Microtus pennsylvanicus is the most widespread vole in North America. About 5 inches, long counting their stubby tail, voles destroy many weeds especially weed grasses, recycle the nutrients held in the grass through their droppings, aerate and turn the soil through their digging activities, and serve as food for of weasels, snakes, foxes, coyotes, all owls, most hawks, and domestic cats.
Voles do not hibernate and have many survival tactics that they use over the winter months. Once winter has spread her blanket of snow, the meadow vole, also known as a field mouse, spends the winter constructing a labyrinth of snow tunnels. The tunnels provide a steady environment protecting these animals from the normal fluctuations of cold and wind. The temperature is often several degrees warmer in the tunnel.
Following the tunnels may lead you to the dining area where food was readily available. It may lead you to a bedroom where you will find a ball of fine grass and maybe some cattail fuzz for warmth. Following it further may lead you to the backdoor used for escape.
The vole’s tunnels provide a certain amount of safety. All their needs are provided under the cover of snow. They seldom travel out of the tunnel. Predators like hawks and owls must wait above the snow and let their ears detect the pitter pat of a vole feet as they run through their tunnels.
Next time you are out walking in the winter, think about who may be just beneath winter’s blanket.
• University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology (Microtus pennsylvanicus)