Why Voles Usually Stay Underground (And Why They Come Up)
Have you noticed a tiny critter that seems to be hiding underground in your yard? If you are viewing an animal that looks similar to a mouse but pops up out of the ground every once in a while -you are likely observing voles coming out from their burrows in your yard.
Voles prefer to stay underground due to the fact that they live in colonies and their habitat consists of burrows underneath the surface. As herbivores, voles can find all the food they need using the roots of plants and seeds that are buried in the dirt.
These small creatures are most concerned with protecting themselves from predators and have learned to adapt to living underground. Voles spend the majority of their time underground, although there are certain reasons they may come up for air at times. So, let’s talk about it!
1. Voles Live in Colonies which Keep Them Underground
Did you know that there are over 100 different species of voles? While each unique species has differences, there are also a lot of similarities.
Most types of voles can spend the majority of their lives underground, digging burrows and scavenging for roots, bark, and seeds buried within the soil.
Voles Have Roles!
These crafty little animals live in colonies out of both protection and necessity. Since they live in colonies, they tend to have different roles.
Some voles may spend their time digging deeper tunnels while others may be scavenging for food.
Working together in colonies means that there are not many reasons for them to leave the safety of their underground lairs.
2. Protection from Predators Motivates Voles to Stay Beneath the Surface
Voles are some of the smaller creatures in the animal world and spend a lot of time thinking about how to protect themselves from predators.
A voles predator list is extensive and because of their small size, they know how to outsmart and outthink many birds of prey which leads them to mainly staying underground.
When their habitat and food sources can mostly be found underground, there isn’t a lot of reason to come above the surface especially when danger is waiting for them above!
3. Voles Create Complex Tunnel Systems for Food and Shelter
Voles work tirelessly to dig underground creating space for their colonies.
These small but quick creatures often design their burrows near food sources.
If you have a vegetable garden, voles are likely to feast on things like carrots or turnips that have deeper root systems underground.
Voles Eat A Lot Of Food!
A vole eats more than fifty percent of its weight per day. That means they are constantly on the hunt for food so it makes sense they would want to live near where they can have access to food on a consistent basis.
If you are noticing that your carrots seem to be yanked completely leaving a hole in the ground, it is likely voles doing the damage.
Don’t be discouraged, as there are measures you can put in place to help protect your vegetable garden. Putting tools in your garden such as this Root Guard Basket is a great option as it doesn’t just protect the surface of the plant, but actually goes underneath the root system.
4. Nesting Season Occurs Underground for Voles
Voles are small creatures that also have a small litter.
The average litter size for a female vole ranges from 3-6 babies. However, they can have between 5 to 10 liters a year. If you do the math, this means that one female vole can potentially have 60 babies per year!
And when you factor in the fact that voles live in colonies, that is hundreds of baby voles running underneath the ground.
They Set Up Their Nests Underground
Because voles focus on protecting themselves and establishing their habitat underground, it is natural for them to set up their nest in the underground burrows and tunnels as well.
The typical nesting season for voles is in the spring, however, they technically can have litters year round.
Once a baby vole is born, its average lifespan is approximately one year. But because they have so many litters per year, voles tend to multiply quickly even though they have a shorter lifespan.
Why Do Voles Come Above the Surface Anyways?
Searching for food or habitat puts voles at major risk of predator, so they often try to avoid coming above the ground where they are out in the open. However, there are different reasons why they may come above ground.
Oftentimes the most common reasons voles dare to venture out into the open have to do with the need for a new food source or habitat relocation.
Voles have also learned that certain techniques help keep them safe from predators when they do come above ground such as hiding underneath brush and debris as well as creating small sections in the grass where they can view predators but predators can’t see them.
New Tunnel Systems Force Voles Above Ground
Voles rely on the intricate tunnel systems they create for shelter, storing food, and creating their nests. But if these crafty critters feel threatened, or a food source has been taken away – they are likely to move on to a new location and start over.
One of the main reasons voles come above the ground is to find a suitable new habitat to dig new tunnels.
According to research done by the National Wildlife Control Training Program, voles are attracted to locations with mulch or extensive ground cover.
Voles also have numerous entry points to their burrows and maybe adding new entry points closer to food sources or protection to the already built tunnel system they have created underground.
Voles Will Come Above Ground If It Snows
It may surprise you to learn that one of the most common times of the year for voles to venture above ground is during the winter months.
According to researchers at Penn State, voles may use the winter months to their advantage when there is snow on the ground. With snow as a protective cover, voles tend to feel more secure to come out to get more food as seeds and plants are less abundant options during the winter months for voles to consume.
Unlike other animals, voles do not hibernate at all and are active year-round making the snow season an ideal time to search for new locations and food sources.
Seeking Food Motivates Voles to Come Above Ground
During the spring and summer months when vegetable gardens and plants are abundant, voles can easily find the food they need below the dirt.
However, as the fall and winter, months approach you are more likely to see these tiny animals above the surface when it’s dark outside!
Voles are known for doing something called “girdling”. Girdling is when voles and other smaller rodent animals eat the bark at the bottom of the trees. Girdling is more likely to happen in the colder months when they cannot find the vegetation they need for their diet.
Protection from Predators May Cause Voles to Come to Observe the Outer World
As comfortable and safe as voles may feel underground, they sometimes have to come into view in the outer world for food or habitat adjustments.
However, they have found a technique to help protect themselves from predators even outside of the safety of their hidden burrows.
Voles cut a small patch of grass to basically create an observation post to help keep voles protected from the view of a predator. This minor adaptation has been shown to help protect voles from one of their main predators – birds!
Predatory Birds Are Predators To Voles
One of the most common predators of voles is predatory birds.
Voles know to listen out for certain sounds and to keep watch for certain types of birds.
A study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences noted that voles had a very specific behavior they exhibited when listening out for shrikes, a bird known to actively seek out voles.
To get rid of these predatory birds and protect your vole population head over to our article about plants that birds hate, that you can plant around your outdoor space or if you have noticed voles, around their habitat – to keep birds away!
How To Get Rid Of Voles
If you’ve seen enough, and really don’t want the voles to be on your property – there are a few things you can do to get them to move elsewhere!
If you are unsure how to tackle your vole problem, it’s best to contact a professional immediately to assist you. Keeping you and the animals safe is the highest priority!
Ground Cover Helps Push Voles Elsewhere
Now that you have learned about the habits of voles and why they tend to stay underground or come out in the open, you may be wondering how to deter them to a new location if they have caused damage in your yard.
If you are looking to get rid of the vole colony that has taken over your yard, keeping the grass cut short with limited mulch or pine straw helps keep voles away.
Sometimes simple preventative measures like this can make a big impact on encouraging voles to look elsewhere for shelter.
Remember this species thrives and searches for dense cover to help deter predators from finding their burrows and getting rid of the dense protective cover will entice them to move somewhere else.
Taking Away Protections Will Cause Vole To Set Up New Burrows Elsewhere
According to experts at the University of California, if you take away their protection with ground cover, they will find a new place to set up their burrows.
One of the tips experts give is to keep your yard free of debris and extra clutter such as leaves and branches. Also, getting rid of anything from pine straw to mulch that helps voles feel safe and secure underground, will get them to move away.
While it may be time-consuming to continuously have to rake your yard during the fall months, using a Long Handle Garden Rake is a great tool to help you get rid of unwanted debris in your yard!
And believe us, all that raking will be worth it because once vole burrows are established – they’re hard to get rid of!
If you want more ways to get rid of voles, there are actually some things that they hate that you can use to deter them! Head on over to our article about the things voles hate to deter them, and get this – it’s as easy as adding peppermint, cleaning your yard, and planting daffodils to get them to leave!
That’s A Wrap!
Okay, so that was a lot of info! So let’s do a short recap!
Why Do Voles Stay Underground?
- Voles live in colonies underneath the surface of the ground and each vole in the colony has a job they can usually do from beneath the ground.
- They search for food in their tunnel system and can eat roots and buried seeds and often hoard food underground.
- During nesting season voles create their nests in burrows underground and can have numerous litters throughout the year.
- Voles have many predators and staying underground protects them from these predators.
Why Do Voles Come Above Ground?
- If they do come up to the surface, it is because their habitat or food source has been altered.
- Voles may be creating new tunnel systems in a new location if you see them above ground.
- During winter months you are more likely to see them when they may be protected by snow cover and feel safe from predators.
- Voles have learned different adaptations such as creating small sections for hidden cover in the grass to view predators and keep themselves safe above ground.
While voles are adorable creatures that can be harmless, a colony of voles can cause damage over time if they stay in a particular area.
Lin, Y. T. K., & Batzli, G. O. (2001). The influence of habitat quality on dispersal, demography, and population dynamics of voles. Ecological Monographs, 71(2), 245-275.
Zhong, Z., Li, G., Sanders, D., Wang, D., Holt, R. D., & Zhang, Z. (2022). A rodent herbivore reduces its predation risk through ecosystem engineering. Current Biology, 32(8), 1869-1874.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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