Wild Profile: Meet the Richardson’s ground squirrel

A Richardson's ground squirrel sitting on the ground By Ryguyryguy74/Shutterstock

Unless you’re very familiar with plains-dwelling animals, you’d probably never peg the Richardson’s ground squirrel as a relative of the red squirrel or the grey squirrel. These mammals look much more like gophers or small prairie dogs. And they behave more like both: “ground squirrel” is an incredibly apt common name given how much of their lives these critters spend underground! (It’s a lot—see below.)

Ground squirrels vs. tree squirrels 

The species was named after the Scottish naturalist Sir John Richardson. Looks-wise, they have larger bodies but much smaller tails than their tree squirrel relatives. (Tree squirrels need bushy tails to help with balance.) A ground squirrel’s skinny tail is almost constantly twitching, like a tiny whip—it’s one reason why they’re nicknamed “flickertails.” Their ears, meanwhile, are so flat that they appear mashed into either side of the head.

When do they hibernate?  

The Richardson’s ground squirrel spends up to eight months hibernating. Adults emerge from their dens—in Canada, dug into open meadows and plains in the prairie provinces—between February and March. They return underground by mid-June at the latest. Juvenile squirrels spend a little less time in hibernation—between five and seven months. But even when the squirrels are not hibernating, they’re still only aboveground for eight to 10 hours of the day. An individual Richardson’s ground squirrel spends a mere 15 per cent of its existence on the surface. (Imagine living 85 per cent of your life in the basement.)

Ground squirrel dens provide digs for other prairie dwellers

Richardson’s ground squirrel burrows play an important role in the lives of other denning creatures. Mice, voles, burrowing owls, badgers—they enlarge the holes to suit their bigger bodies—plus salamanders and invertebrates repurpose empty dens. Even bumblebees nest in ground squirrel homes.

When do ground squirrels reproduce? 

Squirrels mate soon after they emerge from hibernation in early spring. Females all give birth around the same time, so the population explodes all at once. But it can crash just as quickly: mortality is especially high with this species, thanks to prairie predators such as hawks, falcons, eagles, weasels, and rattlesnakes. About 50 to 70 per cent of babies don’t live long enough to reproduce (at about a year old). Despite this, it’s common to spot both adults and babies in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta—at least, it’s more common to spot them than it is to spot other grassland mammals. They’re bold, and will happily approach people, looking for handouts. Cheeky!

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