Wild Files: It’s Our Nature

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Groundhogs may get all the limelight, but it is their little cousin, Columbian ground squirrels that we see more frequently popping up on the unceded territories of the Secwépemc, and Ktunaxa Peoples, and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples of British Columbia (B.C.). With 38 species of ground squirrels across North America, Columbian ground squirrels often referred to as gophers are the second largest members of the genus Urocitellus also known as the Marmotini tribe which aside from groundhogs also include marmots, chipmunks, and prairie dogs. Out of all ground squirrels the Columbian is the only species that are true herbivores, primarily eating succulent vegetation. Their average life span is two to three years but they live up to 10 years in the wild.

Photo by Chadd Cawson

The colours of these little furry rascals can vary from a dark or reddish brown to grey, including olive tones. Their undersides are a lighter grey or often white.  Columbian ground squirrels are typically 72 centimetres (cm) long and weigh an average of eight kilograms (kg). They have long slender bodies for their short stature, their legs are short, but they have long claws making them excellent diggers. Found in alpine and sub-alpine areas, their preferred habitats are rocky or grassy fields. Columbian ground squirrels love to burrow underneath it, where they build their homes and hibernate.

Creative Critters

These little rascals have been described as quite clever and creative for the intricate burrows they claw out. Mammalogist, Vernon Orlando Bailey, who studied Columbian ground squirrels at an elevation of 2,100 metres (m) in Glacier National Park, found an adult female bringing up soil daily to the burrow’s main entrance. Upon further examination of the burrow, it was discovered that aside from the main entrance, it had two alternates which led into two main shafts of the burrow, 89 millimetres (mm) in diameter. Bailey describes that on top of various chambers that were dug out, a nest made of leaves and grass was constructed 2.4 m from the burrow’s main entrance.

Sleeping beauties

A group of Columbian ground squirrels is called a colony or scurry. They hibernate eight to nine months of the year in their burrows, which they may occupy for many years. During hibernation, a scurry positions itself vertically in a tight ball. Their temperature drops, respirations become scarcer, and the group’s heart rate slows significantly during this time. The first to emerge from hibernation are the adult males, who need to regrow their testes for breeding because they shrink in size and cease sperm production during their long underground slumber. Mating and social interaction in the spring can involve courtship ground squirrel kisses of their noses and mouths connecting. These affectionate greetings last one to five seconds, while copulation happens underground. Females wake up a week after the male Columbian ground squirrels do.  Females begin breeding as early as six to eight months of age and raise one litter per year that can contain five to seven kits which are born blind, naked, and toothless. After the first week their weight doubles, and by day 17, their eyes begin to open.

Soldiering squirrels

The traditional Inuit name for ground squirrels is ‘siksik’ which stems from the unique alarm cry they make. Columbian ground squirrels are known for standing at attention like little soldiers when taking in their surrounding and on alert for predators such as the grizzly bear, coyote, and grey wolf, to name a few. In many Indigenous cultures, ground squirrels are a symbol of resourcefulness and preparation. Some American tribes believe them to have a trickster spirit. Hunting ground squirrels was popular for many Indigenous Peoples. Some First Nations and Tribes often skinned and roasted them, while children would tan their hides to make toy tipis.