Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel

On my way back from southern Ohio today, I stopped in at a remnant of the former Pickaway Plains prairie. Being that it was a reasonably warm and sunny day, I knew that I would encounter Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, Spermophilus tridecemlineatus. Wow! For such little beasts, they've been saddled with an incredible, multi-syllabic moniker. Between the common and scientific names, that's -count 'em - sixteen syllables!

Anyway, 13-lines are really cool and I stop to reacqaint myself with them each year. As you can see from the habitat shot above, they like open landscapes. The mowed verges of this country road is a favored locale. Sharp little cookies that they are, and with nothing to block their views, sneaking up on the squirrels is essentially impossible, but I know of two strategies that allow one to get in reasonably close proximity. 13LGS's are voracious tunnelers, and that's one of the reasons they're so tough to approach. The animals seldom stray far from one of their burrow entrances, and if spooked they go subterranean in a flash. This animal is the easternmost prairie dog, and like its western counterparts, 13-lines excavate massive warrens of tunnels and chambers. When not above ground foraging on succulent vegetable matter, they're down under, partying and doing whatever it is that 13LGS's do.

One thing that they do well is hibernate. These furry Rip Van Winkles hit the hay in September/October, and don't surface again until early April. As mammalian indicators of spring go, they'd probably be far better barometers than that fat Pennsylvanian woodchuck. Okay, as I said, I know of two ways to approach these wary little animals in their wide open stomping grounds. One, watch which burrow the animal disappears into, and go lay prostrate in the grass ten or fifteen feet away. That's what I'm doing here, and the squirrel has just poked his head from the hole and is eyeing me with great suspicion.

But I made no movements and his confidence picked up. He is now nearly out of the hole, but no doubt wondering what the giant biped is doing lying facedown in the grass and holding a large tubular click-maker.

Finally, the little fellow popped out and quickly scampered to a safe distance. As 13LGS's do when they're curious, it stood up on its haunches. All the better to scan the surroundings and warn its compadres with low trilling whistles should danger lurk.

Here we can see the telltale stripes which give the animal its name. Quite an attractive little rodent, and sometimes people who see them think they are some sort of robust chipmunk. Oh, I took this photo using method #2: using the car as a blind. I've found that upon discovery of an active squirrel foraging site, I can drive up - all the 13-lines quickly vanish - and position the car in such a way so that I can shoot photos from the window. After a few minutes, the squirrels emerge and soon go about their business, allowing for wonderful viewing opportunities.

One last tidbit about Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels. This is the "gopher" that makes Minnesota the Gopher State, and ditto for the University of Minnesota's sports teams, the Golden Gophers. What kind of goofiness is that? Come on, what a great animal to pick to incite fearfulness and intimidation in your opponents. I'm sure Minnesota's rivals quake in their boots knowing that they are going up against a bunch of ground squirrels who jump in a hole at the first sign of trouble. And make cute birdlike trills. And sleep communally, stacked upon each other like fuzzy cordwood.

At least Ohio State picked an inedible nut as their mascot.


Terry said...

The pictures are great. Thanks for the information you gave me. We came home and looked it up. The Birds of Ohio is my book for looking up birds. Thanks.
(I was driving the PT Cruiser )

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks Terry, and good to run into you guys down there! Watch for those squirrels next time you're there and glad you like the book!

Jared said...

VERY interesting...oddly I just thought about thirteen-lined ground-squirrels about ten minutes ago and then saw your link on facebook. I wasn't sure if these guys even emerged this early in the season, being under the impression that they thrive in the warmest of conditions.

Thanks for sharing!

Terry said...

Just a note...We saw an America Bittern at Charlies Pond on Thursday...He was so beautiful..I posted pictures on my site if you want to see him....

We are heading up to Magee Marsh on May 6th for the weekend...