by KTNA Staff ~ November 21st, 2012
This week’s Earth and Beyond writer and producer, Robin Song, tells about some of the little rodents so important in the food chain of the northern latitudes. Audio runs about 5 minutes. Text follows audio.
Opening the lid on Jody’s grain bin one morning recently, a vole and I startled each other. The grain was low enough that the little rodent couldn’t get out of the bin. Earlier in the summer a squirrel had chewed a hole in the lid, thus allowing access for the vole. I freed the vole, finished my barn chores and returned to the cabin. While fixing breakfast I thought about the vole. It wasn’t a red-backed vole, and I decided to look it up in my Alaska Mammal book. Not having reliable Internet access out on the ranch, I turn to my old friends, my books, instead. While I appreciate the wealth of information available via the Internet, I still love opening a book, looking at photos, turning pages, and smelling the old familiar scents only books have.
The vole I had seen was grayer and darker than a red-backed vole. It was longer than a red-backed, with a longer tail. Its ears were larger, too. From the descriptions of various voles listed, I’m guessing it was a long-tailed vole. Their total length is 7 to 8 inches, which fit this guy. (Red-backed voles are 5 inches in length.) This vole did not have any reddish colored fur typical of the red-backed vole.
I had only seen a long-tailed vole up close once before. Some years ago I had been out in the hayfields with two of my Aussies when they had alerted to a vole in the grass. SnowAngel had jumped and trapped the vole in the grass. I reached down and picked up the little animal, holding it in my cupped palm while two very interested dogs watched from below. I noted that the vole was larger than a red-backed vole, had gray fur, large ears, and a long tail. Like all voles, its snout bristled with whiskers and bright dark eyes stared back at me. I set it back down and the dogs and I watched it scurry away through the grass, going back to its interrupted life.
Voles are prey animals, meaning that lots of animals and birds prey upon them. Because of this, their reproductive rate is rapid. The females become pregnant within the first month of life, and they have between five and eight young per litter. The young are born pink, hairless and totally dependent on their mother. This state doesn’t last long, and within four days they are covered with fine hair. At two weeks the young can feed themselves, eating grass, seeds, roots, insects, etc, gaining weight rapidly. Meanwhile, mama is pregnant again and gives birth in another twenty-one days. In warmer climes, voles have litters year-round, producing ten or more litters. In Alaska the breeding season concludes when the cold weather arrives. Up to five litters are probably more common, depending upon the area and weather. The vole’s life span is just under one year. It’s a busy life, with voles being active day and night and eating their own weight every twenty-four hours. They make tunnels through grass in summer and under snow in winter. Voles are one of North America’s most common and numerous mammals and are extremely adaptable. No surprise, then, to find one dining on Jody’s grain in the barn. While mice are an introduced species in Alaska, voles have been here all along and have adapted to human intrusion. Voles also live in Europe, Asia, and in a small area of Africa. There are nearly two hundred species of voles, with seven species found in Alaska and seventy-nine species and subspecies for North America.
Though some people may find them pesky when they come indoors and make their nests inside the cabin, it’s good to remember that these are important animals in the food chain. Many animals and birds depend upon the humble vole-from owls to wolves. Look for their tiny foot prints in the snow this winter and when you see them, know that you have crossed paths with one of Nature’s most important animals- the vole.
By Robin Song