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Dig It: Little-Seen Voles Live Their Lives Underground

If you think about the animals that live just below our feet, what comes to mind? Probably ants and other insect species. Or maybe groundhogs, which spend the winter hibernating in their underground dens. But what about voles? They spend most of their time underground too.  


A vole on the ground surrounded by grass and dried vegetation.
A vole. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Three species of voles live in Illinois: meadow voles, prairie voles and woodland voles. All three are common in northern Illinois. Meadow voles and prairie voles both inhabit grassland areas, and woodland voles live in forested areas. 


Voles are rodents, like mice and squirrels. They dig underground tunnels and burrows, but they also spend quite a bit of time aboveground. Meadow voles will even nest aboveground. 


Read on to learn more about voles.


They aren't mice, or moles


Voles are often mistaken for mice. They are even sometimes referred to as meadow mice. However, voles and mice are not one and the same. Both are rodents, and both are similar in size and appearance. This causes confusion between them. The key identification feature between voles and mice is their tails. Voles have short tails, while mice tails are about half the length of their bodies.


Another animal voles are often confused for is moles. This is understandable, because moles and voles both primarily live underground, plus their names are almost identical. The easiest way to tell a mole from a vole is to look at its claws or its snout. Moles have large front feet with large claws that they use for digging. Voles have small front feet. And while a vole has a short, blunt snout, moles have long pointy snouts. Voles also have visible ears, but moles do not.


They have a lot of babies


Rabbits have a reputation for having a lot of babies, but voles can give them a run for their money. Voles can have as many as five litters of offspring a year. They can breed in any season, but litters are most common in the spring and summer.

 

Words to know

Aerate: To introduce air into.

Inhabit: To live in or occupy.

Litter: The group of young animals born to an animal at one time.

Offspring: A person’s or animal’s children. 

Snout: The projecting nose and mouth of an animal.

Wean: To gradually introduce to food other than mother’s milk.

 

Each litter can have as many as 11 babies, although the average size is usually between three and six. Litter size varies slightly among different vole species. Meadow voles and prairie voles typically have three to five babies per litter. Woodland voles usually only have two or three.


Voles can begin reproducing at a very young age. Baby voles are weaned at about 3 weeks old. Females can begin reproducing when they are between 35 and 40 days old.  


They are big plant eaters


Some underground animals eat insects and other invertebrates they find while tunneling through the soil, but voles are plant eaters and often eat while aboveground. Their primary food source is grass, clover, plantain, alfalfa and goldenrod. They will also eat seeds, grains and berries. Sometimes they may eat snails or insects.


In the winter, when grasses and vegetation are not readily available, they will gnaw at bark at the base of tree trunks for food. To prepare for winter, they will begin to store seeds, bulbs and other foods in late summer and fall.


They are an important link in the food chain


Like mice and many other small mammals, voles play an important role in the ecosystem because they are preyed upon by many animals higher up the food chain. Carnivores such as badgers, coyotes, foxes and weasels will all hunt voles. Raptors like hawks and owls also prey on voles and many other small rodents. Even our pet cats kill voles.


Because voles tunnel and burrow in the soil, they also improve soil health in areas where they are active. As they dig, they aerate the soil, which improves soil quality. The digging activity also allows organic matter to become better mixed into the soil. 


They can be a nuisance


Most people don't know much about voles. Those who do usually do because they have caused problems around their homes or on their property. Because they build burrows and tunnels just below ground, they often leave signs of their activity aboveground in the form of trails in the grass. However, voles are also often blamed for damage caused by other animals, including moles and rabbits.


While meadow voles and prairie voles are common in open, grassy areas, voles most commonly become a nuisance in agricultural areas. Around homes, voles sometimes eat bulbs and tubers, particularly in winter. 


Signs that voles are digging around your home include 1-inch to 2-inch wide trails and runways through grassy areas. The areas surrounding these trails will often have grasses and other vegetation cut to the ground. Vole runways are often most apparent in winter when there is no snow covering the ground. Once the growing season begins, grass and other vegetation often hides the signs of their presence.

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