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Snow Stories Begin

1-5-18 owl print in snow - Rob Foote IMG_4571 (002)

With snow on the ground, the season of stories in the snow has begun. Many of the animals that remain active in New England during the winter are nocturnal so we rarely get a glimpse of them. But, more than at any other time of year, we are privilege to their activities due to the tracks and traces they leave in and on the snow during the night.

Much information can be gathered from these signs. Often at a kill site, the identity of the predator as well as the prey can be determined by shape, form or measurement. One can see from this photograph that a bird of prey (measurements indicate a barred owl) swooped down on a small rodent (judging from tracks, probably a meadow vole) and was successful in capturing it.

Even though a kill scene such as this, or any other wildlife activity recorded in the snow, may reveal the probable identity of the characters in the story, there are always more questions than answers, which is what gets us out in this frigid weather, day after day. The main question I’m left with after viewing this scene is why do voles and mice risk their lives by travelling on the surface of the snow at times, when they just as well could have covered the same ground in the maze of tunnels they’ve created deep in the subnivean layer between the ground and the snow (where they would be out of sight of hungry predators)? (Thanks to Rob Foote for photo.)

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19 responses

  1. Libby Hillhouse

    Hmmm…I wonder, with deep, soft powder such as we have now, if voles find their tunnels keep collapsing?

    January 5, 2018 at 8:14 am


    I always figure they are going over the surface on a dare….. winter time mouse/vole amusements

    January 5, 2018 at 8:28 am

  3. judilindsey

    Hi Mary,

    I found the most curious thing about a week ago on top of the snow. In 2 different parts in the woods I found a dead salamander. (Not the red eft stage) No signs of struggle or prints in the snow. Seemed to be almost just dropped on the snow. Any ideas?

    Thanks, Judi


    January 5, 2018 at 9:09 am

    • Kim

      I’ve read that in the southern states, experiencing record cold, they are freezing to death and just falling out of the trees.

      January 5, 2018 at 9:46 am

    • So interesting. Seems late for any species of salamander to be seeking a hibernacular…I have found a spotted salamander on the snow, but tracks indicated it was dropped by a red fox who found it unpalatable. I’ve also seen efts on the snow in the spring. The weather has been so erratic this fall and winter, it may have contributed to movement before this arctic air hit us…still, mighty late for it not to be hibernating, unless there was a seep or wet area near by that wasn’t frozen.

      January 5, 2018 at 3:53 pm

  4. John DeWitt

    Maybe it was a white footed mouse ?

    January 5, 2018 at 9:11 am

  5. I wonder if they need some sunlight (starlight?) for health purposes, as humans do?? Vitamin D?

    January 5, 2018 at 9:19 am

  6. Hi Mary–I have no idea why they would take the risk. What’s your best guess?

    January 5, 2018 at 9:52 am

    • One thought is that even though they make holes for CO2 to escape from their tunnels, maybe it builds up so that rodents need fresh air? But that is a total guess!

      January 5, 2018 at 10:27 am

  7. Jon Binhammmer

    Perhaps a subnivean predator, or the scent thereof, such as an ermine, has “forced” them to the surface.

    January 5, 2018 at 10:24 am

  8. Now THIS is the most wonderful time of the year!

    January 5, 2018 at 10:37 am

  9. Annette Goyne

    Maybe they need a little Vitamin D! I like the fresh air theory too!

    January 5, 2018 at 11:07 am

  10. Good morning Mary. I very much enjoy your thoughtful posts. Thank you.

    You pose a question today that has long intrigued me regarding why voles, shrews and other small mammals capable of under-snow travel choose oversnow travel, which would seem to make them more vulnerable to predation, not to mention cold.

    This question sometimes arises from participants in my tracking classes here in the Intermountain West, After a flippant “the voles aren’t talking” response, I posit that the short answer might likely be “because they need to.” Accepting that as premise, we then play with areas of need that might urge such behavior. Thoughts in this realm center on the overall constraints that would seem to persist in subnivean environments. For example:

    Peter Marchand’s work in the realm of CO2 is inconclusive, although he has found ample evidence of CO2 concentrations exceeding 10 times ambient levels under snow.

    Second, prolonged feeding along a narrow subnivean corridor might have limitations with regard to quality of invertebrate prey or forage over time.

    Third, there might be inherent risk to inhabiting a subnivean zone for prolonger periods due to some relationship between time and the likelihood of detection by predators.

    Related to this last thought, I recall my long-time observations that bands of 12-16 mule deer, which visit our home property for about 5 months every winter, persistently vary where they browse, when they browse, how many of them browse at a given time, and whether they appear at all…on a day to day basis. The forage is clearly there for them, but I wonder if the avoidance of persistent, predictable behavior is a liability that has hard-wired prey animals to avoid.

    Energy conservation might play a simultaneous role here. If movement from place to place is a prerequisite for survival, for reasons such as speculated above, then over-snow travel might be the most efficient way for a small mammal to exploit needed resources within its territory over time.

    But again, the voles aren’t talking.

    Happy New Year!
    Bruce S. Thompson, Wyoming

    January 5, 2018 at 11:25 am

    • Hi Bruce,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and thorough reply to the question I posed. CO2 was the response I proposed to one reader, but I think there’s a lot of merit to all of your proposals. I actually love that there are still questions we can’t answer with 100% sureness!

      January 5, 2018 at 3:41 pm

  11. Alice Pratt

    Just to be ‘funny’ I was going to suggest they need some ‘fresh air’

    January 5, 2018 at 11:51 am

  12. I’m always amazed after the first snowfall to see just how many critters share our world. LOTS of mice and not enough predators. 🙂

    January 5, 2018 at 5:57 pm

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