Voles — The Good and The Bad
Although vole burrows are unsightly, voles actually do play an important role in the ecosystem. They are a food source for species
like hawks, raccoons, and snakes and their burrows help spread nutrients in the upper soil layer.
Voles are small, chunky, ground-dwelling rodents. Mature voles are 5 to 7 inches long and have stocky bodies, short legs, and
short tails. Adults are chestnut-brown mixed with black, and their underparts are dark gray. The underfur is generally dense and
covered with thicker, longer guard hairs. Their feet are brownish, and the thin hair that covers their tails is dark on the upper
surface, gradually changing to a lighter gray beneath. They have small black eyes, and their ears are furred and do not project
much above the hair.
Voles are frequently mistaken for moles, shrews, and mice. Moles have greatly enlarged
front feet, with prominent digging claws. Moles also have no external ears and very small
eyes. Shrews are smaller than voles, and have long, pointed snouts and pointed front teeth,
with their eyes and ears nearly hidden in their fur.
||Average 1 year
||1 - 1.5 ounces
||0.5 - 1.5 inches
||Brown (light or dark) back;
white or silvery belly
||3 - 5 weeks
|Litters Per Year
||5 - 10 litters
||Coyotes, Foxes, Dogs,
Badgers, Weasels, Hawks,
Voles have rounded, blunt snouts, and their front teeth are chisel-shaped. Their eyes and
ears are readily apparent. The distinction between voles and mice is less obvious. The best
way to distinguish them is by tail length. Mice have long tails that extend nearly half their
body length, whereas voles have short tails.
There are 3 vole species native to Wisconsin: Woodland Vole (Microtus pinetorum), Prairie Vole (Microtus ochrogaster) and
Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus).
Woodland voles are common in old fields, thickets, gardens, orchards, and the edges of agricultural land, particularly where
the soil is loose and sandy.
Prairie voles live in grassy fields that are not too damp. They prefer pastures, alfalfa fields, prairies, and weedy areas. Near
towns they live on golf courses and vacant lots.
The meadow vole is most often found in extensive grassy or weedy areas such as old fields and moist hillsides with heavy
ground cover. However, stream and pond banks, orchards, pastures, hay fields, and fence rows also provide suitable habitat
for meadow and woodland voles. Meadow voles occasionally invade lawns, gardens, and nurseries.
Voles are semi-fossorial, and as such, construct many tunnels and surface runways with numerous burrow entrances. A single
burrow system may contain several adults and young. Vole nests are globular structures of dry grass about 6 to 8 inches in
Nest cavities are usually located on the surface of the ground or under old boards, discarded metal, logs, or other
such cover. In winter, above-ground nests may be made in deep snow, but these are temporary and will be vacated when the
Voles may breed throughout the year, but most commonly in spring and summer. Generally, they have 1 to 5 litters per year.
Litter sizes range from 1 to 11 young, but usually average 3 to 6 young. The gestation period is about 21 days. Young are
weaned by the time they are 21 days old, and females are sexually mature in 35 to 40 days. Voles have short lifespans that
generally range from 2 to 16 months.
Large population fluctuations are characteristic of voles. Population levels generally peak every 2 to 5 years; however, these
cycles are not predictable. Extremely high vole densities sometimes can occur during population irruptions. Food quality,
climate, predation, physiological stress, and genetics have been shown to influence population levels.
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 at times, primarily in fall and winter, and will also eat grain crops, especially when their populations
are high. Occasional food items include snails, insects, and animal remains. Voles are active day and night, year-round, with
peak activity occurring at dawn and dusk. They do not hibernate. Their home range is usually ¼ acre or less, but this range
varies with season, population density, habitat, and food supply.
The impacts of meadow voles on their ecosystems are significant. Their high rate of ingestion of
vegetable materials stimulates its decomposition and nutrient release. Their nutrient rich fecal pellets
are widely dispersed through their habitats to the great benefit of new and growing vegetation. These
voles also accelerate the dispersal of vital mycorrhizal fungi, and, thus, influence the survival and
growth rates of many important species of trees. Meadow voles are most abundant in the open field
and shrub ecosystems of early successional stages of disturbed ecosystems. Their presence and
activities greatly influence the rate and direction of subsequent successional stages.
Voles are also an important part of the food chain, serving as prey for many predators such as hawks, owls, snakes, weasels,
raccoons, foxes, opossums, and house cats.
Voles may cause extensive damage to orchards, ornamentals, and tree plantings by gnawing on the bark of seedlings and
mature trees (girdling). They eat crops outright and also cause damage by building extensive runway and tunnel systems
through crop fields. Underground, woodland voles may consume small roots, girdle large roots, and eat bark from the base
Wire guards made of ¼-inch hardware cloth will help prevent meadow vole damage to small
trees and shrubs. Wire cylinders 18 to 24 inches high set into the ground around the trunk
will prevent meadow voles from girdling the tree.
Eliminating weeds, ground cover, and litter is an excellent method of achieving long-term
control of voles. Repeated mowing that maintains ground cover at a height of 3 to 6 inches
reduce both food and cover and exposes voles to predators. Therefore, lawn and turf should
be mowed regularly.
If voles are damaging trees, clear all mulch 2 feet or more from the bases of trees. Establishing
vegetation-free zones that extend at least 2 feet from tree trunks under tree canopies will discourage
voles from living near the bases of trees, where they cause the most damage
Agents designed to frighten rodents are not effective in reducing vole damage.
Repellents containing thiram (a fungicide) or capsaicin (the ingredient that makes chili peppers hot)
are registered for vole control. Little data is available on the effectiveness of repellents to deter vole
damage. Therefore, repellents should not be used as the sole method of vole control.
Although not effective on a large scale, trapping is the safest way to remove voles in home grounds
or small orchards before vole numbers are extremely high. Fall and late winter are periods when
voles are easiest to trap. Set mouse-sized snap traps at burrow openings or in runways near
ornamental shrubbery, flower beds, gardens, or rock walls. Bait the traps with a peanut butter-oatmeal
mixture or apple slices. Set the trap perpendicular to the runway, and cover the trap with an inverted
cardboard box or pan. Be sure to allow space for the trap to operate freely under the covering.
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