An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Meadow Vole

Hungry Barred Owls Near Feeders

3-4-19 barred owl _U1A2992Over the past few weeks many people in northern New England have discovered Barred Owls perching near their bird feeders during the day. At this time of year, with snow on the ground, food is harder to find and owls are forced to hunt during the day as well as at night. Bird feeders are a sure source of food, as mice and voles are coming out to feed on spilled seed (most often at night).

The owls we see are relying primarily on their sense of hearing to locate small rodents. Their ear openings are asymmetrically placed, which means that sounds reach the owl’s ears at different times. This helps them zero in on the exact location where the sound is coming from, both when they are perched as well as in flight.

Although Barred Owls can detect the sound of a mouse scurrying through tunnels two feet beneath the snow, this winter has been more challenging for them than many. Almost every snow storm has been followed by rain, which has created multiple layers of icy crust. Although sound may be heard through solid, liquid, or gaseous matter, one wonders if these multiple layers of crust compromise an owl’s ability to hear. In addition, these conditions can’t help but impede an owl’s ability to reach its target as quickly as it normally does.

A dear friend whose compassion for creatures big and small is unmatched was going to great lengths (coating balls of hamburger with hair cut from her dog’s coat so they would bear some resemblance to small rodents) to help a resident owl in a time of need. Some would argue that nature shouldn’t be interfered with, but those readers with a desire to come to the aid of a hungry owl could let a little seed fall on the snow that’s packed down around the feeder in hopes that a large supply of accessible food might attract more rodents which might fill more owl stomachs.

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Meadow Vole Tracks & Tunnels

2-4-19 meadow vole_U1A2759Tracking animals can be an elusive endeavor because so many things can alter the condition of the tracks. Have recent flurries erased the details of an imprint? Has the sun melted and enlarged a track? Was every toe registering? Did wind-blown snow cause the tracks to vanish into thin air? Was the animal walking, loping or tunneling or a combination of all three?

The reason you use more than just one track to gather information, such as the stride of the animal and the width of its trail, is that sometimes the individual tracks defy the hard and fast rules of some tracking guides. A commonly accepted generality is that Deer and White-footed Mouse tails leave drag marks, and Meadow Voles’ shorter tails don’t. However, in the right conditions, even a vole’s one-inch tail can drag (see photo), though not creating as long a line as a mouse’s tail would. The Meadow Vole whose tracks are in this photograph was loping along when it suddenly decided to seek cover under the snow and began to (try to) tunnel. Perhaps a predator instigated this behavior.

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Track Stories

1-9-19 coyote gets vole_u1a8956Finally – a snowstorm not followed by rain! Tracking has been challenging, to say the least, this winter in central Vermont. However, 36 hours after the latest snowstorm, there was a plethora of track stories to read in the snow. A ruler or measuring tape and a good field guide to tracks (Mammal Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch and Tracking & The Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes come to mind for indoor resources, and the smaller Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life-Size Pocket Guide by Lynn Levine for keeping in your backpack) will allow you to determine who’s been where and what they’ve been up to. Signs of feeding, marking and seeking shelter are just a few of the things these stories reveal.

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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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Tunnel Vents

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Frequently you find a hole about an inch wide in the snow in the middle of a field, with no tracks going in or coming out of it. Logic tells you it leads to the subnivean layer – where the snow, warmed by the ground, sublimates into water vapor, creating a small space between the surface of the ground and the snow where the temperatures is relatively stable at 32 F. It is here that small rodents such as mice and voles create a maze of tunnels through which they travel from their sleeping quarters to feeding stations, undetected by many predators.

However, the lack of tracks into and out of this hole indicates that it is not an exit or entrance to the subnivean layer, but rather, it is a vent leading from the subnivean tunnels to the surface of the snow. Carbon dioxide from animal respiration as well as carbon dioxide released from the ground builds up to an unhealthy level in these tunnels. The holes we see in the snow are ventilation shafts, allowing the carbon dioxide to escape from the tunnels. The formation of crystals around the edge of the pictured vent indicates that warm, moist air from rodent lungs is rising up out of it.

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Puzzling Kill Site

2-22-16  meadow vole remains 027
Close examination of the bits of fur scattered over a 15-inch-diameter patch of snow reveals that the animal to whom the fur belonged was very small and would have appeared brown to an observer. (The hairs are black, but they have a brown tip.) This eliminates gray/black shrews and moles, leaving a white-footed mouse (due to habitat) or a species of vole (most likely meadow vole) as the victim. Striped skunk tracks led to the remains of this rodent, which is not surprising, as mice (Peromyscus sp.) and voles (Microtus sp.) are high on their list of preferred vertebrates. What is puzzling is why the fur wasn’t consumed and why so many of the internal organs (top of photo) were among the discarded fur. A skunk would neither skin nor eviscerate its prey. Explanations welcome!

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Meadow Voles Soon To Begin Breeding

2-23-16  meadow vole 036

Under perfect conditions, with no predators, no deaths and abundant food, a pair of meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) could produce a million descendants in a single year. Because they are prey for nearly every meat-eating animal that exists, however, their population, while large, is nowhere near this.

Even though the number of meadow voles is relatively high and they are active day and night, year round, it is unusual to actually set eyes on one. What we do find, especially this time of year, are meadow vole signs in the snow: mazes of runways on the surface of the ground that are exposed as snow starts to melt, air-exchange holes originating in their tunnels and extending to the surface of the snow, tracks and entrance/exit holes to their tunnels.

The social behavior of meadow voles is about to undergo a seasonal change. During the winter, when they are not breeding, meadow voles are more social and commonly share their nests, probably to conserve heat. In another month, however, as breeding begins, females become fiercely territorial towards other females, and males are aggressively establishing dominance over each other. The peaceable subnivean meadow vole kingdom is about to come to an end. (Thanks to Susan and Dean Greenberg for photo op.)

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Meadow Voles Food for Coyotes

1-11-15 coyote  192When there is deep snow on the ground, white-tailed deer are often preferred-eating for eastern coyotes, with snowshoe hares not far behind. While small rodents are also consumed during the winter, they make up a larger proportion of a coyote’s diet during spring, summer and fall. With only a few inches of snow on the ground currently, meadow voles are still very vulnerable to predation, as the tufts of grass where they tend to nest are still visible.

Tracks indicate that a coyote stopped to investigate numerous grass tussocks scattered throughout a nearby field recently. Near several of these clumps of grass were slide marks (see foreground in photo) where the coyote had jumped, landed and slid. The groove made by the coyote’s sliding foot always ends with a foot print. At this particular site, the coyote had pounced, slid and then dug and uprooted a nest, possibly procuring a vole, but leaving no trace of success behind. What it did leave behind was scat (3 o’clock in photo), with which the coyote claimed ownership of the site.

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Meadow Vole Nests

meadow vole nest  089Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus), tiny mouse-like rodents, spend a majority of their time on the surface of the ground, particularly in moist fields filled with grasses and sedges. They have elaborate runways through the vegetation – well-worn trails about the width of a garden hose which they keep mowed down with their incisors. Latrines of small brownish-green pellets can be found intermittently along the trails.

Most meadow vole nests are constructed out of dried grasses, also on the surface of the ground, although they are sometimes built at the end of shallow burrows. When above ground, the nests are often located in the center of a grass tussock, where they are less apt to be flooded. When there is snow on the ground they are a bit easier to find, as the heat of the voles inside the nest melts away the snow, forming a chimney that sometimes reveals the nest below.

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Good Winter For Meadow Voles – Not So Much For Woody Plants

4-16-15  meadow vole sign 009Warming temperatures have revealed the considerable amount of activity that occurred under the protective deep layer of snow this past winter. In addition to a multitude of exposed meadow vole runways, there are ample signs of the voracious appetite of this small rodent. Given that more than 90% of a meadow vole’s diet consists of vegetable matter, that it can eat more than its own body weight in 24 hours, and that it breeds throughout the year, it is no surprise that the bark of many woody plants was consumed this winter, resulting in much girdling, and thus the demise, of many shrubs and saplings.

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Meadow Vole Tunnels Exposed

3-31-15  meadow vole exposed tunnels IMG_3528If you live where the snow is actually melting, a labyrinth of vole tunnels may be revealing itself to you. These tunnels were excavated in the snow next to the ground in what is referred to as the subnivean layer. They lead from sleeping areas to known sources of food, and are advantageous to both mice and voles that travel in them – they provide thermal insulation by protecting them from the wind and cold, and they keep these rodents hidden from predators. Carbon dioxide, which builds up in the subnivean layer from animal respiration as well as CO₂ released from the ground, escapes through ventilation shafts, or air vents, that lead up to the surface of the snow.

Voles stay in these tunnels as long as the snow is deep enough not to expose them, finding food in the form of plants, seeds and bark from bushes and shrubs as they dig through the snow. This winter has provided voles, mice and shrews with an extended period of protection, as hungry barred owls attest to.

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Red Foxes Locating Prey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeep snow certainly presents challenges to predators – their prey is well hidden for the most part, and if they are to survive, they must compensate for not being able to see what they are hunting. Foxes are an example of how a predator survives in a winter like the Northeast has had. A red fox hunting for food is constantly listening for the sound of rodent feet under the snow, and when it hears them (they can hear a mouse or vole three feet beneath the surface of the snow) they leap up into the air and pounce on or near their prey with their front feet. Most of the time they are not successful, and come up empty-mouthed, but they usually succeed often enough to survive. Biologists are still working on understanding exactly how they do this.

Researchers in Czechoslovakia, watching foxes hunt in the wild, determined that a fox’s success seems to correlate with the direction in which it jumps. If the observed foxes jumped to the northeast they killed on 73 % of their attacks. If they reversed direction and jumped exactly the opposite way, they killed 60 % of the time. But in all other directions — east, south, west, or variations thereof— they were successful only 18% of the time. Jaroslav Cerveny, the Czech researcher, feels that foxes have a “magnetic sense,” and are capable of lining up the rodent sounds that reach their ears with the slope of the Earth’s magnetic field, and when this occurs, dinner is usually caught. (This theory has yet to be confirmed, but the likelihood that it is correct is great.) (Photo by Susan Holland, in the wilds of northwest Ontario)

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Meadow Vole Tracks

1-27-15  vole tracks 130Meadow voles and mice (white-footed and deer) leave most of the tiny tracks one sees on the surface of the snow. In deep snow, meadow voles tend to remain beneath the surface in tunnels, but occasionally do travel on top of the snow. Typically, a white-footed or deer mouse leaves a leaping, four-print pattern, often with a tail drag mark running between the sets of prints. A leaping meadow vole may or may not leave a tail mark and usually has paired prints. However, voles leave a variety of tracks patterns, depending on the speed at which they are traveling and the depth of the snow, so they can be confusing.

Although one might think that three different animals made the tracks in this photograph, every tunnel, track and hole was made by a meadow vole. The trail in the lower left was made by a trotting vole, the tunnel on the right was exposed because the layer of crust just under the new snow prevented the vole from going any deeper, and at the top, the vole was quickly bounding into the safety of its deeper tunnel.

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Contents of One Barred Owl’s Stomach

11-7-14 vole, shrews and mouse 027Fantastic guesses, given you had no measurements to work with. Very creative, indeed. Yesterday’s mystery photo was a packed version of the bodies displayed today.

Owls swallow small prey, such as mice and voles, whole, while larger prey is torn into smaller pieces before being swallowed. Once eaten, prey goes directly into the owl’s stomach, as owls have no crop, and thus no ability to store food for later consumption.

Like other birds, owls have a stomach with two chambers — one is the glandular stomach, or proventriculus, (yesterday’s mystery photo) which produces enzymes, acids and mucus and begins the process of digestion. (Because the acids are weak, only the soft tissues are digested.) The second stomach is the muscular stomach, or gizzard, also called the ventriculus. The gizzard lacks digestive glands – it serves as a filter, holding back bones, fur, teeth and feathers that are difficult to digest. The soft parts of the food are ground by the gizzard’s muscular contractions, and allowed to pass through to the rest of the digestive system.

Several hours after an owl has eaten, the indigestible parts remaining in the gizzard are compressed into a pellet the same shape as the gizzard. The pellet travels back to the proventriculs and remains there for up to ten hours before being regurgitated. Because the stored pellet partially blocks the owl’s digestive system, new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet is ejected. If more than one prey is eaten within several hours, the remains are consolidated into one pellet. (In this case, one very large pellet!)

Update: I left the contents of the deceased Barred Owl’s proventriculus outside last night, and a resident Barred Owl recycled the Meadow Vole and Masked Shrew.

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