Celebrating Voles — Yes, With A ‘V’

Snow reveals the hidden lives of animals. It is fairly easy to follow their tracks and find hidden lairs, out-of-the-way trails, nests, beds and bathrooms. Animals have few secrets in the wintertime, because everything they do leaves a sign behind.

Last weekend was a weekend for voles. These soft furry animals look like big mouse tubes. They always remind me of short, hairy sausages with legs. Sausage is a good word for them, since voles are like running snack bars for carnivores.

They are eaten by just about anything. “Of our small mammals, no other has such a long list of enemies,” according to the book “Mammals of the Eastern United States” by John Whitaker Jr. “In the air above the woods and meadows, and even in the water, lurk many foes, always ready to snuff out a life in one savage rush of wings, feet or fins.”

The sheer volume of animals that eat voles caused the author to depart from the normally dry tone of this more scientific book. Indeed, voles inspire awe in many ways. They can mate once they are three weeks old and are able to have up to 13 litters of babies a year. One captive female gave birth to 17 litters in a year. A vole can eat its weight in green food daily and will re-ingest their droppings 12-15 percent of the time, a common practice in nature called “coprophagy.” (But exceptionally gross when the dog does it!)

Like their enemies, it is hard to list the foods that a vole eats. If it is a plant or a part of a plant, the voles will eat it. Depending on the habitat and the year, there may be anywhere from four to 166 voles per acre. For such a common animal upon which so many other animals depend, voles remain little known to most people.

On your next outing, stop and watch the tunnels in the snow for a couple of minutes. If you are lucky, you may see a long tube of a mouse run out across the snow. You can smile smugly and think, “There goes a vole!” and remember that they are the mainstay in the diet of almost every fox, owl, hawk, coyote and weasel, and that no other animal has such a long list of natural enemies.

Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at the Jamestown Audubon Society and a longtime supporter and volunteer at the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a private, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. Its present focus is to conserve and enhance the natural shores and banks of Chautauqua County’s lakes and streams, which provide fish and wildlife habitat and pollution-filtering functions. The Conservancy is funded primarily through membership donations, and its annual 2013 membership campaign is currently under way.