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Jul 042012
 

If you are squeamish, don’t like to see dead animals or can’t stand the sight of blood you may want to skip reading this post. Or you can push past seeing animals that have died of natural causes and see why I felt it important to express my opinions about this matter.

Recently KSL.com; a Utah news station, had an article about a Vole (a small rodent) infestation In Farmington, specifically in the neighborhood of Foxboro Community. While I sympathize with the residents about the damage being done to their yards I am disturbed by the advice many of the people commenting have left on the story. The article and the comments can be read here.

Two main suggestions came up repeatedly:

  1. Get an outdoor cat, they will kill them
  2. Use poison to kill the Voles

To explain that area one must think of wetlands that have turned into housing developments and human encroachment on natural areas. Think of nearby marshes and flat grasslands where voles and other animals have thrived since before the pioneers settled into the Salt Lake Valley. It is prime real estate for voles. It is prime real estate for all of the other creatures too.

Some of the folks want to blame UDOT because the Legacy Parkway was near the Foxboro Community. Those voles were on the land that the Parkway was built on long before they broke ground. The Legacy Parkway isn’t the problem.

Some of the folks want UDOT, the City or Davis County to clear the voles off of the public lands near the Foxboro Community and the Legacy Parkway because they believe that will solve the vole infestation. It won’t work.

What some of these people fail to realize that there are cycles in nature where populations of animals rise and fall and that those cycles can depend on many factors. We had a super mild 2011/2012 winter which possibly had an effect on the vole population. Voles breed all year long but harsh winters can reduce the number of off spring that survive the frigid temperatures. A mild winter… more surviving voles. We had an early spring in 2012 where the grasses and other vegetation, aka vole food, greened up early and provided the voles with enough nourishment to have more litters.

I’m a bird photographer, I am out in the wilds a lot and I have observed a dramatic increase in the vole population in the locations that I visit to photograph birds in the last year. I’m not upset or disturbed by it because I know that the population will decrease because of that natural cycle. The fall of the high population can be weather related, caused by predators consuming the voles or both. And more.

Outdoor Cats:

First, let’s look at outdoor cats and the problems they can cause to wildlife, people and how living outdoors can cause them to live much shorter lives.

  1. Outdoor cats that are not vaccinated can carry diseases that can be transmitted to wildlife and the people they come in contact with.  That is a fact. Think rabies, feline distemper and feline immunodeficiency.
  2. Outdoor cats can be hit by cars, poisoned, attacked by dogs, get lost or stolen.
  3. Outdoor cats that are not spayed or neutered cause an increase in feral cat problems.
  4. Outdoor cats are spreading diseases to our native cats, our Mountain Lions and Bobcats.

Estimations have shown that annually outdoor cats in the U.S.  have been the cause of death for hundreds of millions of birds, some of these birds are on the threatened and endangered lists and a few species are facing extinction if we don’t do something about the outdoor and feral cat problem now.

You might think I am anti-cat at this point. I’m not. I have had cats in the past, I love to cuddle & play with my friends cats now.

However; I did not and would not have an outdoor cat because of the danger to the cats and to wildlife. You can read more about outdoor cats at the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) here and about cats & predation here.

Poison Control:

Not a good idea at all. Poisons are bad for people, animals, the environment and upset the balance of nature.

  1. Poisons can kill children who don’t know that what they are touching or ingesting is harmful.
  2. Poisons can kill your pets.
  3. Some of those poisons stick around for years and have long term effects.
  4. Poisons might kill the natural predators of voles after the predator ingests them.
  5. Aren’t we all bombarded by enough chemicals whose long term health effects are unknown each and every day?

What is to say after a poison kills a rodent that your family pet will not pick it up and eat it and then die? What is to stop a predatory bird that is protected under the Migratory Bird Act from eating the poisoned rodent and dying? For people on well water how do you know for certain that those poisons won’t migrate into your drinking water?

Poisons are too risky. For you. For me. For our children’s children. For our planet.

This is a Vole. This is a Vole after a native predator kills it for nourishment. This is Nature.

When I saw this vole wedged into a tree on Antelope Island State park a while ago I asked Ron to back up so I could show it to him and so I could take photos of it. Maybe I knew it would come in handy one day for a blog post of importance. At the time I wasn’t sure whether a Loggerhead Shrike cached it or if it was an American Kestrel that did it. Shrikes are well known for impaling their prey to cache it.

BNA (Birds of North America) shows this under American Kestrels under food habits:

Prey often but not always decapitated; hidden in grass clumps, tree roots, bushes, fence posts, and tree limbs and cavities, etc.

Regardless of whether it was a Shrike or a Kestrel that stuck this dead vole in the tree, it died a natural death and the bird had sustenance. 100% nature.

Native predators of voles, also known as the Vole Control Patrol:

Hawks & Falcons

American Kestrel female eating a vole

One of my most favorite raptors; the American Kestrel, excels at vole control. They are Bantamweight (bird lovers will catch the pun here) vole eating machines and they KO plenty of the little rodents everyday!

I support the American Kestrel Partnership which is a project of the Peregrine Fund. In some areas of North America the populations of these small falcons are on the decline. The American Kestrel Partnership hopes to unify the data-generating capacity of citizen scientists with the data-analysis expertise of professional scientists to advance research and conservation of American Kestrels.

You may wonder why I brought the American Kestrel Partnership up in this post. If people in the Foxboro Community put up kestrel nest boxes their vole population would decrease significantly and by monitoring the nest boxes they could help as citizen scientists. Nest boxes can be purchased here from the American Kestrel Partnership.

Hey Foxboro Community, what are you waiting for? You can get rid of your voles naturally and help our smallest and most colorful falcon in North America.

Male Northern Harrier in flight

If American Kestrels are the Bantamweights of the Vole Control Patrol the Northern Harriers are the Long Distance Fliers. Harriers cruise all day long in search of voles with the aerial agility of stealth airplanes, the voles get no notice before they are captured and dispatched. Harriers nest in the marshes not in nest boxes so they can’t be enticed to book a room in a grassy neighborhood yard but they are great Vole exterminators.

Rough-legged Hawk with Vole

Rough-legged Hawks hover above their prey then swoop down to capture it, their method of capturing voles reminds me of a military Apache helicopter. They get their prey a large percentage of the time. They are only in the Salt Lake Valley during the winter because their breeding territory is much farther north. They can certainly make a dent in the vole population during their brief time in Utah though.

These are three raptors that capture and eat large volumes of voles.

Loggerhead Shrike – The Raptor Wannabe

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrikes are songbirds but they sure remind me of raptors in their behavior, diet and the way they capture and kill their prey. Their diet consists of insects, spiders and small mammals like the voles that people in Farmington are annoyed with. I’ve seen Loggerhead Shrikes every month of the year though their numbers do seem to dwindle significantly during the winter. Because insects are not available during the coldest months of the year their winter diet consists of small rodents, mostly voles. Loggerhead Shrikes build their own nests in sagebrush and other shrubs. Having them near your property could reduce the number of voles. They might be lightweights but they have big appetites.

Owls

Great Horned Owl perch on an old Granary

Several owls species native to Utah hunt and eat voles, like this Great Horned Owl, aka Tiger of the Sky, pictured above. Great Horned Owls do nest in boxes, trees and old buildings and if nest boxes are provided they will hunt down and eat those pesky voles.

Other owls in the Salt Lake Valley area that eat voles:

  • Barn Owls. Again, if nest boxes are provided they will stick around the area and get rid of small rodent pests.
  • Short-eared Owls. They nest on the ground and voles are a high portion of their diet.
  • Burrowing Owls. They nest in man-made and natural burrows and they eat voles too.
Wading Birds that eat Voles:

Great Blue Heron stalking voles in winter

You might think I have gone off the rails by saying that some wading birds eat voles but they do. When the water is frozen over at Farmington Bay WMA the Great Blue Herons still need to eat and they stalk and ingest voles. They are wetland and marsh birds and will walk right into yards to hunt if nearby areas include water and cover.

Other wading birds in the SLC Valley area that eat voles:

  • Black-crowned Night Herons (year round residents)
  • Great Egrets (mostly migrant, some do winter over when the winter is mild)

That pretty much covers the birds that will get rid of and eat voles without using poisons or outdoor cats .

Mammals

There are mammals that eat voles (besides cats). Long-tailed Weasels that are found in wetlands and marshy areas include voles in their diet. They are fast, strong and ferocious when it comes to dispatching their prey. And they are wonderful to see in both their brown summer coat and the snow white winter coat. You won’t think of them as cuddly once you see them attack their prey.

Coyote crunching down on a Vole

Coyotes, who are much maligned and often trapped or killed, seem very fond of voles. Once in just a five minute period I saw one Coyote kill and eat four voles.

Coyotes cause fear in some humans, others just want to gun them down and the state of  Utah puts a bounty on their heads, which recently (and stupidly) increased from $20 to $50 a pelt. After decades of being hunted down, poisoned and trapped in steel jaws there is no scientific evidence that these bounty programs work as the state, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, work at all. Scientific studies have shown that as the coyote population decreases there is more food available to them and their litter size increases. The Coyote population rebounds.

These bounties on Coyotes have also been a problem for private landowners where unscrupulous coyote hunters enter private land to kill coyotes to get the bounty on their skins.

For some of the coyote hunters it is a way for them to earn money but I also have my suspicions that some of them just like to hurt and kill other living beings.

I know that if I enter private property and start shooting the wildlife there that I deserve to be punished, jailed and or fined.

I also know that if I poisoned, inhumanely trapped or killed someone’s dog that I can be charged and jailed for being “inhumane”. Both dogs and coyotes are living beings, isn’t it inhumane to kill either one?

Yeah, I know, sheep are being killed by coyotes, they kill outdoor cats and their range is increasing in leaps & bounds in North America.

Yet, Coyotes get my vote for the top mammalian predator of those pesky little voles. We keep shooting the coyotes and the ones that survive kill off that nasty rodents everyone is concerned about.

We’ve upset the balance of nature, the wild animals haven’t. We’ve bought or built homes on land where wildlife has existed for eons and simply because we have put up stick, brick and concrete structures we expect the wildlife to just vacate their homes because we live there?

It isn’t going to happen. Mice, rats and other rodents adjust very well to city life and the voles, well they just love munching on crispy green lawns that people put in.

Get a Kestrel box. Put up nest boxes for Barn and Great Horned Owls. Stop poisoning or shooting raptors. Encourage them to take up housekeeping in your neighborhoods and they will do the work after their populations increase. Keep your cats indoors and let the natural predators control the vole problem.

And the next time you see a Coyote think of how many rodents a day they put away that won’t be in your yards and homes. Let’s see 4 voles in 5 minutes and how many hours a day do Coyotes hunt?

It isn’t rocket science.

Although I have written this because of a local Utah issue much of what I have written applies to every state in America.

Mia McPherson, OntheWingPhotography.com

Mia McPherson

Mia McPherson

Mia McPherson is a nature lover, wildlife watcher and an avian photographer. Mia first become serious about bird photography when she moved to Florida in 2004. Her recent move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and photographing them. With so many birds species there easily accessible it wasn’t long before she was hooked. By learning more about each species, she can anticipate their behaviour and create opportunities to obtain ever better images of those species.


Leave a Comment

  • Amanda

    I came about your post looking for ways to kill of the voles in my yard. I love that you have so many ideas on how to naturally get rid of them. I was going to go buy some poison to be honest. But now I’d like to try to get some nesting boxes and see if I can’t get any owls and Kestrels. I love to see nature in action and my cats are indoor cats only. My kids would probably have fun seeing the wildlife also. 

    I hope it works. or I’m going set some traps as well. I want them gone before I put in a nice yummy lawn for them to munch.

    Thank you for the ideas!   

  • http://www.onthewingphotography.com/wings/ Mia McPherson

    Thanks for your comments on this post and the issue of using poisons everyone. It is unfortunate that the people who need to read this the most probably don’t visit wildlife or nature sites on the internet often. However;I feel honored to have reached out with this article to nature lovers like the readers on Focusing on Wildlife.

  • Peter

    Hi Mia.  I really enjoyed your article, and particularly the issues your locality faces in co-existing with the native inhabitants. What is especially important is that management is carefully crafted to suit the local situation. Because what is indicated in one area may often be contra indicated in another.

  • Carol Duke

    Fabulous article Mia! I wish more agreed about not using any kind of poisons and to not killing the beneficial predators such as coyotes. I wish we could ban the making of harmful poisons but that is unfortunately far off. More chemicals are introduced into our environment daily that are never truly tested and there toxins are in our bloodstreams. Nature has a marvelous and practical way of maintaining a natural balance . . . you are so right that it is humans that create the imbalance and thereby the problems. Your photography . . . as always . . . is stunning!

  • Pierre Gagnaux

    Well made, with pertinent ideas, poison is really NOT a solution.

  • Brian Zwiebel

    Well written and informative post Mia.  Superbly illustrated as well!  Good shooting…err, picture taking!

  • http://www.facebook.com/MarcEverettJohnson Marc Johnson

    Well said Mia, humanity can be so short sighted.  People never think of the knock on effects of their actions and we often reach for the simplest solution.  I am glad to see your well argued and well reasoned post here.  It may be preaching to the choir but, for one, will pass this on.  Thank you for taking the time to post this.
    Marc 

  • http://www.whalesworldwide.com/ Nic Slocum

    Great post Mia. It applies to every country in the world too as we always look for solutions that involve killing or displacing wildlife rather than a solution that might be mildly inconvenient for mankind.

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