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Nature Notes: Under the blanket of snow

By Kelly Bahl

Jay C. Hormel Nature Center Teacher/Naturalist

One of the most picturesque winter moments is an undisturbed field of snow. No blemishes, prints, or holes to mess up the perfection of a white blanket of powder that seems  to quiet down the world for an instant. However, beneath the surface of the silent winter wonderland is a highway of activity.

Literally.

A vole is one of winter’s most adaptive critters. Photo provided

During the winter months, when a lot of the animal kingdom is slowing down or even napping the days away, native rodents like mice and voles are still very much active! They are thriving in the subnivean zone.

This zone is under the snowpack and above the freezing ground. It is a highly specialized zone as it can only exist in areas with regular snowfall and needs at least six inches of snow on the ground to provide the voles enough space to tunnel. These tunnels are used to access community nesting areas and most importantly food opportunities like dropped seed on the ground, grass, or even bark at the base of a young tree.

Tunnels built in the snow offer a big advantage for the rodents. First, the soft powdery snow is a lot easier to tunnel through than soil so tunnels can be made quicker.

Secondly, the snow serves as excellent protection. Even if it is made of frozen water, snow is a great insulator so the mice and voles can stay warm through the winter months. In addition to being warm, the cover of snow can provide a layer of protection from most predators.

Most, but not all.

There are some predators that have the adaptations to hunt these rodents, even through the snow. Animals like foxes and owls have superb hearing to easily track a vole underneath a snow layer three feet thick.

You can spot the entrances of the tunnels in a snowbank, or edge of a trail, easily identifiable by a round hole that is about 1.5-2 inches in diameter. Another way to figure out if there is a maze of tunnels underneath a patch of snow is to just wait for it to melt. Once the snow starts to melt away the tunnels will become noticeable snaking this way and that over a once undisturbed landscape of snow. It seems to be nature’s gentle reminder that not everything is what it seems on the surface. 

Upcoming Events

Once there is enough snow (eight inches on the ground) we will be able to rent cross country skis and snow shoes. We have new COVID-19 rental procedures to ensure the safety of the public and our staff throughout the ski season. You can find all of the up to date information on our website: www.hormelnaturecenter.org/skirental.html

Ski rental: $6 for adults, $1 for kids

Snowshoe rental: $5 for adults, $1 for kids

Free ski & snowshoe rentals, 3-6 p.m. on Thursdays.