The meadow vole is a stocky mouse-like creature with a blunt head, beady eyes and a short, scantily furred tail. Its upper parts are a dull chestnut brown, with a darker area along the middle of the back, and its under parts are grayish or buffy white. The meadow vole is 6 - 7.6 inches long, including a 1.3- to 2.5-inch tail; weight is 0.7 - 2.3 ounces.
The species, often called a “field mouse,” lives across northern North America and is the most common vole in the East. In Pennsylvania it is abundant statewide. Meadow voles thrive in moist meadows and fields thick with grasses and sedges. They do not live in forests but may inhabit small clearings, bogs and grassy openings in the woods. They are good swimmers and can run at five miles per hour. Meadow voles move about in low, thick grass and weeds that screen them from hawks and owls. I remember one winter when the uncut hayfield next to a friend’s house was practically swarming with meadow voles. (His dogs spent hours digging the rodents out, pouncing, then gruesomely eating.) I was struck by the intricate network of surface runways visible when the grass was parted: the small pathways (about the width of a garden hose) branched this way and that and were obviously much used by voles as they went about feeding on vegetation.
Meadow voles eat grasses and sedges (cut stalks with seed heads are stored in small piles in the runways to be eaten later), tubers, roots, casino grains and the inner bark of shrubs and trees; voles sometimes girdle small trees, killing them. Meadow voles are active all year, by night and by day, especially around dawn and dusk. Voles nest in shallow burrows three to four inches underground or hidden in grass. During winter, voles huddle together in the nests or move about and feed in runways beneath the snow. In breeding season, meadow voles vigorously defend individual territories of 0.1 - 0.8 acres, larger in summer and smaller during peak population years when up to 166 voles may live on a single acre. Usually a high population crashes to a low level, then builds up again to another high. Females produce from 8 - 10 litters in a high population year and 5 - 6 litters in a year when food is scarce. The average litter is 4 - 7.
Among the myriad predators that attend to the vole population are herons, crows, gulls, foxes, house cats, weasels, opossums, skunks, shrews, bears, bass, pickerel and snakes. Many voles are snatched up by hawks and owls, particularly barn owls. In fact, the welfare of barn owls, short-eared owls and northern harriers is literally tied to the presence or absence, ups and downs of this species. Maximum longevity is around a year and a half in the wild.