enough gun for a pair of grizzlies everywhere I walk . . . and there are only a few moments of my life spent in grizzly encounters.  Coyotes are more common, as are cats – and over a half-century ago, Paul Totten explained that a 22 is adequate for cougar.  Even a 45 feels small when you’re looking at the real bear, and politely asking, “Please Mr. Bear, you go your way and I’ll go mine.  Neither one of us wants trouble, OK?”  So far the conversation has been effective every time.

So I carry a small, inadequate HK4.  It can protect my small dogs from the common predators, and, if worse comes down to worst, I think I’d feel more competent concentrating on my sights and trigger than praying. 

Community

The Dog Gets a Vote- or, the Mother’s Day Present

Some years ago I was in the process of moving and my father had come by to help me pack. He’d lost Shadow a few months before, and, having spent the year carrying the elderly dog everywhere, kept looking around as if expecting to see him. So, Dad needed a dog.

We took a walk, making sure my little dog had sufficient exercise, and there she was. Or rather, there they were. Numbers are hard to discern in a flood of moving fur and barking, but it was definitely a number of Pomeranians. Their owner admired mine, and we got to talking. I mentioned Shadow, and remarked on how Dad needed a dog. As it happened, she had a five year old Pomeranian, who was retiring from a life of having puppies and needed a home. Her name was Kiki.

It hadn’t been that long since she’d had the puppies and she’d shed a considerable amount of hair. She was a bit chubby, apparently shy, didn’t bark, and Dad got to hold her. Seeing what was looking a lot like love at first sight, I went home for the checkbook and bought Dad a dog.

Kiki was shy. She was so attached to my father that she trembled on my lap the entire time he was gone for a shower. Dad spent the evening reassuring and comforting the little thing and wasn’t looking around for the little dog he’d buried, being preoccupied with the one in his arms.

Cheerfully contemplating my success, I realized that someone would have to tell my mother. Glancing at my phone told me that, as it happened, it was Mother’s Day. I am, unfortunately, terrible with dates. I can forget my own birthday. Presents, cards, good wishes all come terribly late.

It is always a wonderful experience when two problems solve one another. I needed to tell Mom about the dog. I had forgotten Mother’s Day (again), and consequently hadn’t gotten her anything, or even sent her a note. Opportunity! I took a picture of the very cute little creature in Dad’s arms. “Happy Mother’s Day”, I captioned it.

A more recent photo of Kiki.
Her coat has grown back and she is much fluffier now than she was when we met her.

Sometimes, I am not quite so clever as I think I am. Dad drove home with Kiki, and introduced the Mother’s Day Present to my Mom. While I’m not certain that Kiki hated my mother at first sight, it must have been close. When purchasing a dog as a gift, it is important to remember that the dog gets a vote. And Kiki certainly voted!

When my father would rise to make coffee, Kiki would rush to the bedroom, barking loudly to wake her up. When Mom reached to pet her, she would rush away and hide under furniture, or she would growl and threaten. When Mom passed by the window outside, Kiki would bark. She adored my father, following him around, always a step behind him. She spent the sleepless evenings keeping him company, supervised and kept watch while he worked outside, and provided the constant canine companionship he had missed.

A year after I had purchased the Mother’s Day Dog, it had become apparent that she and my mother were not going to make friends. “I don’t have a present.” I told my mother, that Mother’s Day, rather apologetic (I had, once again, forgotten the date); “Good!”

Of course, it was becoming apparent that my mother needed a dog…

Community

Thoughts on a very small dog

A couple years ago, my little dog died.  Today I can celebrate his 14 years of life.  A dog’s life is always too short. 

Shadow was a baby doll or teddy bear Pom – carefully bred for a short nose, a high forehead, and an all around cute face.  Not my choice, but I had no problems confusing him with my first Pom.  Brandy had been a partner.  Shadow was a pet.  He began earning his kibbles with my mother-in-law.  He didn’t care if she called him by the wrong name, or even if she called him cat.  As he saw his first job, it was to spread joy in an Alzheimer’s unit.  He tackled it with enthusiasm.

He was, by choice, a South Dakotan.  Our 3 acres, with a shelterbelt and pond, was the right size ranch for a 6 pound Pomeranian.  Fortunately, he grew up without the presence of border collies, so he developed an unorthodox and safe style of encouraging invading cattle to depart.  There was the absolute joy of intimidating herons that would try harvest fish in his pond.  He was convinced that rabbits were evil and filled with bad – he had chased one under the Quonset, only to have snow slide from the roof, trapping him.  Another time, he saw a rabbit hopping toward him, and set up an ambush – only to learn that it was a jackrabbit, and larger than he.  He was a South Dakotan.  Montana was too big – he tried, but the pond and the field were just too large. 

As an old dog, he would accompany me through Home Depot, where young women working there would recognize him and call him by name.  He had always had a soft spot for girls – he assumed that all of my daughter’s friends came to visit him.  I suppose to a certain extent he was right.  The ladies adored him.  As he aged and couldn’t walk, he could still work from the pickup, on the seat, wrapped in my jacket, with the radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh. I’d be outside, fencing, cutting wood, or just about any job I could park a pickup alongside. When Hannity came on to his channel, he would bark to have the radio turned off, and return to the house.

Probably his greatest service was recognizing that Samantha had became face-blind after the truck hit her.  He appointed himself as her service dog, taking a station to her side if she was meeting someone he knew, and interposing his body between his girl and any stranger.  His failing vision took that duty from him, but he led us into understanding that a Pomeranian can identify enough people and objects to be a service dog for the face-blind.  He hated his replacement, she had taken his job and his girl.  I suppose that, in reality, I was his second friend, the one who would take him for rides, walks and eventually just carry him as I walked.