Meadow Voles
By E. Ann Poole

Some of winter's stories are revealed in March as the snow evaporates layer-by-layer, blown clean by the bitter night wind. Tracks like fossils crisscross our field, connecting islands of piled rocks to stone walls and tufts of dried weeds. The trails tell tales – mostly mundane, some confounding, and a few dramatic or even tragic. Tragic, that is, if you root for the presumed underdog which in this case was a meadow vole.

Bearing a resemblance in miniature to their cousin the muskrat, meadow voles or field mice are rotund with longish fur and small ears. They measure 3 to 5 inches long with a 1 to 2 inch hairless tail. Female voles can have between one and five litters in a year, producing about five pups in each litter. Though voles reproduce frequently and produce many offspring, they have a relatively short life. On average, a meadow vole living in its natural environment will live about five months. In summer, meadow voles stay well hidden in a network of burrows and nests among thick clumps of grass and sedge. In winter, they travel over the ground in a labyrinth of snow tunnels feeding on grasses, seeds and the live bark of shrubs and saplings. They seldom travel out of the tunnel; all their needs are met under the cover of snow.

Meadow vole
Meadow vole

Beneath the protective blanket of snow, the temperature in the tunnels is often several degrees warmer than the surface. Uneaten grass often covers the snow tunnel floor like a runner. As spring approaches and the snow recedes, the grassy runways can be easily seen and followed.

In addition to protecting the voles from cold and wind, the tunnels provide a certain amount of security. To find the voles, predators have developed keen hearing. Foxes and coyotes will stand above the snow with their ears pointed forward listening for a vole running through its tunnel. When they locate one, they will leap and dive trying to catch the vole between their paws. This tactic may be attempted several times. In the end they will either enjoy a tasty meal, or if the vole is lucky, just a mouthful of snow.

January and February are often lean months for the meadow vole's predators. Rain on snow can freeze solid, locking out foxes and owls. But in March as the sun's ray strengthen and the snow softens and recedes, the odds improve for foxes and owls. Which leads one to wonder, in winter which really is the underdog – the hunter or the hunted?

E. Ann Poole is a Consulting Ecologist & Environmental Planner in Hillsborough, NH. She can be reached by calling 603.478.1178 or via the web at eannpoole.com.

Fox pouncing on meadow vole below the snow
Fox pouncing on meadow vole below the snow Fox pouncing on meadow vole below the snow Fox pouncing on meadow vole below the snow

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