Let's begin with how these two different mammals look. A vole (Myodes) very much matches the usual image we have in our minds when we think of a mouse. People untrained in identifying these creatures may initially think the same thing about moles, such as the Eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), based on body size and the color of the fur. But if you take a really good look at a mole's face, you will see the difference right away. A mole's face (in terms of what is visible to us) is just a nose and a mouth. You can't see eyes and ears the way that you would on a vole or on a mouse. The animal does have eyes and ears, but they are buried beneath its fur, so that dirt does not get into them. When you spend as much time underground as a mole does, it makes perfect sense to have your eyes and ears protected in this way. Another dead giveaway to identify a mole is its big forefeet (used in digging).
Do Moles and Voles Eat Plants?
The preferred diet of the mole is a carnivorous one. The mole will eat worms, grubs, and adult insects. They are not rodents, which, having a vegetarian diet, often attack our garden plants. So if a pest is taking bites out of your plants, you can rule out moles. But rodents do exploit mole tunnels to get underneath your plants and gnaw at their roots, so moles can play a role in plant damage, even though they do not eat plants.
The vole, by contrast, is a rodent. A vole will gnaw at the base of a tree or shrub, especially in winter. Thus, metal guards are sold to prevent such vole damage. A vole may also damage flower bulbs and potatoes in the garden. But, mainly, the vole will eat the stems and blades of lawn grass. The runways they leave behind in the process make for an unsightly lawn, although voles do not leave behind big mounds of dirt the way moles do. Voles can also accidentally damage trees and shrubs by burrowing into their root systems, causing young specimens to experience die-back or to begin to lean.
Why is it important to know the difference between a mole and a vole? Well, here is one reason:
If you realize that the mole is mainly a meat eater, whereas the vole is mainly a vegetarian, you'll know that they will not necessarily be attracted to the same baits (should you decide to try to catch one of these garden pests). A vole may be attracted to peanut butter as bait; a mole most likely will not.
Two other mammals that beginners sometimes confuse with moles and voles are pocket gophers and shrews.
Like the vole, the pocket gopher (Thomomys) is a rodent and looks like a mouse, but with bigger teeth. They burrow into the ground, leaving behind unsightly mounds on your lawn that are horseshoe-shaped. Gardeners have to worry about them, too, due to their diet. They eat both underground plant parts (for example, roots) and above-ground plant parts (for example, leaves).
There are a number of different kinds of shrews, and their appearance can be somewhat varied. Let's take the Northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) as an example. This critter, in terms of what it looks like, can be thought of as in between a mole and a mouse, but it is much more closely related to moles (it is not a rodent). You can see its eyes and ears, but they are tiny. It has a long snout and sharp, pointed teeth. Shrews eat insects, not plants, so gardeners should not view them as a pest. Nor do they make tunnels, so your lawn is safe with shrews.