Voles in the Piedmont Triad area of NC
A vole is a small mammal that is part of the rodent family. They look fairly similar to a mouse and are often called meadow mice or field mice. Voles and mice are two separate varieties of rodent; however, and have two very different patterns of behavior.
The confusion with mice is less common as it is with moles — both because of their names and mutual love of digging up backyards. But moles are not rodents, as they belong to another family of mammals known as talpids. They also do not look like a mouse like voles do, but instead have velvety fur, very large front feet and claws used for digging and long noses.
Digging behavior is another way to differentiate between the two. Moles mostly dig deep underground and will push up dirt up to the surface in mole hills. Voles dig more shallowly to get at roots.
But digging behavior differs greatly between the four varieties of voles in North Carolina — pine voles, meadow voles, rock voles and red-backed voles.
Rock and red-backed voles
Rock voles are very rare in North Carolina, only seen in the mountains, and even then, not often. They do dig runways, but generally in rocky areas. All of these factors make them not much of a concern for people in the Piedmont.
Red-backed voles are also uncommon in the Piedmont region, living entirely in the mountains. There is evidence that rock voles and red-backed voles even share burrows. Red-backed voles prefer cool, damp forests, forage on the surface and live in holes and burrows dug by other animals or nest under debris like logs and rocks.
Pine voles and meadow voles
The two species that are present in the Piedmont Triad, though, are pine voles and meadow voles. These two are both known to cause extensive damage to yards and gardens with their digging and eating behaviors.
Pine voles are about 3 inches long and 1 ounce, while meadow voles are slightly larger, at 5 inches and 2 ounces. Tail size is also a way to tell them apart, with pine voles tails being as long as their hind legs and meadow voles having a slightly longer tail. Both are compact rather than elongated and have brownish gray fur. The ears and eyes of pine voles, though, are covered with fur, while that of meadow voles are not.
Destructive behavior of pine and meadow voles
A major difference between the two voles is that pine voles live most of their lives underground in extensive tunnel systems, and meadow voles actually live mostly above ground.
Pine voles leave golf-ball sized holes into their tunnels that can be visible to property owners once these little mammals have established themselves. They thrive off of the roots of plants, so it will sometimes be difficult to see the damage from the surface. The tunnels they create allow them to access the root systems of grasses, small trees, flowers, shrubs and other plants. This can kill all these plants. Even large trees can be severely damaged by this gnawing over time. Pine voles may also gnaw at trees from above ground. A small ring around a tree at ground level is a sign of their presence. If they completely sever roots from the tree at the surface, trees may just fall over or you can pull them out of the ground with a light tug.
Meadow voles do not tunnel underneath to get at roots, but they will also ring trees at the ground level and sever roots like pine voles. Meadow voles, while destructive, are likely not as much of a pest. They do not burrow much and live in tall grass. They also mostly feed off of the tall grass, so unless it is ornamental grass, their eating habits are not as destructive for a typical homeowner. Farmers are likely to experience more damage from meadow mice as their crops are picked at.
Breeding and social behavior
Both of these destructive varieties of vole are highly productive in their reproductive habits. If they are in a habitat where they feel safe and well fed, they are both capable of producing up to 10 litters per year. Each of these litters will have around five young, which themselves become sexually mature within two months. This means a few voles can turn into hundreds shortly if there are not natural predators, like birds and foxes.
Preventing vole damage
Considering all of this, different strategies can be taken to avoid vole damage to your yard and garden. To prevent meadow voles harming a yard, close mowing is mostly effective, since they prefer tall grass. Wrapping small trees and shrubs can be effective at keeping meadow mice from attacking their roots. You may also consider removing mulch for a time, since they find mulch an easy way to approach a tree without predators seeing their activity.
Pine voles, because they are underground and enjoy the roots of even well-kept grass, are harder to control. Their tunnels must be targeted with poisons or traps. Zinc phosphide is a common poison for eliminating pine voles. Trapping will only work on small populations, otherwise poisons will be necessary.
For gardens, which both varieties of voles will attack, consider raised beds elevated above where digging pine voles or ground-scavenging meadow voles will easily look for food.
Need help with voles in Guilford, Alamance and Forsyth counties? Call Critter Control of the Triad, the trusted local expert, at 336-370-0445.