A ground squirrel stands guard dutifully, despite a nuzzling youngster
— by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —
In many places the robin is the harbinger of spring. Here it is when we first see a bright-eyed fuzzy little thing poking its head up above the snow, looking around, apparently in disgust because it shortly disappears. But then a few hours later we see it racing across the snow to disappear in the wood pile. It is a Richardson’s ground squirrel. Soon they are a major fact of our existence, soft gray-brown furry little bodies racing around, popping up from holes in all kinds of unexpected places. LIFE has returned with a capital L. They are wherever you look, darting about in a short excited burst of life before they disappear again underground for seven to nine months. Five years ago we had none. Then we had a few. Now we have a thriving colony of hundreds, intensely going about the business of life during the short time they will be above ground darting here, there, everywhere. They are gregarious souls, forming lifelong bonds with mothers, sisters, nieces, aunts, though the guys do not have the same family attachments. In fact anyone considering taking one as a pet is advised that they can never be released back into the wild because they can only survive as part of the family unit they came from, back into their own burrow system. They won’t be accepted anywhere else and they can’t survive on their own. They need their extended family community.
Our feed bill goes up. They raid the chicken food and the goat food and the deer food, burrow under the horse hay and generally have a fine time. Babies race around chasing each other screaming. We see adults popping up over the edge of the stainless steel buckets, looking for danger as they forage for last bits of grain in the bottom. Last year I saw a yoghurt cup waving madly and mysteriously just visible over the top of a berm. On close inspection I saw an apparition – half yogurt cup, half ground squirrel backside. He had gotten his head caught in the narrow neck. He was pretty easy to catch- he couldn’t see or hear a thing. I picked him up by his plump butt, pulled, and out he popped, a bit dazed.
We see them ankle deep in chicken food with or without chickens attending; nose to nose with the deer in his deer food pan. The air is filled with their chitterings, probably telling the aggressive magpies how ugly they are. And those are only the sounds we can hear. . . they communicate at ultrasound frequency as well- what a cacophony of joy and busyness and rage it must be! They do get a bit plump – we have juicy corn-fed ground squirrels here. We keep trying to tell the hawks and owls but I don’t know if they are listening. It’s such a hard thing – each one of them is cute and you don’t want them eaten. . . but there are other hungry animals. Lest I feel too badly. . . last summer I saw one on a wood pile and couldn’t figure out what it was doing – it was eating a baby bird.
They have a complex social structure and warning system. We see them standing up at the edge of their burrows watching for danger. The vocabulary we can hear is quite varied, consisting of a variety of squeals, chirps, chirrs, whistles and teeth clatters, plus two distinct alarm calls. One is for aerial predators, which tend to approach rapidly in a straight line. When they hear this call they run for cover. The other alarm call is for terrestrial predators, which tend to approach relatively slowly. When one of them sounds this call they stand up and scan the area.
Their close cousins the prairie dogs have been studied extensively by Dr. Slobochikoff, an animal language specialist at Northern Arizona University. His research suggests that prairie dogs “have one of the most advanced forms of natural language known to science.” They can identify different predators. They can describe the size and shape of an individual predator. They can distinguish between people wearing different colored clothing and people exhibiting either threatening or non-threatening types of behavior. They can communicate not only about different species, but different individuals of each species, in effect, “That coyote with the one leg missing is back again.” “That’s a dangerous human carrying a gun.” “That woman in the red shirt is OK.” It seems unbelievable, but just because it is so unbelievable the science has been very carefully done, using sonograms matched with events observed in the wild. They also use sounds in different orders and at various speeds suggesting a grammatical component to their communication. Our ground squirrel colonies are not quite as sophisticated and complex as prairie dogs and have not been as carefully studied, but they are so closely related you suspect there is a lot more there than meets the eye.
When you look up ground squirrel on the web, there are quite a few sites talking about them as agricultural and garden pests and how to eradicate them. It is hard when humans and animals vie for the same land. I have to admit that I had a lovely flower and vegetable garden until their arrival. Now I have hollyhocks. For some reason they don’t eat those. So I adapt. I have a whole lot of hollyhocks.
I know many people don’t think like I do. I don’t want to kill them for my convenience. The land is not just “mine.” In fact it is not mine at all – I just live here during my lifetime. And it is just plain fun to share it. There is a great sense of companionship. Under no circumstances would l use poison, not only because of the suffering it causes but also because other animals will eat them and die. Our neighbors shoot them – last year a bullet ricocheted past Jean’s ear. Not everyone is willing to give up their gardens or go to the extent of building a garden that is ground-squirrel proof, as one of our board members does. (Though I personally think that is a fine idea and way to go about living in harmony with other life). But before we dismiss them as just a pest (to us), it is useful to be aware of the fact that our vision is often narrow; that there is much we don’t know and see and perhaps we should try to make leeway for other life forms just because we don’t know enough. What other wonders might we discover: Who suspected prairie dogs having a language?
On a practical level they are important food sources for many carnivores and we make life hard enough for them by taking away all the good land and water. The squirrels’ extensive burrowing mixes and aerates the soil. They are much smarter than we realized. On an ethical level they are family animals who are full of “joie de vivre” and are members of life on this earth with us. It is good to find a way to coexist.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.