Moles or voles? It is confusing. But knowing who is who helps us live well with our small furry neighbors. This was their land long before we thought it was ours!
Moles are four or five inches long, sleek, and dark gray with almost invisible eyes and no external ears. Voles, about the same size, are fuzzy and brown with tiny eyes and ears almost hidden by their plushy fur.
Vole runs are less conspicuous when the snow is gone, but spread apart the long grasses and you may see neatly cleared vole paths.
Mole architecture, on the other hand, is obvious. Surface runs are like miniature, elongated, wandering versions of those raised culverts that slam my tires on back roads. Moles often hunt by tunneling just under the soil surface searching for grubs and earthworms. Imagine having to dig your way to the grocery store.
Mole hills are rising on gardens and grasslands, like miniature bare-dirt mountains, as hairy-tailed and star-nosed moles dig deeper underground passageways. Tunnels are dug with their huge, clawed front feet, and excess soil is brought to the surface: a mole hill. Their nests are a foot or two underground – maybe much more in winter. Moles don’t hibernate, so they have to go down below the frost along with the grubs and worms they live on.
Were you tired of winter? Imagine crawling around in the dark for months, three feet underground, eating worms!
Moles are in the order Insectivora. Don’t turn the page! Scientific classification is a tool to give us quick information about things.
What do you think the “insect” part of “Insectivora” name means? Ta-da! They eat insects! And earthworms and just about any other meat they can catch.
Hairy-tailed moles killed my cucumber plants. They didn’t eat them; they excavated airy tunnels that dried out the roots. I went out every morning and furiously stamped down the mole runs around the fainting plants.
Mole burrows also provided a passageway for a sneaky herbivorous vole to cut off underground a tomato plant with eager flower buds. I may be driven to mole-icide if they repeat the carnage this year. Anyone know a nonlethal way to deter moles? I welcome them to eat cutworms and Japanese beetle larvae, but that one was way too industrious among the vegetable roots.
Moles eat lots of beneficial earthworms, but they’re welcome to some in payment for eating nuisance grubs.
In my marsh live moles with some of the most amazing adaptations on earth. Star-nosed moles don’t have much use for eyes or ears in their dark or muddy worlds, but don’t think of them as primitive. They are way ahead of us in other senses. Around their two ordinary nostrils are 22 pink – baby pink, for goodness’ sake! – tentacle-like feelers. That too-cute pink star is in constant motion at the rate of a dozen touches every second. It is packed with sensory cells to detect vibrations and electrical clues radiated by other animals. They may even be able to predict earthquakes. If you can, watch videos of star-nosed moles feeding underground and in water: news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/star-nosed-mole. The video is not played too fast; moles hunt and eat in zoom-time. An earthworm can be wolfed down in a quarter of a second.
Star-nosed moles are quite at home in the water as well as in the muck soil of the marsh beside the brook. Moles are almost blind, but star-nosed moles have slightly better vision for hunting above ground among cattails and other tule stems.
Did you ever try to dig in mucky ground? Moles can do it with their huge, clawed front feet, but hunting under water and among the tules has got to be lot easier.
Star-nosed moles and water shrews share a unique underwater trick. As fast as you can blink, they blow air bubbles from each nostril and suck them in again to smell whatever is in the water.
Besides the huge front feet and up-to-the-minute sensory equipment, moles have special hinged fur so they can easily go backward or forward underground. You can’t rub a mole’s fur the wrong way.
(Nancy Holmes prowled Linekin Neck in Boothbay as a child, then an Illinois bottomland while earning a master’s degree in wildlife management. Once back in Maine, she raised children and kept assorted animals, wild and domestic. She and her Carolina Dog roam their woods in Newcastle.)