Meadow voles are powerful. They are an essential link in the food chain. The list of animals that will eat them is long. Owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wolves nibble on them. Snakes, shrews, weasels, raccoons, skunks and badgers put them on their opportunistic menu. Domestic cats and dogs also feed on it. Valuable as a food source, the prolific voles reproduce up to 17 times a year. This is a good thing. Most never reach adulthood or enjoy a full lifespan.
On January 28-29, 2022, unknown marks in the snow near my porch started to appear after the snow accumulated. Wonder and amazement struck again. How did they get there and what were they used for? The answer was revealed on January 30, an unexpected day. As I approached the house, a fast creature scurried across the snow towards the foundation of the house. Grabbing my cell phone camera, I zoomed in and started filming. Thanks to the trail footage and these snaps, Ross County Park Superintendent Joe Letsche gave me a clue. It was a meadow vole.
Meadow voles are small mammals that are rodents. They are not moles, gophers, mice, rats or shrews. These tiny animals have short, dark brown fur. Their bodies are strong. They look like a small sausage, and for predators their attraction is obvious. The head is rounded and short. Unlike mice, they have small eyes, small hairy ears and short tails. They are active day and night. All legs are the same size and strength, making voles efficient travelers. Most of the time they trot. When snowfall is heavy, meadow voles go through tunnels under the snow most of the time.
Pike County’s seven-inch snowfall revealed tracks and trails, their network of paths and trails through thick vegetation. This system of shallow underground burrows has many entrances. Mine was subnivean. Meadow voles live in grasslands or meadows. Laura Ingalls’ little house and meadow voles must have been neighbors. These semi-fossorial animals switch between habitat above and below ground. The tracks are usually one to two inches wide. Nearby plant life is often cut at a 45 degree angle to ground level by nature’s lawnmowers, meadow voles. Tunnels are for food caching, foraging, and breeding.
A high reproductive rate balances the abundance of predator consumption. Populations increase and decrease every five years. Voles can reproduce at any time of the year. In 21 days, the mothers give birth and are then ready to breed again. After two weeks, nearly 40% of newborns die or are killed. In addition, 90% disappear within a month, the main reason being predation. The average lifespan of an adult is just over two months. This keystone species, on which so many others depend, is essential to the health of many animals. What keeps meadow voles and their relatives in check is that almost every predator in the food chain consumes them.
Breeding is the mating and production of offspring by animals. For meadow voles, the place to have babies is a nest. Sometimes they place their nests above the ground. At other times, they are found at the ends of underground burrows. The nests look like clumps of grass the size of a softball. A well used trail leads to and from the nest site. Meadow voles, good housekeepers, keep the inside of their nest tidy. The common latrine is elsewhere.
What are they eating? These herbivores eat their weight in grasses and other plants each day to begin with. They love sedges and seeds. Favorite foods include roots and bulbs. The bark is also part of their diet. Sometimes they break through the ground to girdle the bark of a young tree. They are at greater risk of a hungry predator seeing them at this time. Many a hardwood planted in a meadow has not survived because a vole ate its bark. Meadow voles eat for short periods of time and then rest throughout the day. Prepare yourselves. They also participate in coprophagia. Ingesting their droppings twice allows them to get more nutrients from their food. This practice is normal for rodents and rabbits.
Meadow voles are common. They live in all 88 counties of Ohio and more. Voles are the most populous group of rodents in the northern hemisphere. Meadow voles are the most common of about 50 species of voles.
Curiosity can lead to discovery. Before this meadow vole disappeared into one of its winter tunnels, the brief glimpse allowed my friend to confirm its identity. Further research on my topic of interest has furthered the acquisition of knowledge. Each piece of the biodiversity puzzle has its place. All interconnected, where would we be without them. They make our world.