Homeowners making mountains out of moles’ hills

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Mounds of fresh top soil and ridges from tunnels just under the sod mean one thing — moles.

Have to offer

But before you succumb to the pest industry’s annual campaign against moles and rush to the local home improvement center for traps and poison, consider what moles have to offer.

The presence of moles in the backyard becomes obvious in spring. As temperatures increase, they burrow closer to the surface in search of earthworms and other soil invertebrates.

That’s why their surface tunnels become so apparent in March and April. Any mole “damage” is cosmetic. Mole hills and tunnels may be unsightly, but they hardly justify the expense of “pest control.”

Moles tunnels aerate the soil and are easily eliminated by simply stepping on them. Mounds of fresh soil can be scooped up and placed in the garden. Instead of moles being a problem, they actually provide valuable ecological services.

Insectivores

Moles, though superficially rodent-like, are insectivores, kin to shrews. They have tiny eyes, lack external ear flaps and have a body well suited to life underground.

Among the anatomical adaptations that permit moles a fossorial (burrowing) lifestyle are greatly enlarged front feet. The feet are broader than long and tipped with strong well developed claws.

The upper arm bones are short and flat and attached to powerful digging muscles. The pelvic girdle and hind limbs are smaller so moles can easily turn around in a narrow tunnel. And their teeth are needle sharp for capturing subterranean invertebrates.

Their permanent tunnels are 12 to 18 inches below the surface and are virtually undetectable. But their surface tunnels are evident, especially after spring and fall rains.

Water loosens the soils and facilitates digging. And even though moles are one of nature’s most efficient diggers, they prefer loose soil to hardpan.

In fact, soil type limits mole distribution. It must be loose enough to tunnel through, yet stiff enough to support the structure of the tunnel. Pure sand is too loose and heavy clays are too dense.

Beneficial

Where moles occur, they are beneficial. Their tunnels till and aerate the soil and direct moisture to deeper soil layers.

Though earthworms are their primary food, they also eat grubs, cutworms, slugs, snails, sowbugs and other lawn pests.

Moles rarely eat plant matter, though their presence can seem to harm bulbs and other plants. That’s because their tunnels may allow too much air into the soil and roots dry out.

Digging machines

Thanks to a variety of adaptations that make moles amazing digging machines, they can dig surface tunnels at a rate of one foot per minute. Deeper tunnels proceed at 12 to 15 feet per hour.

Given these amazing digging rates, people often fear their yards are infested with dozens of moles. In fact, moles lead solitary lives and inhabit an acre or more, so a single mole can be responsible for all the tunnels and mole hills in an entire backyard.

When digging, moles brace their hind legs against the tunnel wall and dig with their powerful forelegs. They push loose dirt under their bodies and kick it backward.

When too much loose soil accumulates, they push it up vertical shafts to the surface to form the familiar mole hills.

Mole hills resemble miniature volcanoes, but lack the central hole characteristic of crayfish chimneys. Gardeners should appreciate this natural source of fresh topsoil.

Three species

Three species of moles occur in the east. Hairy-tailed and eastern moles are the most likely species to be found in backyards. Recognize eastern moles by their short, naked tail. Star-nosed moles prefer wet, marshy soils and are easily identified by the 22 fleshy appendages that surround the tip of the nose.

Moles mate in early March. After a pregnancy of 30 to 45 days, females give birth to litters of four or five young. They leave the nest about four weeks later.

Golf courses, where perfectly manicured fairways and greens are essential, may suffer legitimate mole damage. But homeowners can deal with mole hills and tunnels with a shovel, a heavy boot and a more tolerant attitude.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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