Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Making Hay While the Sun is Shining

Columbian ground squirrel (c) John Ashley
Columbian ground squirrell gathering dried grass for its bed
If you spend more than eights months sleeping, you'll want a really comfortable bed.

Columbian ground squirrels (Spermophilus columbianus) only spend a few months of spring and summer above ground before heading below, as early as July. So in addition to mating and rearing young, they need to spend part of the summer building a hibernating chamber of soft grasses.

Each squirrel's elaborate network of tunnels includes a football-shaped sleeping chamber - called a hibernaculum - that is well-furnished with dried grass. The bedroom design usually includes a drain hole or two below the bed, which prevents flooding during spring snowmelt.
Nursing ground squirrel
(c) John Ashley
Youngster nursing

Each female gives birth to 2-5 hairless babies in early summer. They can walk and climb at about two weeks and are weaned at one month. But the youngsters will spend the first winter in their mother's tunnel, sleeping in their own chambers that are built close to mom's.

These small, one-pound squirrels only live in the northwestern third of Montana. Their relatively small range also includes parts of Alberta, British Columbia, Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Here at the end of the road, we finally put in our own grassy lawn last September after the squirrels had dissappeared. This spring, we reached a truce with two squirrels who moved in. As a reward, this summer we're watching their youngsters wrestle and play and learn how to be ground squirrels.

Wrestling Columbian ground squirrels
(c) John Ashley
Young Columbia ground squirrels play wrestle