The Wondrous Vole | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

The Wondrous Vole

Jim Anderson

Central Oregon is home to remarkable little mammals known as the vole. Not a "mole" but a "vole." Just a tiny, short-tailed mammal of no significance—about the size of your thumb—a mere tidbit to a coyote, or a tasty snack for a badger. But put 10,000 of them in one pasture and they will eat a cow out of house-and-home.

The vole—and there are several species, all of them with one thing in common, they eat grasses—is a small rodent resembling a mouse, but with a stouter body, a shorter hairy tail, a slightly rounder head, smaller ears and eyes, and differently formed molars (teeth that are high-crowned and with angular cusps instead of low-crowned and with rounded cusps, like most rodents). In actual measurements voles are about 12 cm (4.5 inches) long with a 2 cm (3/4-inch) tail and weigh about 27 g (almost an ounce).

Great horned owls gobble 'em up like a Cub Scout eating marshmallows, and red-tailed hawks will wait until almost dark to snatch a few for dessert—nothing better than a few voles in your crop to help with a good night's sleep.

One of the reasons the poor little vole is on everyone's menu is that they have the awesome ability to get into the begetting business in such a grand way; if left to do so, they could populate the entire State of Oregon in less than five years. Female voles have five or more litters of four to six young in a year, born in a grass-lined nest in a burrow safe from all but a ravenous badger, or very ambitious coyote.

Voles are active year round, day and night, but are usually out of their burrow munching grasses near sunrise and sunset. Their trails through the surface vegetation are often very visible. They burrow under the snow in winter, leaving behind a tunnel of grass when they snow melts, and when their population begins to explode they can be found in huge colonies.

In 1958, the lowly little vole ate the ranchers of Klamath County out of house-and-home, literally. In his book, Don Coyote, Hawk Hyde wrote about the vole infestation that about broke him and his ranching efforts on his ranch, Yamsi, in northern Klamath County.

That same year I saw voles moving in front of irrigation water like a sea of fur on alfalfa farms in eastern Deschutes County. Without exaggeration, you couldn't walk with one foot in front of the other on the laterals between flooded fields without hearing the sickening sound of vole bones crunching under your footsteps.

When voles are in abundance long-eared owls, short-eared owls, northern pygmy owls, barn owls, and hawks of all kinds think they've died and gone to heaven. Almost every bulky magpie nest has a log-eared in it or on top of it. When I banded the babies, it was so comical to find the female long-eared often crammed into the magpie's stick fortress, peering out at you.

Thankfully, it isn't just hawks and owls that enjoy eating voles. Predators, such as raccoons, coyotes, weasels, foxes, and outdoor cats and dogs—and snakes—also delight in a repast of lip-smackin' voles.

The average life of a vole is three to six months. Voles rarely live longer than 12 months; while the longest lifespan of a vole ever recorded was 18 months, but in that length of time they can eat hundreds of pounds of vegetation.

The picture of a bunch of voles in your hay field or kitchen garden isn't particularly pleasant, so, if you decide to help nature along with ridding your farm or kitchen garden of these delectable munchies for wildlife, please be very careful if you apply rodenticides.

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