It’s spring. Days are getting longer. The weather’s getting warmer. The sun is sitting higher in the sky. And, as I write this, the persistent snow in my yard is finally giving way to bare ground.
This is the time of year when the consumer horticulture season really begins in earnest at Cooperative Extension. It often starts with questions from anxious callers about recently discovered lawn, landscape, and garden damage; often from wildlife pests. Questions about mice, squirrels, and chipmunks are frequent. But, perhaps because of their tenacious tunneling activities, the most noteworthy culprits of concern to frazzled callers are meadow voles and hairy, or more often, star-nosed moles, the 2 mole species that live in northern New York.
It’s certainly worth distinguishing which pest you have. Eastern gray squirrels bury and dig up nuts in the lawn and in mulched garden beds. The holes are typically about the size of a quarter and shallow. But, gray squirrels neatly cover their stashes with the dirt they remove; even taking the time to tap the dirt down with their paws.
Grey squirrels, red squirrels, and flying squirrels are tree squirrels and, as such, do not dig tunnels. They live in hollows in trees, or nests made of twigs and leaves. Red squirrels, however, habitually prune conifers, littering lawns with fallen branch tips. They eat the seeds and leave the rest behind. Flying squirrels do not create as many problems as other tree squirrels. They are the only squirrels that are active at night.
Chipmunks are small ground squirrels with limited digging ability. Chipmunk tunnel entrances are usually found in inconspicuous places (e.g. near stumps, brush or log piles, or buildings) and are about 2 inches in diameter; typically with no loose or piled soil near the opening.
All squirrels may move into attics, walls, or vacant camps. Once inside, they can damage insulation and electrical wiring.
When dealing with problem squirrels, both Remington and Winchester manufacture several products that provide very effective squirrel control. However, local ordinances regarding the discharge of firearms must be followed.
Meadow voles are small rodents, sometimes called field mice. They construct surface runways and underground tunnels. Pine voles may or may not live in the North Country. They don’t use surface runways, but do construct extensive underground tunnel systems.
Voles create labyrinthine networks of runways under the snow, in winter. But they usually leave lawns or open areas when the snow melts and the lawn quickly recovers. They can cause extensive damage in orchards, however, by girdling trees. Rabbits will girdle trees, too, but rabbit gnaw marks are markedly larger and more uniform than those of voles.
The star-nosed mole and the hairy-tail mole are the only mole species that live this far north. Both create deep tunnels (burrows where they nest, often under something solid such as tree roots or rocks) and shallow (feeding) tunnels; forming ‘molehills’ that can be from 2-inches to 2-feet tall, as they push excess soil to the surface. One mole can dig 200-feet of feeding tunnels in a 24-hour period. So, even though it may seem like you have a multitude of moles in your yard, you probably only have one; maybe two. Moles are solitary, territorial animals, requiring large territories in which to forage.
Moles feed on white grubs; beetle larvae. And they can eat their weight in grubs, daily. In other words, moles have an insatiable appetite for Japanese beetles, European chafers, rose chafers, Asiatic garden beetles, and Oriental beetles, before they emerge as adults. All of these beetles are voracious pests of ornamentals. And, as grubs, all feed on grass roots. In fact, white grubs may be the most damaging turf insect pests in the United States. Because of this, you might try living the mole and raking up the molehills once the ground dries out.
When it comes to mole control, there are no easy answers. And the “control measures” people employ are endless; all sorts of electronic, ultrasonic, and vibrating pest control devices; stuffing the tunnels with brambles, moth balls, broken glass, rat poison, and cat poop; flooding the tunnels. None of these are good ideas.
The family cat is a much better alternative. Or put on your work boots and flatten down portions of the objectionable tunnels. The offending critter will reopen a tunnel that is actively being used. You can then dig up a short length of the working tunnel and set a trap. Scissor or harpoon-type traps work well and are recommended. I find that a rat trap set in the tunnel also works well. Just cover up the open tunnel above the trap using a small piece of plywood and place the soil that you removed on top. A blow from a shovel onto a surface run where a mole is feeding may kill the mole; even several inches beneath the surface.
Photo of Star-nosed mole courtesy US National Park Service.