Earlier this summer, I began a series of articles on Lawn and Landscape Pests. We have looked at chipmunks and armadillos. As I watch the highway construction around the I-65/I-22 intersection, I think of the trail builders of our lawns. Moles and voles build a series of trails that kill large patches of grass as they crisscross through the grass in search of food. Last month we looked at moles, today let’s look at voles. Voles, also called meadow mice or field mice, are compact rodents with stocky bodies, short legs, and short tails. Their eyes are small and their ears partially hidden; which distinguish them from true mice with bulbous eyes and erect ears. There are 23 vole species in the United States. Here in the Eastern US, we have the small Woodland or Pine Vole (Microtus pinetorum). Its total length is 4 to 6 inches. Its brown fur is soft and dense. The underparts are gray mixed with some yellow to cinnamon.
Voles occupy a wide variety of habitats. They prefer areas with heavy ground cover of grasses, grass-like plants, or litter. The pine vole inhabits a variety of habitats such as deciduous and pine forests. They also like to use habitats modified by humans, such as orchards, fencerows, windbreaks, abandoned and cultivated fields. Voles eat a wide variety of plants, most frequently grasses and forbs. In late summer and fall, they store seeds, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes. They eat bark primarily in winter; will eat crops, and at times snails, insects, and carrion.
Voles are active day and night, year round. Home range is usually 1/4 acre or less but varies with season, population density, habitat, food supply, and other factors. Voles construct many tunnels and surface runways with numerous burrow entrances. A single burrow system may contain several adults and young. Voles normally breed in spring and summer, can have up to 5 litters/year, and average 3 to 6 pups/litter. The gestation period is about 21 days, the young are weaned by 21 days old, and females mature in 40 days. Lifespans are short, lasting around a year, but mortality is very high; about 80% never make it past the first month. Large population fluctuations are characteristic of voles.
During these high population swings, voles may cause extensive damage to orchards, ornamentals, and tree plantings due to their girdling of seedlings and mature trees. Girdling damage usually occurs in fall and winter. Field crops (for example, alfalfa, clover, grains, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) may be damaged or destroyed by voles. Voles not only eat crops, but they also damage them when they build extensive runway and tunnel systems. Voles also can ruin lawns, golf courses, and ground covers through their gnawing and runway systems.
The best control for a large farm is toxicants, for the average homeowner the mouse/rat trap or a crew of cats work fine.
Written by Andrew J. Baril of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
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