Pitching forward and falling prostrate while carrying two full buckets of water to the dogs’ kennel runs is a miserable way to start a snowy day. Even before the soaking nosedive I was in a grumpy mood, brought on by a two-inch overnight snowfall in the middle of October, the earliest measurable snow in more than 125 years of weather records in our part of the North Country.
No one was ready for this early onset of winter. The trees, with the exception of the walnuts, have not yet shed their leaves or even taken on the red and gold colors of fall. Snow-draped greenery is a weird landscape lighted by an October sunrise after an unseasonal snow storm. And layered on top of soil supersaturated by endless summer rains, the heavy and slippery snow was a problem for creatures large and small – except the moles.
Eastern moles (Scalopus aquaticus) apparently love this type of weather, slushy snow atop muddy ground, because these malicious little mammals, nasty beasts that burrow up from the dark halls of Hades to destroy our yards, were busy, busy, busy all through the two days of faux winter. They gleefully expanded their network of tunnels across hundreds of feet of our lawn, through the gardens and raspberry patch, and capped their sappers’ feats of excavation by digging the pit trap that sent me sprawling.
While my faithful French spaniel Sasha licked my face in sympathy, I ran through my standard post-fall inventory of body parts to assure myself that the only serious damage was to my pride. One toe was still caught in the mole tunnel that had tripped me up. It was one of six or seven new tunnels in front of the kennel runs, each twenty to thirty feet in length. An impressive bit of work for one night by a single mole, but maybe this was a team effort. The raised mounds are much easier to see when viewed from grass-top level.
“This means war,” I muttered, but I know from decades of lost battles that the moles will prevail. I have tried exterminating them with a half dozen different types of “guaranteed” traps, but can count on one hand the number of moles that have been skewered, crushed, snared or otherwise terminated. My dogs have been a bit more successful. They love to dig into tunnels where they can hear excavation in progress, and the craters they have created in their frantic efforts to unearth a mole make sections of the farm look like the impact zone of an artillery range. But the dogs catch a mole one time in a dozen at best; a mole can burrow down to safety three or feet below ground faster than a dog can claw through a single foot of tunnel.
Moles: I’ve tried drowning the digging demons by sticking a garden hose in a tunnel-in-progress and filling it with what I foolishly hoped would be a fatal flood of water. But moles have thrived through a million years of deluges, and they consider my puny efforts at inundation a joke. Poisoning is out of the question, not only because we long ago decided that pesticides are to be used only as a last option on our farm but also because poisons that would dispatch a mole would be fatal to the dogs in the event they should catch and eat one.
Looking at the grand scheme of the natural world, I concede that the moles have not invaded my territory: I have invaded theirs. They were denizens of this hardwood forest and prairie country many millennia before it was cultivated. And their presence in the subterranean strata of the farm is an indicator that our soils (unlike almost all the surrounding row crop fields) are full of life, from microbial organisms through earthworms and a thousand species of insects to voles and field mice and gophers and even a petulant badger on the west bluff. To support moles, the land has to have a healthy population of nightcrawlers. A member of the Talpidae (insectivore mammals) family, the mole prefers earthworms to other foods, although it will eat a variety of sub-surface invertebrates.
Earthworms are the focus of a mole’s life. Those tunnels the moles so industriously dig function as worm traps. With supersensitive hearing, a mole can sense when an earthworm has tumbled into its tunnel and will go scurrying to catch and eat it. Or store it for future consumption. A mole’s saliva carries a mild toxin that paralyzes a worm, allowing the mole to cache stunned and hapless nightcrawlers in an underground pantry, some of which hold hundreds, according to zoologists who study Talpidae. A mole has some culinary skills; it squeezes a worm between its paws to excrete the dirt from the gut before eating it. A bit finicky, it seems to me, for a creature that spends its entire life in the dirt.
If you think you can smother a mole by stomping its tunnel closed and suffocating it, think again. Moles can tolerate high levels of carbon dioxide because their blood cells have a form of hemoglobin that can retain more oxygen than most other mammals.
Don’t feel superior to the mole because you have an opposing thumb on your hand, either. A mole has two thumbs on each front paw. If they had cell phones, they could send text messages are least twice as quickly as I can. My texts would use a larger vocabulary and be more grammatically correct, though. At least until moles become the planet’s dominate species, which, looking at my yard, may be the way evolution is progressing.
Advanced mole civilizations are not likely any time in the near future. A mole is territorial and querulous, a solitary creature that will tolerate the company of another mole, of the opposite sex, only during its February-March breeding season. Offspring, litters of two to five pups, leave their mother about 30 days after birth and strike out on their own grumpy way to find new territories. Very “Old-Coot-Like.” I admire them for that anti-social behavior.
I try to remember that each time the wheels of the lawn mower bog down into a collapsed tunnel. Or I fall flat on my face when my boot toe plunges into one of their cleverly designed pit traps.
Moles. I hope the badger eats a hundred of you this winter.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page