Meet the neighbors: moles, voles, mice and shrews

(Photo Credit: Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy)

(Photo Credit: Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy)

Gardeners often have to come to terms with critters that share our space. We might like to think we’re alone out there in our garden sanctuary, but it’s simply not the case: Every once in a while we catch a quick motion out of the corner of the eye. If we turn fast enough, we may glimpse a tiny body or the tip of a tail darting through the grass. So, do we need to start laying traps to put an end to this incursion?

Not really, says Andrew Hebda, a zoologist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“All of these animals out there are just trying to make a living. They’re not out to get us.”

Then why is it that when you look up moles, voles, mice or shrews on the internet, the first sites to come up belong to pest control companies?

Blame your mother, Hebda says, because she’s the one who taught you if you’ve got animals in or near the house, you’ve done something wrong.

“These animals are referred to as pests by their presence, rather than by what they do,” he says. Basically, because they are in places where we don’t want them or don’t expect them, they invoke an ‘eek’ factor. But from a cautious gardener’s perspective, there is really nothing to worry about.

Hebda recently offered to help Rustik readers to get to know some of these tiny creatures better. Here’s his handy guide:

Shrews: If you have a cat outside, these are the things they usually tend to bring home, Hebda says. They look velvety soft, with little stumpy tails. They are insectivores and don’t eat our crops. Rather, they feed on things that could potentially cause problems with the garden. They have very high metabolic rates, so they require a lot of food to keep themselves going. Generally you’ll find them in leaf litter or grass litter.

Star nosed moles: These animals have an unusual, almost alien-like, snout with tentacles that detect electrical signals to help them find their prey. They have very reduced eyes and fairly massive feet designed as digging devices, and are the ones that are probably responsible for aerating your garden (sometimes when you don’t want them to). They primarily feed on earthworms and insects and live mostly underground. Hebda says they tend to be found near wet areas or water-logged soils. You may notice the little piles of soil that they dump out, but because they live underground they are rarely seen, except perhaps as road kill.

Mice: Mice tend to eat a diet of seeds, but they also eat berries, fruit and insects.┬áIf you have a well-established garden, Hebda notes that most of these critters won’t come in because you likely have your plants in beds or in rows with walkways or paths in between. Animals like mice don’t like demarcated areas like this because it exposes them to predators. Jumping mice, found mostly in mature grasses, pastures and woodlands, are remarkable because of their extremely long tails, up to one and a half times the length of their body.

meadowvole-ILLOMeadow voles: Voles generally feed on seeds, sedges and grasses. They are somewhat flexible in what they eat but Hebda advises that they are predominantly vegetarian. That said, he says you shouldn’t worry that they will chomp away on the roots of your plants. They have been known to eat roughly their own weight in a 24-hour period. They tend to be less active in the day time so chances are you won’t see them, but if you do, one way to tell them apart from mice is by noting their stumpy tails and very small ears.

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. klegere says:

    I have a dense patch of ribbon grass in one of my flower beds. There are little critters in there… they make cute little squeaks, and once I actually saw three of them exiting the patch in different places. After reading this, I’m pretty sure they are voles.

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