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Winter 2004, Volume 21.2



Robert Schnelle

Voles in Their PrimePhoto of Robert Schnelle.

Robert Schnelle lives in Ellensburg, Washington. His essays have appeared previously in Weber Studies, the Seattle Review, and Writing on the Edge. His book Valley Walking: Notes on the Land was published by Washington State University Press in 1997.
See other work published in Weber Studies by Robert Schnelle:  Soul-struck Soldier: Stepping Westward with Cabeza de Vaca,   Over the Line: Robert Frost and Trespass.


Now that spring is almost here it may be told. Throughout the siege of a winter that brought epic snowfall, the inland Northwest's vole population has made idleness a family value. Like mammals of many kinds, voles would normally time their breeding with the return of sunlight, but this year, beginning in the dark days of January, evidence of animal passion has transformed the neighborhood where I live and taken on the shape of a portent. Grass-lined runways crisscross our footpath from the back door; burrows pock the snow-flattened weeds, and owl pellets found beneath the big cottonwood are studded with tiny mandibles. Skittering, gray-brown shapes distract me while I'm shoveling the drive. Scavengers animate the compost heap.

Poor Fatso, the family cat, despairs of husbanding her once orderly game ranch. The voles have outbred her blood lust, it seems, and their uneaten corpses strew the decks and walkways. She used to consume all except the stomachs of her prey. As their population swelled, she began to leave the hindquarters, then all but the heads. Finally, as engorged as the Trojan horse, Fatso watches fresh generations of voles gallop past like so many buffalo. The squeals of rutting males must invade her dreams.

At least a dozen species of vole inhabit the Northwest, including rarities like the needle-eating red tree vole, which spends its entire lifespan in the branches of old-growth firs, and the feisty, swift-kicking water vole. But given the dryness of the mountain valley I live in, the voles we're seeing are most likely Microtus pennsylvanicus, a blunt-nosed, short-tailed, lemming-like creature with tiny round ears. Most people know it as the field mouse, but with its swift metabolism, Microtus is a wolf among pipsqueaks. In addition to the fungi and tubers it eats, it relishes seventy species of grass seed, especially cultivated varieties, and it loves to girdle fruit tree saplings with its chisel-like teeth. The meadow vole can be destructive, though hawks, snakes, and coyotes would be hard pressed without it. Anything that eats meat eats voles.

Still, when you reckon all its qualities, the vole's breed lust stands out.

Meadow voles live one year at best—a few months on average—yet females can reproduce from the age of three weeks. Both sexes attract each other with scented oils they release by grooming. After they mate, gestation lasts twenty-one days and produces up to a dozen young; a mother vole may easily raise eight or ten litters if she's lucky, though one in captivity gave birth to seventeen. Theoretically, a female meadow vole can leave a million descendants.

So it is that nature provides more than just predators for rodent control: the crowded conditions of population peaks lead to stress, like what humans feel at rush hour. If this winter's voles follow precedent, then famine, disease, and even mental derangement will get them, eventually. Overpopulation also causes intraspecies aggression and vast refugee migrations, but while it has been shown that migrants enjoy the highest reproduction rates, these are the ones most conspicuous to predators—who even the score. Sources tell me that vole populations spike every few years and that these are followed by cycles of crash and recovery.

It's good for people that we can predict this. Voles are curiosities to those of us with town jobs, but the grain industry considers them a major pest. The dusting of crops with hydrocarbons is easily mis-timed, and bait shyness often renders "rodenticides" useless. Opposed though many of us are to agricultural poisons, it's daunting to imagine the plight of farmers in Scotland, who deal with a parallel threat in the mountain hare. This animal alternates between scarcity and abundances so extreme they constitute "plagues," but unlike the meadow vole, its growth spurts are patternless. Peaks recorded during a forty-year span occurred in 1930, 1931, 1941, 1953, 1958, and 1971. Horrendous livestock die-offs and economic freefalls followed each of these years.

As for the meadow vole, researchers know more about when to expect its boom years than why they occur. They used to think that lemmings, hares, and other creatures like the vole existed in a state of balance, their supposedly even-keeled reproduction upset only because of human influence. This would have accounted for undeniable fluctuations like the one I'm seeing, but the theory was shelved when small mammals of the tundra, where few people live, showed the same behavior as their kin to the south. For now, population biologists find consensus on only a few points. First, while enemies cannot put brakes on vole expansion, they can delay a post-crash recovery: one O. P. Pearson found that predators devoured 88 percent of a low-cycle vole "crop." Second, voles are like anyone else—they depend on their food supply. If they overgraze an area they have to abandon it or starve. Finally, it's agreed that these variables cause changes within the animals themselves. Big, randy aggressors dominate, touching off orgiastic mating, mass dispersal, and another predatory bacchanalia.

For Microtus and genus Homo alike, babies are us. Not that recognition brings hope of change in human behavior, but Samuel Zeveloff, author of Mammals of the Intermountain West, puts the writing on the wall where it belongs: "Human populations exhibit some of the same dynamics at increasing densities as do small mammals." The gene's quest for immortality is the meal ticket of the unborn. And there seems to be no circumstance too squalid to keep our progeny from coming. All this lends to the drama taking place in my backyard, the sniffiness of a cautionary tale. But no matter. The interest lies in its details.

Voles, voles, voles. If voices had odors, the squeak of this animal would remind you of cheese. It is a sharp and pungent sound, as high-pitched to the ear as the taste of salt on the tongue. Right now there's a magpie flaying a vole on a stump beyond the kitchen window, tossing its live meal in the air and catching it again in its bill. With binoculars I can see crows in the neighbor's hay field doing the same. A black lab that lives around here is bouncing along the front walk with a vole riding in her jaws. Yesterday, I lifted a drowned vole from the birdbath.

Death has no investment in the dignity of creatures. A vole may be impaled in the talons of a prairie falcon, or a languid tabby cat may harry it a while, leaving its victim grizzly and spazzing in a flowerbed. I scrape their remains from the tire treads of my car with a stick. They get caught in the flooding creek and snag with other flotsam in shoreline thickets. Shrikes hang their carcasses on fence barbs.

Perhaps these cruelties explain the poignancy of voles in fables and folklore. The field mouse of Aesop's story receives a rare kindness when, having once pulled a thorn from a lion's paw, it is saved from drowning by the king of beasts. Mice in the Brothers Grimm are betrayed by other animals ("The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership") or by fate itself ("The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage"). When my son was small, he read a picture book called Mousekin's Golden House, in which the main character flees from an owl to the inside of a cozy jack -o'-lantern.

Such stories may allay human fears, but this year's vole outbreak puts fatality in our faces. Both voles and people live within rumor's reach of slaughter. We are bred for tooth and claw. Starvation and land mines take us. Microbes gnaw at our vitals. In rich countries we fade in oncology wards or stare past the eyes of our loved ones into the slow-moving fog of dementia. The only relief, it seems, is in getting born among the scarce. How many of its own kind, crumpled in death, does a whooping crane have to look at?

All this raises the stakes on our days. In meadow vole years, the average American lives to the ripe age of 547, allowing plenty of time to study music and cloud stacks, or the ankles of women in summer dresses. Perhaps our destiny is linked with the vole's in a positive sense, too. I have seen a vole expressing something like happiness. Today, in back of my house by the propane tank, I watched this vole feeding on stalks of grass. It held the blades between its forepaws, gnawing them through till they tumbled and let the seed heads come within its reach. The animal was so delicate I could have blown it over with a sneeze. When I placed a sunflower kernel nearby, it was undisturbed, but snatching it up, it gave it a quick spin and hustled away with the cache. A vole can eat endlessly and never gain on the future. Even so, as I watched the same doomed creature a few minutes later, grooming itself in a glade of chickory, blinking its dark eyes and basking for a spell, it seemed to enjoy a share of warmth in the world.

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