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Mice or Voles in Your Yard?

By Chris Williams on July 5, 2014.
voles

Vole

mice

Mouse

Mice or Voles?

I don’t know whether I have mice or voles digging holes in my garden. How do you tell the difference? W. N., Hudson, NH

Answer

You can actually tell voles from mice both in their appearance, and also by their habits. Voles are sometimes incorrectly called meadow mice or field mice, although they are not actually mice at all.

Voles vs. Mice in Appearance

Voles do look like chunky mice, but cuter. Some say they look like little teddy bears. Not very scientific, I know, but nevertheless descriptive. Both voles and mice are about the same size, averaging 6 inches from nose to tail tip, but there are some distinct differences:

  • Body shape: Vole – chunky, heavy; Mouse – slender
  • Tail: Vole – short with short fur; Mouse – long, scaly, almost hairless
  • Color: Vole – dark brown to gray-brown; Mouse – light brown to dark gray, belly usually lighter
  • Nose: Vole – blunt; Mouse – pointed
  • Ears: Vole – small; Mouse – large
  • Legs: Vole – short; Mouse – relatively long

Voles vs. Mice in Habits

Food – Voles are the bane of gardeners since they are strict vegetarians, feeding on seeds, leaves, seedlings, crops, vegetables, and fruits. Mice feed on almost anything, from seeds and grain to meat, pet food, nuts, and insects.

Habitat – Voles live in heavy grass or weed cover, along roadsides, or in gardens. They construct short, shallow burrows and surface runways through lawns and sometimes inhabit abandoned mole tunnels. Voles rarely enter buildings and cannot reproduce indoors. Mice live in outside burrows in weeds, under shrubs, or near foundations, and readily enter and reproduce in buildings. Voles are active both day and night, while mice are active mostly at night.

Damage – Voles can do considerable damage to plantings, leaving uprooted and damaged plants behind. Voles chew on soft, green vegetation and will nest at the base of plants, clipping the roots below ground (see “Vole Winter Damage to Lawns and Trees”). Vole damage to plants is often blamed incorrectly on moles (which do not feed on plants). Voles will also girdle trees and shrubs. Mice cause gnawing damage to buildings and wooden items and contaminate stored foods and other materials with urine and feces.

Photo credit: Peter G Trimming / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Photo credit: CJ Isherwood / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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