Meadow Vole Tracks
Updated: Mar 6
Here are some PEI wildlife tracks that I’m seeing more often this winter due to the lack of snow and ice: Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus).
Small tracks can be much harder to identify than larger tracks. In most cases, you can’t see any structure of the foot to help narrow it down. Size isn’t always helpful; for example, our most common Voles, Mice, and Shews all have tracks of overlapping size (there are no Moles on the Island). In these cases, I find gait to be among the most helpful clues.
When they’re not out in the open, Meadow Voles almost always trot, leaving a very regular trail that can sometimes resemble a tire track (Photo 1). They do walk, but the trail left by that slower gait would be wider than this one (they ride a little lower when moving more slowly), and the individual prints would be closer together. Our wild Mice and Shews mostly bound, sometimes walk, but rarely trot.
More commonly, you’ll find the tracks left by a bounding Meadow Vole out in the open (Photo 2). Each imprint here is all four tracks of the animal, and it was moving towards the top of the photo as you can see by the tail imprint in the lower-most track, and the drag marks left by the feet as it jumped from place to place. You can tell a bounding Meadow Vole from a bounding Mouse or Shrew by the distance between tracks. Meadow Voles generally leap between 10 and 23 cm (four to nine inches); our lighter, streamlined wild Mice go farther, with bounds of more than 30 cm (12 inches) up to a whopping 120 cm (48 inches) for Jumping Mice, although they are not active in winter. The distance between Shew bounds is less than five centimetres (two inches).
The farther apart the tracks, the faster the Meadow Vole was moving. In Photo 3, note that the tracks on the left are more widely spaced than those on the right. These were made by the same animal, who I trailed to an apple tree. The left-hand tracks are heading to the tree, the right-hand tracks returning from it. This lucky Meadow Vole had a good feed on some tasty apple bark and twigs before returning to its nest. I suspect the slower gait on the return trip was because it was heavier after its meal, and it may have carried some food back with it. (I’m tempted to ask “what is the groundspeed velocity of an unladen vole?” but will resist 😉).
All this fast bounding when out in the open is for good reason: Voles are prey for just about everything. For this reason, Meadow Voles prefer the under-snow (subnivean) environment. It’s not only warmer and protected from winter weather, it keeps them out of sight from hungry birds and mammals. The lack of snow this winter means Voles are spending more time on the surface – good for predators, not so much for Voles. I followed another set of tracks to where a Meadow Vole met its end to an avian predator, likely a Red-tailed Hawk or Raven as these two frequent the area (Photo 4).
There’s lots of Vole tracks around right now, so keep your eyes open for them as you explore PEI untamed!