When the snow melted, several Lawrence and Douglas County residents were left with what some described as looking like bicycle tracks in their lawn. The 1- to 2-inch wide channels are not the work of neighborhood pranksters, though; the paths are runways constructed by prairie voles.
If you can lay your hands on one of the pesky creatures, you might think a vole is part-mouse and part-mole. The short-tailed rodents, sometimes called field mice, are indeed in the same family with a number of different species of mice and rats, but are actually quite different from moles. To distinguish the two, remember that moles have broad, webbed front feet and hairless snouts unlike the mouse-footed, hairy-nosed vole.
Voles feed on more than the lawn under the snow: They like a wide variety of grasses, seeds, bulbs, plant roots and the inner green bark of young trees and shrubs. Remember the tulip bulbs that were drug out of the ground and gnawed on last fall? Or where a tunnel went through the vegetable garden, leaving chew marks on the potatoes? Feeding damage on root crops (especially when a tunnel is nearby) is often the work of the elusive prairie vole.
In orchards, voles can cause significant damage to trees as they gnaw on the bark. They also cause major problems in crops fields as their tunnels interfere with irrigation water flow.
The good news is the voles may disappear from your yard in late spring as food sources increase. The bad news is they may stay, and their populations can grow quickly. Voles typically produce up to five litters per year with three to six young per litter (who start contributing to the population growth after they are about a month old).
To control vole populations in your yard, the most important method is to change the habitat. Keep grass, weeds and mulch away from the base of young trees, and wrap tree trunks with hardware cloth or plastic cylinders. Since voles like tall grass, keeping the lawn mowed and trimmed regularly will make it less desirable. Voles will also make homes in patches of groundcover like ivy and vinca, so removing the groundcover can drive the rodents away.
Small populations of voles can also be trapped with regular mousetraps placed perpendicular to their aboveground runways. Peanut butter mixed with oatmeal and/or apple slices are the most effective baits. Toxicants are also effective in controlling vole populations, but be sure to read the entire label and follow directions for proper use.
If you have a few voles in your yard, know that the problem could be worse. The largest reported vole outbreak in United States history reported an estimated 25,000 voles per acre in a Nevada alfalfa field in 1908 and 1909.
- Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension Agent - Horticulture for K-State Research and Extension and can be reached at 843-7058.