Unlike his tree-hugging cousins ̶ grey, red and flying squirrels ̶ the Richardson’s squirrel has mastered the art of life on terra firma. A master of hunkering down, he holes up in a cozy little grass-lined subterranean burrow system for up to eight months of the year. But, despite his enviable schedule, this pint-sized neighbour is anything but lazy.
Like many human inhabitants of the Bow Valley, the Richardson’s ground squirrel has found a way to thrive by working seriously hard for only a few months of the year. Between early March and mid-July, this gregarious diurnal rodent from the sciuridae family runs amok on the grassy knolls and roadsides of the Bow Valley and beyond.
The adult male is the first to stir in the spring. He has a two-week window in order to secure territory, eat some grub and prepare himself for the impending mating frenzy before the ladies emerge. That’s right: it’s business time. Since females are only in heat for a few hours on one day of the year (yes, you read that correctly), it’s best not to sleep in.
With the highlight of his year in the bag, the male’s testes retreat into his abdomen. In harmony with this shrinkage, his territory also disappears as he scurries to avoid the wrath of aggressive, pregnant and lactating females.
Twenty-three days pass before the ladies give birth to litters of four to 10 pups. With the males driven off, the ladies are left alone to raise their offspring in close-knit matriarchal groups. And, as usual, they don’t waste any time. A life-sized game of “whack-a-mole” ensues as they forage for roots, seeds, grasses and wildflowers and begin to renovate their burrows ̶ interconnected labyrinths of tunnels, each up to 10 metres long and a metre deep, containing a dozen different entrances (and even bathrooms) within.
During the work day, each takes a turn standing guard at the main burrow entrance. Dutifully, at the sight of intruders (hawks, coyotes, wolves, bears, humans) the “watch squirrel” lets out a shrill shriek, alerting the entire community to run, flick their tails and duck for cover. They are nicknamed ‘picket pins’, ‘flickertails’ and ‘sik siks’ after their characteristic behaviours and sounds. A short, low-pitched chirp with altered frequency means an aerial predator is approaching. A long, high-pitched consistent whistle is a warning of earthbound predators. Either way, it’s time to high-tail it, y’all.
They might appear frenetic, but imagine you only had four months to build a house, find a mate, conceive, bear and raise a family, defend your territory and eat enough to double your body weight? You’d be going a bit squirrely too.
Where to watch the squirrely action:
Two particularly chaotic colonies in Canmore include the hill across from Summit Café and the roadside in front of the Shell Station on Bow Valley Trail. Head to either location; you can’t miss them.
Taxidermy more your style?
Head to the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, AB for an impressive (?!) display of taxidermy ground squirrels in various dioramas driving chuck wagons, building snowmen, duck hunting, and much more. Sound bizarre? It is.