Speaking of Nature: Thinking about voles

  • This little meadow vole is only about 4 inches long and the plants in the grass give you an idea of just how small it is. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 10/14/2020 2:33:01 PM

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day everyone. I hope this column finds you safe and sound for a much-deserved day of rest at home. I realize that many people may have been at home for an extended period of time by now, but there is something special about holidays in the autumn. That crisp note in the air, the perfume of fallen leaves wafting in the breeze and the possibility of a freshly-baked apple pie to tantalize the taste buds … OK, I’m going to need a moment to compose myself.

So anyway, I have the fullest of intentions of spending some time in my beloved Thinking Chair today and the weather sounded promising enough to let me get on down there regardless of the temperature. I’ve got gloves and a heavy shirt, so I think I’ll be just fine. Further sweetening the idea is the fact that I will be filled with the warmth that comes with the company of small animals that are so comfortable with me that they will pop by and say hello.

I’ve regaled you with stories of the chickadees that land on my head and eat birdseed from on top of my hat. I’ve described the thrill of catching glimpses of migrating warblers and more intimidating Cooper’s hawks. I’ve even waxed poetic about the simple connection one can make with Nature when sitting quietly outside for long periods of time. Most of my observations have been about birds, but this week I have something surprisingly different.

There are long stretches of time when nothing of any sort is happening down at the edge of my meadow. I sit in silence, feeling the cold slowly creeping into my bones, and wondering what my problem would be called by a mental heath expert. It does not escape my notice that I may be just a little odd. That being said, however, there are moments when it all comes together.

Such a thing happened last weekend when I had a sudden surge of activity around me. Birds of all sorts came out of hiding and I was simply surrounded with little living things. Chickadees, titmice, towhees, cardinals, sparrows, blue jays and more just all arrived in one glorious explosion. Amazing as that was, I started to detect the presence of an even smaller animal that also came out for a free meal.

Every time I go down to my chair I have been dropping a handful of seed in the short grass on the trail that I maintain. Sparrows and towhees love this, but I started to think that I was seeing things when little jumpy movements kept catching my attention out of the corner of my eye. For a moment, I thought my odd behavior might be the result of a tumor that was finally interfering with my sight, but when I stared at the spot I was surprised to see that there was actually a tiny little mammal darting in and out of the tall grass at the side of the trail.

I aimed my big lens at this area and saw, to my great delight, that it was a meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus). This little creature came out into the open to dine on pieces of shelled sunflower seeds and although it was clearly nervous, it was also determined to get that food. Taking photos always results in a sharp “clack” when the shutter fires and this initially caused a hasty retreat. However, the non-fatal nature of each encounter with this sound eventually allowed the little vole to calm down and understand that it wasn’t dangerous.

Again and again the vole popped out of hiding. Again and again I took pictures. Then I decided to just hold down the shutter button and let the camera blaze away (something I call the “shotgun” method of photography). Take enough pictures and one is likely to come out nicely. Eventually, that’s what happened.

Voles are the bite-sized nuggets of food that larger predators depend on for a living. Weasels, foxes, hawks, owls and American kestrels all consume them with great relish (what, no mustard?) and because they are under such tremendous predatory pressure they reproduce at a very fast rate. Female meadow voles can breed at an age of 6 months and they can breed several times a year. I can only imagine that if the little vole I watched was a female she will end up having large litters of healthy little voles for the rest of the year.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years, but only recently made “friends” with a meadow vole. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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