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The Wonderous Vole: The amazing world of the modest rodent

Voles play an important role in the Northwest but are a extremely dependable food-source to its predators.



Look at him. He doesn't look like much, does he? Just a tiny short-tailed mammal about the size of your thumb, of no significance; a mere tidbit to a coyote, and only a tasty snack for a badger.

Great Horned Owls gobble 'em up by the bushel-basket, and a Red-tailed Hawk will wait until almost dark to catch a few for dessert—nothing better than a few voles in your tummy to help with a good night's sleep.

One of the reasons the poor little vole is on everyone’s menu is that they're a dependable food-source. They might populate the entire State of Oregon in a year if left to do so. But as I’ve seen over and over, it’s a wild life cycle for these little creatures.

To be more specific, a vole is a small rodent resembling a mouse but with a chunky body, a short hairy tail, rounder head, smaller ears, little piggy eyes and differently formed teeth. There are approximately 155 known species of voles, and most live in the Northern Hemisphere.

In 1958, the lowly little vole ate the ranchers of Klamath County out of house-and-home, literally. In his book "Don Coyote" Hawk Hyde recalled the vole infestation that about broke him on his ranch, Yamsi, in Northern Klamath County.

That same year I saw voles moving like a sea of fur in front of irrigation water on alfalfa farms in Deschutes County. There were no irrigation wheel sets, or 80-acre pivots in those long-ago days; everything was done by flooding sections of the fields. And, no kidding—no exaggeration—I couldn't place one foot in front of the other on the laterals between flooded sections of the fields without the sickening sound of a vole crunching underfoot.

At night, in these same fields, long-eared and Great Horned Owls swooped down and snatched voles out from under the snapping jaws of coyotes. In a short time, the owls flew off, satiated, and the coyotes got so full of voles they couldn’t hold anymore. So they'd puke and then gobble up another 10 or 20. Then puke them up as well. When the sun came up one could see piles of puked-up voles all over the fields and ravens dining on them for breakfast.

In winter, rough-legged hawks come down to Central Oregon from the Arctic Circle to feed on voles. They have the uncanny ability to locate them under snow over 18 inches deep. It's astounding to watch a rough-leg hovering 20 feet or more over the snow-covered meadow—with snow blowing sideways—and suddenly drop into the snow and come up with a vole in its talons.

So, what happens when vole populations go ballistic—when there are so many they can be seen everywhere?

Sure, predators keep feeding on them, but the voles reproduce so fast they can't keep eat enough to curb the numbers. It's at that point that disease hits them. Tuleremia is the common denominator that cuts the population down to almost zero. This week you see thousands of voles, next week you can't find one for love nor money, and do the predators suffer. It isn't the predator that controls the prey, in the world of Nature, it’s the other way around.

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