Speaking of Nature: The meadow vole: a little shadow in the shadows

  •  This adult meadow vole slipped out of the tall grasses of my meadow to snack on seeds that I had put out for the birds. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 8/14/2022 4:03:28 PM
Modified: 8/14/2022 4:00:03 PM


For the Recorder

And now for something slightly different. If ever there is a pleasant morning while I am at home I will likely get up early, make myself a fresh pot of coffee and head down to my Thinking Chair. Situated on the southern edge of a wet meadow, this chair allows me to visit the same exact spot day after day. I have spent so much time there that I feel I could draw my surroundings from memory. I know every tree, every dead branch, every stem in the tall grasses and every leaf. Such a relationship with a particular spot allows me to see the differences quite easily.

My familiarity with this particular spot is matched by the familiarity of many birds with me. They see me regularly, they hear me talking, they see me make gentle movements and they generally get the idea that I am a stationary fixture in this particular spot. Furthermore, many of them have clearly associated my presence with the sudden availability of food. Some are so comfortable that they will land on my knees, shoulders and head as they look for the delectable morsels that I bring with me.

Just a couple days ago, however, I noticed another little “friend” who had emerged from the grasses of the meadow to snack on the seeds that I put out. Clouds had rolled in and the meadow had grown gloomy, but right there in front of me a little shadow emerged from the shadows of the tall grasses. This was not one of the little brown song sparrows that regularly feed on the seeds that I scatter on the ground. This was a little mammal! Hesitant at first and very sensitive to movements and unexpected sounds, a meadow vole (Microtuspennsylvanicus) gradually became comfortable enough to sit in the short grass of the trail and avail itself of a cornucopia of delectable delights.

This is not the first time that I have featured the meadow vole in one of my columns, but it is definitely a rare occasion when I have been able to take such high-quality photos of a wild vole. Sometimes a vole must be temporarily confined in a fish tank to get so close to it with a camera, but to see a wild animal in its natural habitat is always best. The thing to remember here is the fact that food was the magic ingredient to my success. This animal would not have lingered long enough for photos if there wasn’t a truly compelling reason for it to do so.

These animals are about 4 to 5 inches in length and they weigh in at a diminutive 1.5 ounces. A vole could easily sit in the palm of an adult’s hand and might initially be identified as a mouse. But there are a couple differences between white-footed mice and meadow voles. Where mice have larger, more delicate ears the meadow vole has smaller, furrier ears. Where mice have long tails, voles have short tails. Finally, voles are a solid, uninterrupted brown while mice have a distinctly white belly.

The most remarkable thing about meadow voles is their life cycle. The eastern meadow vole may be the most prolific breeder of all the mammals in our area. A female may have a home territory that measures 50x50 feet (0.06 acres) and in that territory she may have as many as 10 or more litters of 4 to 6 babies per year. So, a single female vole may be able to produce 60 young in a single season, but her ability to breed is countered by a staggering mortality rate. Almost 9 out of 10 voles live less than one month and the mortality rate drops to something around 50 percent for “successful” adults.

The reason for this death rate is the fact that voles are small, numerous and very good food for a wide variety of birds, mammals and even reptiles. The meadow vole is on the menu for almost any larger predator, including birds like blue jays, crows and ravens. Everyone wants voles and so voles breed at a lightning pace simply because they have to in order to avoid extinction. Seen through this particular lens it may not be all that surprising to learn that a young female meadow vole will be able to reproduce at only 4 to 6 weeks of age.

So I will make the most of my time with the little meadow vole that comes to visit me. With so many predators ready to strike at any moment it is likely that she may only be around for a few weeks. However, I like to imagine something slightly different (see what I did there) for this particular vole: she becomes plump and healthy on a diet of grasses, supplemented with delicious seeds that I provide, she produces huge litters of adorable little babies and she lives to the ripe old age of 1 year! Wouldn’t that be nice?

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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