When snow melts in fields, meadows, and roadsides in southeastern Pennsylvania, several winding, inch-wide trails through matted grass are exposed, revealing the presence of meadow voles, a kind of mouse.

The voles tunneled through the grass, under a covering of snow, in search of food and mates. The snow protected those voles from cold wind and predators, to some extent.

Meadow voles are one of three kinds of voles living in southeastern Pennsylvania, as elsewhere. The other species are pine and southern red-backed voles.

Being related, these creatures have much in common. They are 4-6 inches long, including their short tails, with chunky bodies and small ears and eyes to keep soil out when they are tunneling through surface soil.

These species of voles are colonial and active day and night through the year. Females of all species have at least a few litters a year, with four or five young per litter.

But each of these kinds of voles inhabits a different niche than the others, which spreads them out. That dispersal created the different vole species and reduced competition for food and shelter among them. Therefore, these voles have slight differences in appearance and habits, as well.

Meadow voles chew runways through matted grass and live in grassy nests just under the ground or in mats of vegetation. Colonies of these little critters live in fields, meadows, and roadside slopes in farmland. They have brown fur and consume seeds, grains, and greens.

Pine voles live in burrows a few inches below the ground’s surface, under carpets of fallen leaves on the floors of deciduous woods. They stay in those protective tunnels most of the time to avoid bad weather and predators. Pine voles have auburn fur and mostly ingest small roots, fungi, and greens. 

Southern red-backed voles have brown fur with a rusty-red stripe down their backs. They live in crevices between boulders and under rocks and logs in woods in Pennsylvania’s mountains. These handsome voles mostly eat nuts, seeds, and berries.

A colony of southern red-backs dwells among boulders at the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in northern Berks County. There, some of them fall prey to long-tailed weasels, copperhead snakes, and timber rattlesnakes that also live among those boulders.  

Many voles fall prey to several predators, including foxes, coyotes, cats, hawks, owls, herons, and other critters. Voles are the bread baskets of the niches they inhabit.

The abundant voles are the main prey of a variety of intriguing predators. There would be fewer predators without voles.           


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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