Master Gardener - Julie Barnes
Ah spring time! A stroll through your yard will certainly alleviate cabin fever. While walking along you suddenly twist your ankle on a tunnel winding through your lawn or you notice that a beloved shrub appears to be unhealthy. As you gently shake away its drooping leaves the entire plant pulls completely out of the ground. Hey! Where are the roots? These dual scenarios are to make you aware of two small mammal culprits that happen to have rhyming names. : Is it a mole or a vole that is to blame? Of course moles seem to more well-known and are often charged for vole damage. However, they are two entirely different pests with the exception that both are associated with tunnels.
Moles are 6-7 inch long gray or brown mammals that are in fact NOT rodents spending almost their entire lives underground. They have a long, naked snout; narrow, slit-like eyes hidden beneath fur, no visible ears and a short virtually hairless tail. The most noticeable feature they have is paddle-like forefeet with large claws bent sideways to excavate tunnels.
These voracious feeders are insectivore’s daily consuming enormous quantities of earthworms, grubs or insects. They do not eat plants but will cause landscape damage by continuously burrowing for food shearing grass or plant roots and pushing soil to the surface in the form of volcano-shaped mounds.
Moles are active both day and night throughout the year mining underneath or near the soil surface to create a complex network of “running” tunnels. As the ground surface freezes in winter or dries out during summer, moles hollow out deeper burrows. On damp spring and fall days they become more active near the earth's surface.
Breeding occurs in February or March where a single litter of three to five offspring is born after a six-week gestation period which then become active at about four weeks of age. Except for mating moles are extremely territorial and will defend their space from other adults so that usually one or two moles are active within a given yard. Their life span is two to three years.
Voles are 5-7 inch long ground-dwelling RODENTS that have stocky bodies on small legs with short tails and commonly are mistaken to be field or deer mice. Tail length distinguishes short tailed voles from mice which have long tails extending nearly half the length t of their bodies. They are black-brown in color with noticeable eyes and ears.
Voles are herbivores or plant-eaters feeding primarily on grasses, flowers, fruits, vegetables, bulbs, and roots which also provide the shelter needed to build their nests. Although there are four species of Pennsylvania voles, the meadow and the woodland (or pine) voles are the most destructive. When food becomes scarce in winter they will gnaw off tree or shrub bark or consume underground roots and tubers.
Voles can safely travel into areas normally not ventured below snow cover crisscrossing across open lawns or grassy areas and forming networks of surface runways easily seen after spring snow melt. They will also travel in mole tunnels damaging roots, bulbs, and tubers within.
Being prolific rodent breeders, voles can quickly colonize areas producing four to five litters a year with two to five young each that can begin breeding after three weeks of birth. A shorter life span of about 16 months will still not deter voles from doing considerable damage if they ever move into your landscape.
Hopefully you can match either mole or vole to the beginning scenarios.