March 30, 2015

Unwelcome Signs of Spring

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

Sunlight is lengthening each day, the temperature slowly creeps upward and those of us in the northeast are eagerly looking for a sign that spring is truly on its way. Maple syrup season, mud season, even Groundhog Day all seem to fool us into tantalizing thinking that spring is on its way and winter is surely over. We keep constant tabs on the depth of the snow searching for an elusive patch of green grass in the lawn officially telling us that winter is on its way out. Once this happens we foolishly believe, all will be well. However, the melting snow also reveals a different, unwelcome sign of spring. Small tunnels rise out of the remains of snow as the white blanket melts away.As the patch of bare ground grows we discover tunnels that crisscross across the yard and even reach into the gardens. Instead of green grass tunnels of dead grass are revealed. What has happened here? What is responsible? The simple meadow vole is the culprit.

Meadow voles or meadow mice, as they are also known, are chunky mouse- like rodents, with small, rounded ears and eyes, a short, furred tail, and a fur color that is chestnut brown to dark brown. These animals are found throughout much of the northern United States. They are adaptable, inhabiting a variety of habitats, including meadows and pastures with thick grassy cover where they can find shelter and food. They are also found in orchards with good grass cover and in marshes, swamp areas, and grassy openings in forests and in gardens. Meadow voles mainly eat grass and herbs in the summer but switch to available seeds and bark and roots of small trees and shrubs during winter. They may cache roots, leaves, tubers, and other plant parts in winter and may eat 60 to 100% of their body weight in twenty-four hours.

These seldom seen small rodents are active all year long. They travel through vegetative tunnels in the growing season seeking shelter in burrows in the ground, mulch, tall grass areas, brush, and wood piles. In winter they tunnel under the snow when a significant amount has fallen and continue searching for food or resting in communal nests in their subnuvien world. The snow protects them from cold temperatures, the eyes of potential predators, and allows access to available food,. Although short-lived, meadow voles are prolific breeders throughout the year, including winter, with a female having up to ten litters of four to five young each time. The young mature quickly and are able to breed in about one month, which may explain why in some areas, vole damage to young fruit trees and other garden vegetation can be extensive.

Once homeowners irealize that they have voles on their property the natural inclination is to get rid of them, but this often proves difficult. Winters with long-lasting snow cover provide relative protection from predators although fox and coyote can often hear or smell the voles moving beneath the snow. My dogs, although not trained to hunt voles, enjoy rooting them out of the iris beds in the summer and digging through the snow in winter to find them. Weasels are another predator that enters the snow tunnels of voles. Owls may locate the rodents under the snow when perched quietly in a tree above. Other options to reduce vole numbers are to mow regularly during the growing season to provide them with less cover, to locate compost piles and brush piles well away from areas you don’t want voles, and to protect young trees and vulnerable shrubs with hardware cloth wrapped to the height of the snowline.

Although your lawn may look unsightly for a few weeks, the damage is mainly caused by feeding. Often the grass will regrow as the temperature warms. A thorough raking of the disturbed area may be all that is necessary to allow the grass to regrow.

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