A furry kind of day with Columbian Ground Squirrels

Yesterday afternoon, I went out to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge for some birding and, fingers crossed, a little bird photography. Upon arriving at the Refuge, the season’s first Cinnamon Teals were feeding along the margins of the cattails. I waited for them to come within range of the 500mm lens, and they never did. They simply refused to budge from their patch of feeding area. This pattern of noncooperative birds was repeated with a pair of Buffleheads, a beautiful drake American Wigeon, and even the American Coots were being pills.

But, the Columbian Ground Squirrels were more than happy to posed for a few snaps. Columbian Ground Squirrels possess a reddish-golden wash on the chest, face and front legs, which contrasts against the mottled gray and brown back and upper limbs. They are about a foot in length with individuals being rather small and others HUGE (by ground squirrel standards – 16 inches). The Columbian Ground Squirrel is the ground of Montana west of the Continental Divide (other than the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, which found in the higher reaches of the mountains).

Columbian Ground Squirrel with a mouthful of eats

Columbian Ground Squirrel with a mouthful of eats

They are found in a wide of habitats in western Montana from valley bottom agricultural fields, meadows, ponderosa woodlands, and, even, alpine tundra. In Glacier National Park, Columbian Ground Squirrels are simply crawling all over the Logan Pass area. They are typically seen feeding upon fresh shoots, roots, and seeds, although they will occasionally eat insects, carrion, and fish (how the heck anyone saw this is simply beyond me).

Fresh grass shoots must be delicious

Fresh grass shoots must be delicious

Columbian Ground Squirrels live in colonies that help to provide security for the little furry packets of protein. Alarm calls are given whenever a potential is spotted. These calls even differ for ground-based versus aerial predators, so they have some inkling from which direction the impending doom is coming. Within the colonies, males and females defend individual territories centered around their own burrows.

The kings of sleepy time, Columbian Ground Squirrels hibernate for about 8 months per year, which means they can be going back into their burrows for good around the end of August. During the 4 or 5 months that they are running around, they run a gauntlet of predators and bullets. They are viewed as pests by most farmers and ranchers, and to be honest, they can really rip up a pasture. Many are simply shot for shits and giggles, which I can never understand the fun behind killing. Maybe the shooters would gain an appreciation for these wonderful creatures if they were to simply sit down in the midst of a colony and watch the ground squirrels dig their burrows, chase each other around, and bask in the spring sun.

Oh, and they are not gophers…I repeat they ARE NOT gophers. Gophers are gophers.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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