Being from Ohio, I have seen plenty of chipmunks and tree squirrels, but not a ground squirrel. So the first time I saw this little critter was on a trip to Glacier National Park in 1992. As an intelligent 5th grader I just thought it was a ‘fat chipmunk.’
He seemed to be stalking our campsite. The ‘fat chipmunk’ was stealthy, saying only a few chirps. He would watch us eat, beg for food, then rest in the sunlight or comically roll around in the dirt.
I returned to Glacier in 2015, and again saw the ‘fat chipmunk.’ But this time, armed with a field guide I learned that he was not a chipmunk at all, but a ground squirrel. Specifically a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis). But what in the world was a ground squirrel?
Ground squirrels have characteristics of the tree squirrels and chipmunks. They have the classic chipmunk stripes but the more boxy squirrel body. In fact, ground squirrels outweigh chipmunks by 2-10 ounces and are about 2 inches longer than their smaller cousins. Tree squirrels are larger than ground squirrels; about 20 inches long.
The stripes are the key for identification. Squirrels have none, chipmunks have them on their head and body, and ground squirrels have them only on their body.Ground squirrels don’t have any stripes on their heads. Click To Tweet
The field guide also told me why this ground squirrel was stalking our campsite. His job was to eat, and eat a lot. Naturally ground squirrels like pine nuts. And they will take as many as they can stuff in their cheeks. Due to where they live, they only have a very short summer season, so they spend most of their time looking for the highest fat foods.
They don’t just stick to pine nuts. Ground squirrels are omnivores. They will eat anything that doesn’t try to eat them. They like seeds, fruits, leafy greens, fungi, insects, birds eggs, small reptiles and amphibians. They have even been known to snack on carrion.
Our little ground squirrel had food on his mind.
In areas with humans, ground squirrels quickly learn that we will feed them. They are cute, and they seem to know it. Many a hiking trail and campground will have a few resident ground squirrels, hand tamed and taking food from your fingertips.
Unfortunately, human food isn’t what these little guys need. While some trail mixes are close to their natural diet, many contain too much salt, chocolate or sugary foods which are bad for these small mammals. So if you come across a ‘hungry fat chipmunk’ snap a few pictures, but don’t give in! Let him find his own food in the woods. (To learn more about why you shouldn’t feed wildlife, check out this article by Bryce Canyon National Park.)
Because the summer season is so short, these little guys are busy. They have three things on their mind: breeding, eating, and not getting eaten. Male ground squirrels are the first to be seen in the spring. The females follow a few days later. They don’t like to hang out together, they mate and move on. After mating the female has around five babies, called kittens, in an underground burrow.
“Because the summer season is so short, these little guys are busy. They have three things on their mind: breeding, eating, and not getting eaten.”
She sends her babies on their way at around six weeks old and begins storing food for the winter. Ground squirrels dig their own burrows for the winter, some can be 100 feet long but not very deep. This is where they hide their food.
As winter approaches the ground squirrel puts on fat and makes its nest. They can be seen frantically running around with their cheek pouches stuffed to almost bursting. These cheek pouches give them an advantage over tree squirrels. When a predator finds a ground squirrel, its hands are free allowing it to run full speed and keep its treats. A tree squirrel must drop its food to run.
Once it gets too cold, they curl up in their burrow with their stash and sleep until spring. It is now thought that they wake up during the winter and snack on their hoards, but most of the food is eaten in early spring after the weather warms.
Once they wake, they do it all over again for years. They breed, eat and try to not get eaten. Some have been known to live 7 years in the wild.
Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel Quick Facts
If you want to see these little guys in action, look no further than your western National Parks and Forests. They live in a variety of habitats from the mountains of Montana to the sagebrush of Utah. They are easy to find because they commonly will come find you! So if you are visiting the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain National Park, Bryce Canyon or similar areas be on the lookout for these ground squirrels.
Their native range occurs as far north as British Columbia and south into New Mexico and as far east as Colorado. While they seem to be everywhere within this range, they prefer coniferous forests and living in the mountains.
Squirrels, chipmunks and ground squirrels are often considered a pest species, but this is so far from being true. These small rodents have a very important part to play in the ecosystems they inhabit.
First, golden mantled ground squirrels are considered primary consumers. That is, they eat mostly plant material and are in turn eaten by other wildlife. Their job it to convert the energy that plants take from the sun into a usable form for other animals (secondary consumers).
These secondary consumers are predators of the ground squirrel, who is an important food source. Ground squirrels are one of the main foods of hawks, coyotes, bobcats and foxes. They are also eaten by skunks, weasels and snakes.
Golden mantled ground squirrels can also become secondary consumers when they prey on birds, lizards and other small mammals. In fact, their predation can help regulate populations of these animals.
This rodent’s tunneling and hoarding tendencies also help the forest. These activities aerate the soil and the lost caches allow trees to germinate.
To attract these important members of the food web into your backyard don’t first think about a sunflower seed feeder. Consider some natural options. Since these ground squirrels thrive on pine nuts, plant a pine in your backyard to provide them with their favorite food. Beyond planting pines, also look at their habitat needs. Consider leaving a portion of your lawn ‘wild.’ They would enjoy a rocky outcropping, a fallen tree or a brush pile as a burrow entry. Tall grasses will help them hide. Also consider providing a shallow water feature.
Suggested Native Pines for Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel
|Wyoming||Ponderosa, Pinyon, Vanderwolf’s, Lodgepole|
|Idaho||Western White, Lodgepole, Ponderosa|
|Oregon||Jeffrey, Lodgepole, Ponderosa, Sugar|
|California||Coulter, Jeffrey, Ponderosa, Sugar|
Attracting ground squirrels will bring other creatures to your backyard habitat. Imagine seeing a hawk perched in your pine or a fox in the falling light. Without primary consumers you will miss seeing these majestic secondary consumers.
Now that you know more about this helpful rodent – do you want it in your backyard? Tell me in the comments.