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What is a Vole?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A vole is a small rodent in the genus Microtus. Many people mistake voles for mice, since the two animals look quite similar, but voles have a number of unique characteristics which distinguish them from mice. If you live in Africa, North America, Europe, or Asia, chances are very high that there are some voles in your area, as these rodents are widespread on all of these continents, especially in rural agricultural areas or regions with big gardens or parks.

At first glance, one can be forgiven for mistaking a vole for a mouse. Voles are generally smaller, however, with stockier legs, shorter tails, and small, sometimes almost hidden, ears. Most voles are brownish in color with cream to yellow bellies, short snouts, and very small eyes. Their compact bodies are ideally suited for burrowing, so it should come as no surprise to learn that voles nest and live in small burrows.

Voles can be found in woodlands, prairies, and meadows, and one species, the water vole, even lives a semiaquatic lifestyle. You may also hear voles mistakenly referred to as “field mice” by people who are unaware of the subtleties of the vole/mouse distinction.

Voles can breed at any time throughout the year, although vole populations tend to spike in the spring. Voles are also active at all times of the day and night, unlike many other mammals, who adhere to a set schedule. The lifespan of a vole averages around three to six months, with some voles living up to a year, and scientific research on voles has indicated that they have an unusually high mutation rate.

Most voles prefer to eat vegetation such as grasses and shrubs, although they will also eat insects. Because voles enjoy vegetation, they can be a serious nuisance in the garden. They will readily destroy flowering plants, and they can wreak havoc on crops, destroying the crops before they can be harvested. For this reason, most people treat voles as pests.

Reducing the amount of vegetation and mulch can help to deter voles, as can the installation of fencing. Some people encourage their cats and dogs to hang out in the garden to dissuade vole visitors, while others use stand-ins in the form of models or cut-outs which are meant to scare the creatures away. Several companies also manufacture repellents which are supposed to deter voles; these products are not always effective. As a general rule, it is a bad idea to put out bait for voles, because other animals could eat the bait and be injured, and poisoned voles could poison predators such as owls, dogs, cats, snakes, and others.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a vole, and how does it differ from a mouse?

A vole is a small rodent resembling a mouse but with a stouter body, shorter hairy tail, a slightly rounder head, smaller ears, and eyes. Voles are also known as field mice or meadow mice. They belong to the genus Microtus, which comprises over 150 species. Unlike typical house mice, voles prefer outdoor environments with dense grassy cover and are rarely found in homes.

What do voles typically eat?

Voles are primarily herbivores, feeding on a variety of grasses, herbaceous plants, bulbs, and tubers. They also consume bark and roots, especially in winter when other food sources are scarce. Their diet can impact garden vegetation and young trees, as they can girdle stems and roots, causing significant damage to plants.

How do voles impact the environment and ecosystems?

Voles play a crucial role in ecosystems by serving as a food source for predators such as owls, hawks, foxes, and snakes. They also contribute to soil aeration and the dispersal of seeds and nutrients through their burrowing and feeding activities. However, their burrowing can sometimes disrupt plant life and cause damage to gardens and agricultural fields.

What is the typical lifespan of a vole?

The lifespan of a vole is relatively short, typically ranging from 3 to 6 months in the wild due to predation and harsh environmental conditions. However, in protected environments without predators, voles can live up to 12 months. Their short lifespan is balanced by a high reproductive rate, ensuring the survival of the species.

How can one identify vole activity in their yard or garden?

Vole activity can be identified by the presence of small, surface runways that interconnect numerous burrow openings. These runways are about two inches wide and are often found in grassy areas. You may also notice plants that suddenly wilt and die as voles can damage roots and bulbs beneath the surface.

Are voles considered pests, and how can they be managed?

While voles are an important part of the ecosystem, they can become pests when their burrowing and feeding habits damage gardens, crops, and landscaping. Management can include habitat modification, such as reducing ground cover, proper fencing, the use of repellents, and in some cases, humane trapping. It's important to use methods that are environmentally responsible and consider local wildlife regulations.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By googie98 — On Dec 24, 2010

@anon30247: Voles can breed at any time of the year. However, the most favorable time for reproduction seems to be from March to September. Creeping voles’ reproduction time is usually during April. The creeping voles usually have 3-4 babies per litter and anywhere from 4-8 litters per year.

The Townsend’s vole has a litter of around 4-7 with around 2 litters per year. Their gestation periods are usually less than a month and the females are ready for reproduction when they are 24 days old.

By PurpleSpark — On Dec 23, 2010

There are creeping voles (M. oregoni) which is smaller and usually about 4-6 inches long and has a dark brown hide and their belly appears silver. There is also a Townsend’s vole (M. townsendii) and it is between 6-10 inches. It is dark brown with a gray belly.

By anon30247 — On Apr 15, 2009

How many babies can a vole have?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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