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Voles are mouselike rodents and similar in appearance to pocket gophers. They have a compact, heavy body, short legs, short-furred tail, small eyes, and partially hidden ears. The long, coarse fur is blackish brown to grayish brown. When fully grown they can measure 5 to 8 inches long.
Although voles do spend considerable time aboveground and may occasionally be seen scurrying about, most of their time is spent below ground in their burrow system. The clearest signs of their presence are the well-traveled, aboveground runways that connect burrow openings; the runways are usually hidden beneath a protective layer of grass or other ground cover.
Voles are active day and night, year-round. They are normally found in areas with dense vegetation. Voles dig many short, shallow burrows and make underground nests of grass, stems, and leaves. In areas with winter snow, voles will burrow in and through the snow to the surface.
Vole numbers fluctuate from year to year; under favorable conditions their populations can increase rapidly. In some areas their numbers are cyclical, reaching peak numbers every 3 to 6 years before dropping back to low levels. Voles may breed any time of year, but the peak breeding period is spring. Voles are extremely prolific with females maturing in 35 to 40 days and having five to ten litters per year. Litter size ranges from three to six. However, voles seldom live past 12 months of age.
Voles are mostly herbivorous, feeding on a variety of grasses, herbaceous plants, bulbs, and tubers. They eat bark and roots of trees, usually in fall or winter. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers.
Voles cause damage by feeding on a wide range of garden plants including artichoke, beet, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, lettuce, turnip, sweet potato, spinach, and tomato. Turf and other landscape plantings such as lilies and dichondra may be damaged. Voles will gnaw the bark of fruit trees including almond, apple, avocado, cherry, citrus, and olive. Vole damage to tree trunks normally occurs from a few inches aboveground to a few inches below ground. If the damage is below ground, you will need to remove soil from the base of the tree to see it.