March 4, 2009
By Susan Benson,CNHM Director of Education
This past week the third grade from Hayward Community Schools visited the Cable Natural History Museum for a Museum visit and snowshoe trek. The outdoor exploration began at the North End Trail, where there is an excellent snowshoe Ridge Trail that I highly recommend to other snowshoe fanatics. The goal of this experience was for the students to learn how to snowshoe while discovering animal tracks and signs. We discovered some really neat animal tracks that others out in the forest could experience themselves. We used signs and clues the animals left behind to determine what they were.
The first signs we discovered were very small tracks from an animal that hops from tree to tree making shallow imprints in the snow. Sometimes the tracks vanished in the snow as if the animal disappeared into thin air. Some of the tracks we observed had prominent trail drags between their legs, and in other tracks the trail marks were less visible. Using these clues, we determined that two different animals were moving through the forest: voles and white-footed mice. Following these observations, I did a little research on these two common critters that seemed worth sharing.
Voles are small rodents a little larger than a mouse that are active during the day or night, and in winter are more often moving during the day. Two species in this area are the red-backed vole and meadow vole. These small mammals can reach speeds up to 5 or 6 miles per hour. Meadow voles are known as great swimmers, where they can end up as prey for musky and pike. As an extremely common species in the northwoods, there can be several hundred voles per acre as they can have large litters, several times per year.
In the winter both species of voles live under the snow where it is warmer than the open air. They eat vegetation, and gnaw on the bark of shrubs for food, often leaving behind tiny tooth marks. At North End Trail, there were tiny tracks on the snow surface marking where they had been. The third graders also observed the vole tracks disappearing as they entered a hole in the snow to head down to the ground, or subnivean layer below. It is under the snow where they create a large number of runways or tunnels throughout the winter as they forage for food or huddle together for warmth.
Other tracks the third graders observed this week were likely that of the white-footed mouse. This mouse can be quite acrobatic, able to climb trees, and sometimes finding an old bird’s nest to rebuild and use as its own throughout winter. The white-footed mouse is active at night except during times of scarce food supplies. They do not make tunnels under the snow like voles, but will use vole tunnels for their own travel. When traveling on land (or snow) they gallop, leaving a tiny track that resembles a tiny rabbit. Their tail drag between their feet is quite noticeable.
One of the most interesting habits of the white-footed mouse is their winter food and feeding behaviors. This time of year they eat nuts from shrubs and trees such as pine, spruce, hazelnut, walnut, beech, oak, and a variety of wildflower seeds. They also find beetles, moths, or flies in their adult or larval stages they find while traveling through the tunnels of other rodents. Food is important in winter, as small rodents such as the white-footed mouse need more food in proportion to their weight than do larger warm-blooded animals in order to conserve heat. They make caches during all parts of the year, but particularly in the fall. They often take the outer husk off and store the inner nut or tree seeds, sometimes leaving up to a pint or quart of food in their cache. Evidence of these caches can be found in log piles, knotholes, or under rocks (sometimes in our houses as well.) Sometimes the caches are two to four inches underground in small piles. One large cache found had eight quarts of nuts. What a store of winter food that must be!
Become a track detective. When you are next out for your own snowshoe trek, or a walk along the road, see if you can find tracks and traces of these two small mammals. Another thing to look for is their long snow tracks, visible as a mound of snow, where voles have made their runways under but closer to the surface of the snow. Some winter evening, when you are outside in the quiet woods, listen for soft scratching on a tree trunk or in leaf litter. It might be a white-footed mouse searching for his midnight snack. This spring, watch for vole runways near the ground as the snow melts. While on the search for vole or mice tracks who knows what else you might discover!
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.