Prairie Voles


It all started earlier this winter after the first snowfall.  With the snow depth of only an inch or two, our backyard contained a maze of sinuous markings in the snow, obviously made by some small mammal such as a mouse, shrew, or vole moving around under the big white blanket.  On more than one occasion I was even fortunate enough to see the snow being disturbed while this as yet still unidentified small mammal went about its business.

Whatever it was had taken up residence in and around the base of one of our bird feeders at the edge of some brush and was apparently feasting on the spilled sunflower seeds from our birdfeeder.  Even after more snowfall the sinuous markings in the snow increased, as did little holes in the snow about an inch in diameter.  Where the snow had drifted into deeper drifts there were telltale signs of the animals.  There were even a few recognizable trails in portions of the yard where the ground had been largely blown free of snow.  Now I just had to figure out what it was.

I have had some great entertainment trying to determine this animal’s identity.  Try as I may, I have only been able to get some quick glimpses of it when it sticks its head up out of a hole just far enough to snatch a sunflower seed before retreating back into the protection of the snow.  I am still not positive of its identity, but am convinced it is a vole due to the grayish-brown color and small eyes and ears.  North Dakota is home to four species of voles, but this vole was likely either a meadow vole or prairie vole.  Meadow voles prefer taller denser vegetation such as that found lower on the landscape and around wetlands, so I am thinking this is a prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster).

As you might expect, voles are prey for a wide variety of predators including hawks, owls, fox, coyote, weasels and mink to name a few.  As such, voles have a short life expectancy (mostly a year or less) and high reproductive rate.  They are known to breed several times a year, producing from 2-4 litters of about 3-4 young in underground nests of grass and other vegetation.

But unlike most other small mammals, the prairie vole is monogamous and mates for life.  As such, they have become an important species for the study of monogamy and pair bonding.  This was the topic of a spot on Weekend Edition last year.

Click on this link to access “Learning About Love From Prairie Vole Bonding” from Weekend Edition, February 9, 2014.


Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.


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