Moles and Voles: Dealing With Common Yard Pests

Unseen and uninvited, moles and voles can disrupt our landscapes.

| July/August 2016

Over several decades of experience with biology and gardening pursuits, surprisingly, I have not had much contact with burrowing mammals – not until 2009, that is. On September 1, 2008, Hurricane Gustav – at that point a Category 2 hurricane – roared into my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, inflicting significant damage to the area’s extensive tree cover. My property was not spared. Although my house escaped severe damage, 18 of my large trees (mostly oaks) that were primarily in my half-acre side yard were either toppled or so severely damaged that they had to be removed. My previously shaded landscape was now bathed in strong sunlight. The following spring, weeds invaded with a vengeance. By autumn, I had to employ a rotary cutter to avoid the wrath of neighbors.

Enter moles and voles. Once the temperatures cooled in early winter, I noticed that when I walked about my half-acre, my feet sank an inch or so – as if I were walking on a sponge. Upon close inspection, I noticed that much of the topsoil had been pushed up into low ridges indicative of something burrowing beneath. These ridges zigzagged erratically throughout my yard. I concluded that it was tunnels that were collapsing beneath my feet. Then one morning, I happened across a small furry animal dead on my sidewalk. The corpse had a peculiarly shaped oversized nose. From a field guide, I was able to ID it as a star-nosed mole. At that moment, I decided to begin a new research project.

Common characteristics

Moles and their lesser-known co-conspirators, voles, share several characteristics. To begin, both are viewed as pests, aka varmints or vermin. They infest gardens and lawns of homeowners, fields of farmers, and pastures of ranchers. Both are warm-blooded mammals covered with hair and produce live young, which are nurtured on milk produced by mammary glands. Both are small, averaging about 4 to 6 inches in length. Their mini-pelts are velvety, and may be brown, gray or black. In addition, both have relatively stocky bodies that they can flatten, short legs and tails, tiny eyes and poor vision, long claws for digging, and barely visible external ears – all adaptations to life in dark, cramped, subterranean spaces. When alarmed, the little guys can make a high-pitched squeak, though. Both are timid, secretive, and nonsocial, living from three to five years singly, just below ground in small dens that are connected to tunnels or runways that they use in search for food. The animals can dig as much as 90 to 100 feet per day.

While these fuzzy, miniature bulldozers are nearly impossible to observe, their presence cannot be overlooked: slightly raised dirt ridges that meander through lawn or garden. When a tunnel impacts the footing of, say, a sidewalk or driveway, the tunnel will then skirt the structure as a dirt levee. And not to be dismissed is the fact that both moles and voles are capable of transmitting diseases (rabies for example) to humans. But because of the animals’ subterranean lifestyle, the incidence of disease is very low. Nevertheless, moles and voles should not be candidates for pets. Similarities end there, though.

Separate species

Taxonomically, moles and voles exhibit poignant anatomical differences. But for the layperson, there are more obvious contrasts. In particular, moles belong to a group of mammals called insectivores. Members hunt and feed on small animals, especially insects – both adults and larval grubs – and earthworms, consuming up to 100 percent of their body weight each day. The closest relatives of moles are shrews, hedgehogs and bats.

Confounding matters is the fact that the word “shrew” is more familiar to most Americans than “vole” – recall Shakespeare’s classic The Taming of the Shrew. In reality, shrews resemble a long-nosed mouse, are 2 to 4 inches in length, and possess spikelike teeth. They don’t burrow on their own, but haunt the runways of moles and voles in search of small prey, which they dispatch with infamous viciousness.

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