Friday, February 10, 2006

Pine Voles

The 12 acre field out in front of our camp is pocked with what appears to be many anthills. Looks like I gotta really bad fire ant problem. But I know from observing the makers of these hills that they are in fact the workings of pine voles (Microtis pinetorum). Also known as a woodland vole, these small, stocky, short-legged, beady-eyed members of the rodent family live most of their life underground. They're only 4-5" long, weigh a couple ounces and have reddish brown fur above and grayish below. They are like miniature tunnel-boring machines. With their elongated foreclaws they excavate an extensive system of tunnels in sandy, moist soil usually 2-3 inches below, only coming to the surface to hunt for new food sources or to scout for new stomping, or should I say "digging" grounds. They're active year round and do not hibernate. I first spotted one while observing a tiger beetle out in the front yard. A blade of grass nearby began twitching and then was abruptly yanked into the ground. The next thing you know I see something erupting slowly from the same spot. There looking straight at me with a dusty snout was a pine vole. The preferred habitat is one of moist woodlands, but they also make use of fields, gardens and orchards. They're mostly herbivorous and with chisel-shaped incisors feed upon bulbs, tubers, fruits, seeds, bark, roots, underground fungi, and when the opportunity arises, insects. In their tunnels they make use of underground storage chambers where they cache food. They're not among the friends of gardeners and farmers due to their extensive damage to bulbs, perrenials, shrubs, grain, potatoes, beet crops and in particular fruit orchards where they can damage the roots of fruit trees causing stunted growth or death of the tree. They are monogamus, meaning they have only one mate, and serve up 1-4 litters of 1-6 pups each year that are raised in underground nests. Predators include owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, weasels, cats and snakes. Having this many predators it stands to reason why they spend most of their life underground.

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