There is a newly developed subdivision that has opened up on the hill above my house in Coleman. Its tenants are extremely well organized and the whole complex has been broken down into subunits called wards, which are divided into territorial associations called “coteries”- extended family units of 2 to 15 individuals.
These new comers to my part of town are busy building extensive accommodations -up to 14 feet deep by 86 feet long and they may move as much as four tons of soil per acre to do so. They are by all reports very territorial and are said to work co-operatively in raising their young.
John Kinnear photo
Arrow marks the spot for Richardson's retreat.
These uninvited squatters go by the deliciously ironic name of “Spermophilus Richardsonii” but you and I prefer to call them gophers or ground squirrels. In some localities in the US they are colloquially called “flickertails” or “picketpins”, names that reflect the tail flicking used for communication and the tendency to stand upright to assess approaching danger.
The sandstone bluff colony above my house started to show signs of this development this spring and one critter appeared above my rock gardens and ensconced himself in a high spot overlooking my yard. Then one set himself up in the back alley at the edge of my garden shed. It appears I will have to keep a close eye on this expansionist group to make sure they don’t get out of hand as they did in the Coleman cemeteries. I have noticed hawks frequenting the skies above the hill more often these days so maybe there will be some sort of natural control that takes place! If fact my neighbor across the back alley reported to me this summer that he observed a hawk pick off one of these unsuspecting critters right in the middle of the back alley. My observations this summer of this back alley immigrant revealed that he liked dandelions and on more than one occasion I watched him eating their heads off. Now if you are not into poisons or prying dent de lion out of the ground you might want to consider having a Richardsonii do your weeding for you!
Long before the Pineview Subdivision was built they had their own subdivisions up in the fields and forested areas north of Coleman. As a young lad I packed a Cooey 22 rifle and used to harass what I called mountain gophers. They were extremely smart, lived in the shadows on the edge of the Pineview area meadows and disappeared as soon as I entered the meadow’s edge (most were pretty gun shy after a few close calls). There was a circuit I used to make which was kind of like 18 holes of golf only it was gopher hole locations and the route wound up the west side of Saskatoon Mountain (Sasky) and down to Nez Perce creek. Most times I missed and if I did catch one his remains generally disappeared by the next day. So some owl or coyote probably got an easy meal.
It seems like we are always trying to harass or wipe out these resilient little critters. Case in point. Back in 2002 the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation sponsored the Ken Turcot Memorial Gopher Derby. (I wonder if Ken passed away from some bizarre gopher related accident.). Between April 1st and June 23rd 211 participants managed to kill 61,107 ground squirrels in that province. The Federation participants actually wore t-shirts with a worried looking gopher in the middle of a set of gun scope crosshairs. The kill numbers were verified by submitting the gopher tails (frozen) in-groups of ten. Wes Popescul of Assiniboia managed to kill 6,271 all by himself.
That is kind of pathetic don’t you think? What kind of a man could shoot 6,000 plus ground squirrels in just under 3 months? Needless to say animal welfare groups from as far away as Toronto denounced the event as barbaric. The Federation was unfazed and promised that the next year’s derby would be even bigger and better. By 2004 they apparently were satisfied with the number reduction and suspended this terrible hunt.
A little birdie told me some time back that there are still individuals on our eastern slopes that are using strychnine to wipe out populations on their property. This is a terrible way to deal with any animal as their death is a violent and prolonged one. AND if the gophers are left about where they die they will and have caused the death of a whole range of animals and birds (like hawks and bald eagles!) that consume them.
What is really important to know about the Richardson is that he is known as a keystone species, that is to say a critical link to many others. Fossil evidence shows they evolved in North America about 10,000 years ago and that they have long been an integral part of the grassland ecosystem. They are an established component of prairie biodiversity. Richardson’s are the favoured prey of many native species besides that old gun totin’ Wes. For the following list of predators ground squirrels can make up as much as 80% of their diet: swainson's, ferruginous, and red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, long tailed weasels, badgers and coyotes. Other predators that depend on them to a lesser extent are bald eagles, great horned owls, red fox, and prairie rattlesnakes.
For those predators that depend on Richardson’s as a major food source, especially for feeding offspring, ground squirrels dictate how well and how often the predators will breed. Burrowing owls nest in ground squirrel burrows enlarged by badgers. Field mice, voles and even salamanders seek refuge in their old homes. Last but not least that all important prairie pollinator, the bumblebee, nests in ground squirrel burrows.
John Kinnear photo
This family have picked the perfect observation point!
All in all a pretty important critter I’d say. Farmers claim 375 gophers can eat as much as one cow and that production losses in recent years have reached unacceptable levels. In Canada’s grassland region, 80% of the grassland is now used for agriculture, industry or urbanization. For the many native species listed above to continue to survive at sustainable levels the Richardson’s ground squirrel MUST be maintained as an integral part of the prairie’s wildlife diversity.
Incredibly, my small local band disappeared into hibernation at the end of July. Who ever heard of a critter that packs it in in the middle of the summer? They will remerge again in late March or early April. Females typically mate 3-5 days after emergence from hibernation and give birth 22-23 days later. So late April or early May I will be watching my little colony closely and no doubt so will that red-tail hawk that likes to soar above the bluff.