I grew up in southern Alberta, and have seen many of what I’ve come to know now are Richardson’s ground squirrels, but was told they were prairie dogs or gophers. I always see them in larger groups in the fields, sometimes near highways or other busy roads. Since there are some of these guys living at the campsite I’m staying at, I have been observing them and learning about their lives, and wanted to share these amazing little creatures.
Ground squirrels, prairie dogs, gophers, squirrels, and chipmunks, among others, are all in the same family (sciuridae), and are rodents. They live in short grass prairies, surviving on their omnivorous diet of grass, grains, seeds, insects, and occasionally the remains of other small animals. Interestingly, they don’t typically need too much water – they get their water needs from the grasses they eat. They dig elaborate burrows and tunnels in the ground, where they can stay comfortable from 38 Celsius down to -37 (100 to -35F), with their burrows being a comfortable 5-25C (41-77F)!
They are highly social, and typically live in groups with other families – sometimes 20 or more! While they share the burrows, their kisses will only be shared with members of their immediate family.
They have quite a complex communication ability. They will communicate to alert others of predators, while being able to communicate what kind of predator, how big they are, how far away, all to inform the others of what kind of danger there is. If they are alerting to a human’s presence, they will retreat into the burrows and peek out the entrances; if it’s a coyote, they will gather together to watch and stay alert for their next move.
Their burrows have many entrances. Each entrance has piles of dirt around, which helps keep rain and wind out, while also giving them a safe vantage point to spot any dangers from. They will also remove tall grass, trees and bushes from their surroundings so predators have less places to lurk and hide from their view. That would explain the random stumps that don’t seem to be cut by a human!
I have been watching the families here every day. There are at least 8 younger ones, possibly only a month or two old, who have been cautiously out exploring and grazing on the grass. They tend to stick relatively close to each other, staying aware of their surroundings especially while further from home. They also play a lot throughout the day, just like playful puppies would. They roll around a bit and pounce on each other playfully.
I’m still learning more, and am curious what their burrows look like. I’ve read they have different rooms – a nursery, bathroom, bedroom – I wonder how that looks!