Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Is that weird beastie in my yard a mole, vole, or gopher?”

My daughter took this picture of the rodent digging up our yard. It shows his face and his very long, very yellow, and pretty snarly teeth.

My what big teeth you have. (Photo: The 12-Year-Old Howell)

My mother-in-law refers to our backyard as the National Wildlife Refuge of Northern California, and I have to say, I can see her point. So far this summer, I’ve spotted at least one opossum, multiple smaller as-yet-unidentified ground rodents, a great blue heron, Mr. & Mrs. Mallard, at least two types of hummingbirds, violet-green swallows, black phoebes, waxwings, doves, spotted towhees, and juncos.

While swinging on the swing set one blissful afternoon, The Twelve-Year-Old noticed a furry beast with a rather fine set of long yellow teeth staring at her from his burrow. She immediately began taking pictures, and when he decided he was done posing for the paparazzi, she came inside and asked me what he was.

“Is that dude a mole, vole, or gopher?”

Honestly I thought it looked too big to be a vole.

“I zoomed in a lot, Mommyo, because I didn’t want to scare him away.”

So much for the easy answer. Time for a trip to the backyard to survey the damage.

Well, that doesn’t look good. (Photo: Shala Howell)

That looked like a lot of damage from one little guy. But it also didn’t look like the work of a vole.

Voles like to dig runs — relatively open holes with a network of tunnels running between them. (Shawn Woods has posted a wonderful video on the difference between moles, voles, and gophers and the types of damage they do to your yard on YouTube.)

Our guy was digging up crescent shaped dirt mounds. Here’s a close-up.

Close-up of the outside of the dude’s burrow. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I knew from watching Shawn Woods’ video that moles typically dig dome-shaped mounds composed of finely sifted dirt, while gophers tend to make crescent-shaped ones with lots of big dirt clumps in them. All of the mounds more or less looked like this, so it was tempting to call it a gopher and be done. But my daughter had taken some pretty great (if a little low-resolution) photos of the beastie’s front attributes, so we decided to double-check our answer.

Mole or gopher: Examining the teeth

My daughter took this picture of the rodent digging up our yard. It shows his face and his very long, very yellow, and pretty snarly teeth.
My what big teeth you have. (Photo: The 12-Year-Old Howell)

As you can see, our guy has some pretty big teeth. They are flat and enormous, great for gnawing on things. Moles are carnivores, so they have smaller, sharper teeth.

Those teeth belong to a rodent. So our guy is most likely a gopher.

Mole or gopher: Examining the face

But what if you didn’t have a lovely portrait of his smile? What if all you had was a side view, like this one? How could you tell then?

This guy has large digging paws. Someone out there might be able to look at those paws and say, oh that’s a gopher. But not me. Moles and gophers both have large digging paws, so I’m going to need something else to help me make a quick and dirty field identification.

This guy has visible ears, beady eyes, a small black nose, and the hint of pockets in his cheeks.

Moles have ears and eyes so small that they are nearly invisible, and a large pink nose for sniffing out prey.

Conclusion: Probable gopher.

And that explains all the hawks I’ve been seeing circling our yard and landing in our trees lately. Happy hunting, dudes. I want my yard back.

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