The meadow vole pauses just below the top inch of snow. Over the last minute, through a snow-covered maze of tunnels in the dried prairie vegetation, he narrowly escaped the venomous bite of a short-tailed shrew. Desperate to elude the scent-tracking and echo-locating skills of the shrew, the vole pushes through the last layer of snow. He quickly scurries along the soft surface, confident now that he’s outwitted the shrew. A rush of air, his body compressing as if in a vice and a rapid ascent skyward are the vole’s final sensations. Death came quickly – a victim of the lords above.
Most of us are thrilled when we have an opportunity to observe raptors. Watching a red-tailed hawk “hanging” effortlessly in the rising thermals along a steep cliff brings inspiration and envy. “If only I could fly like that!” Or perhaps listening to a great-horned owl call from an unknown location in the cover of darkness stirs questions of a hidden and mysterious natural world. A brief acknowledgement that the world is much deeper and broader than our own paradigms.
But how many of us have ever thought about what it takes for a raptor to survive in the wild? For most wildlife, raptors included, winter is the ultimate test of their survival skills. For the raptors that don’t migrate and stay with us year-round, it’s their winter habitat that will determine how many survive. Good winter habitat means a lot of prey species and thus, a lot of food. For the majority of Wisconsin’s winter raptor residents, rodents are the most sought-after meal.
The good news is, those of us restoring lands to prairies and oak savannas already are establishing excellent winter raptor habitat. These open-canopy habitats allow for a strong and diverse native herbaceous layer to develop. This biodiverse plant community maximizes available seeds and nuts eaten by rodents during the winter. Open-grown oak and hickory trees also produce more consistent and larger quantities of mast (nuts).
I have often stumbled upon rodent caches of food stored inside bluebird nest boxes, rotten logs or rodent ground nests. I recall finding one bluebird house stuffed full of yellow coneflower seeds, and another time seeing a coffee-cup full of lupine seed in a dug-out ground nest.
In prairies, it’s also beneficial to overwintering rodents to leave some woodies, such as scattered oak seedlings, saplings and grubs; blackberry and raspberry canes, hazelnut, wild plums and non-clonal native shrub willows. The bark and buds of the woodies are consumed by rodents, especially when seeds run scarce. It’s a balance, of course, because too many woodies will suppress the prairie, but careful observations will eventually reveal an ideal equilibrium.
In open woodlands, standing dead trees are ideal rodent hotspots. They tend to both live in these dead trees and use them as places to store food caches.
Burning off significant amounts of ground vegetation is not helpful to overwintering rodents. So, I typically limit the use of fire in the fall. I do, however, burn in breaks and other odd areas to help “speed up” the larger burns in late winter and early spring. Interestingly, I often see high rodent use in these burned-off patches as evidenced by their tracks in the snow. Perhaps the “cool” fall burns leave a fair amount of exposed, easy-to-find seed for the rodents.
Next time you’re motoring down the road and spot a hawk sitting on a powerline or road sign, take a moment and think about why she’s there. Chances are she’s lording over the rodents below in the only habitat available, the grassy right-of-way strips that shoulder the road.
We can work together to give them other options, even if the rodents may not appreciate it.
Raptor and rodent snow art.
The photo below shows two different species of rodents. My best guess for the left most line of tracks is either a deer mouse or white-footed mouse. I believe the right-most line of tracks is a meadow vole.
The photo below is a bit confusing. There are meadow vole tracks, deer or white-footed mouse tracks and gray squirrel tracks. Wing prints of an unknown raptor can be seen in the snow showing multiple attempts at trying to catch one or all of these rodents. I was not able to find any rodent tracks leading away from the raptor wing snow marks, leading me to believe the rodents were caught. However, given the size of a squirrel, I would expect to see more of a struggle with blood stains. Maybe there was more than one raptor and the rodents were caught at different times?
The photo below shows raptor wings and feet imprints with rodent tracks approaching from the right. Because the raptor appears to have landed in the snow, I’m thinking this may be an owl.