A Small Encounter With A Creeping Vole

The Creeping Vole (Microtus oregoni) (aka Meadow Mouse).

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.Aesop (550 BC) Storyteller of many Greek fables  

February was the coldest, and snowiest February Oregonians have seen in 30 years, and much of March was bone-chilling cold.  Nights were in the teens and twenties, and daytime highs struggled to rise above freezing.  It was windy too!  A brutal East Wind kept everything frozen.  Accumulated storms dumped several feet of snow.  Icicles hung like fangs from the eaves.

By mid March, the snow finally began to retreat.  Swaths of bare soil grew larger by the day.  Ferns waved their fronds cheerfully.  Deer browsed on fresh greens, and birds were singing.  The sun was a welcomed sight despite the cold.  Enough so to coax even the smallest creatures from their hiding place.

I don’t know how I saw it.  It was just one of those wonderful “in the right place at the right time” moments.  From the kitchen window, I saw something move.  It was very small.  I wasted no time and dashed outside with my camera.  The air was jolting, like walking into a freezer.  Not even the sun could warm that kind of wind chill.  I felt my face and hands starting to freeze, and shrugged it off.

At a glance, I thought it was a shrew-mole.  But looking through my zoom lens it was clear the cotton-ball-sized creature was something else.  The fur wasn’t black and plush; but grayish-brown, and thick.  The tail wasn’t long with dark bristled hairs; it was short with soft gray hair.  The forefeet weren’t large and turned outward for digging; but covered with hair, and made for walking.  And the snout wasn’t pointed; but short like a hamster.  

It was a vole!  But, what species?  Oregon has thirteen.  I opened my favorite field guide, Natural History of the Pacific Northwest Mountains, by David Mathews; Timberline Press.  I compared my notes to those in the field guide, and my photos with Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and iNaturalist.  Based on the information, it was a creeping vole, a first for me!

Description:  The creeping vole, aka Oregon meadow Mouse (Microtus oregoni) whose name means “small ears” is Oregon’s smallest vole.  It is mostly nocturnal, and active year-round.  The body length is 4 1/2 inches with a short tail 1 3/8 inches long.  Weight is up to 19 grams, although larger specimens have been recorded.  (The vole I encountered was much smaller.)  Eyes are small and beady.  Ears obscured with dark fur.  Fur is short and dense, buff to grayish-brown to black, with sporadic blonde hairs.  Tail is dark above, pale below, covered with short hairs.  Feet are furry with fur on the foot pads. 

Habitat:  Forests, woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral, staying close to the surface, no more than an inch above or below ground.  Prefers herbaceous habitat with soft soil to burrow.  Feeds on flowering plants, grasses, roots, fungi, and seeds.  Shelters in leaf litter, decayed logs, and small rodent burrows of mice and moles.  Nest is made with dried grasses inside a burrow.

Range:  Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada.

History:  First collected near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1836 by American naturalist/ornithologist John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851).

Creeping Vole (Microtus oregoni) rummaging in the leaf litter.
Creeping Vole (Microtus oregoni) warming in winter sunlight.
Creeping Vole (Microtus oregoni) finds some tender sprouts.
Creeping Vole (Microtus oregoni) foraging on corn.
Creeping Vole (Microtus oregoni) with a parasite on its ear.

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