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Vole Runaways

While traveling down the roads this time of year, the road ditch looks rather dull with the snow gone and the brown grass. But occasionally one may see what looks to be long, sinuous, and perhaps branching clippings of grass or something, roughly two inches or so wide, and several feet long. They can be quite abundant and conspicuous in spots. What is going on here?

It is the work of voles. Voles are close relative of mice. And even though they are active throughout the year, they are seldom observed or noticed. But in the spring, we can see the evidence of their runways under the snow throughout the winter months

UND professor emeritus Robert Seabloom lists four species of voles in North Dakota, the sagebrush vole, southern red-backed vole, meadow vole, and prairie vole. The sagebrush vole’s habitat is associated with sagebrush. They are found mostly south and west of the Missouri River. The southern red-backed vole is largely a species of wooded and brushy habitats. And as their names imply, the prairie vole and meadow vole are species of the grasslands. So, the trail systems we see in the road ditches are the work of the meadow or prairie voles.

As you might expect, voles feed on grasses and other vegetation, seeds, tubers, etc. and construct intricate trail systems of grass clippings under the protective covering of snow. Not only does the snow give them cover, but snow is a good insulator, so it helps them stay warm.

Like other small mammals, voles are prey for a wide variety of predators ranging from fox and coyotes to hawks and owls. And they are known for having short lifespans and high reproductive rates. Few voles will reach their first birthday. They are prolific and promiscuous breeders. Gestation is in the range of eighteen days or so, and a female may have up to five or more litters a year, with three to six young per litter. Predation, of course, along with other factors, generally keeps their populations in check.

So, as you travel the state the next month or so, be on the lookout for these remnants of vole runways. They are another sign of spring, and they are also reminding us that the voles have been quite active under the big white blanket

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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