Saturday, February 03, 2018


Columbian ground squirrel in Glacier National Park

The day after Ground Hog’s Day is not that different from the actual day itself except that here the temp dropped like a rock in fifteen minutes from above freezing to zero.  We’re used to it, but wet calves will stick to the ground.  Inventors have designed heated boxes on wheels to warm them for a while.  Once we visited Florence Parsons about this time of year and were amused to see half-a-dozen calves in gunny sacks with their heads sticking out, all propped along the walls of her kitchen.  They couldn’t walk around, but they made a lot of noise.  Florence was not amused.

We don’t have “ground hogs” here, but they are a kind of marmot and we do have those, usually associated with big piles of boulders rather than holes in the ground.  Roughly related are ground squirrels, which we call “gophers” (they are really Richardson’s Ground Squirrels) and “red-nosed gophers” (which are Columbian ground squirrels and usually live at higher altitudes).  When the Big Flood came through, a lot of the Columbian ground squirrels got washed down onto the flat.  They say that they were seen galloping back uphill to their normal habitat.  I never witnessed that, but I imagine it as a group effort, like a marathon race.  Maybe with little numbers on their backs.

Sir John Richardson, Scotsman

The Richardson in question was Sir John Richardson (5 November 1787 – 5 June 1865), a Scottish naval surgeon, naturalist and arctic explorer.  He and Franklin were explorers who, like Lewis and Clark, trekked across northern Canada before it was “Canada”, using the fur-trapping trails and writing large compendiums when they got home.  They extended their work out across the seas and Richardson helped search for John Franklin when his ship went missing, lost forever though the crew resorted to eating their boots and each other.

Columbian or "red-nosed" ground squirrel

The Columbian ground squirrels were first described by the American expedition of Lewis and Clark.  They speak of the animals’ noses as “rufous” or “bronze”, not quite like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.

Residing in mountainous terrain and high plains in northern latitudes, they hibernate most of the year in underground burrows, which may be used for many years.”  C. Hart Merriam, writing in 1891, documented reports of the Columbian ground squirrel's behavior provided by local observers in Idaho. If disturbed while out of the burrow, the squirrels stood at attention, watching while approached to within a few yards, then raced for the burrow entrance, making squeaks and whistles. Locals called them "Seven sleepers", because they stayed underground for about seven months of the year.  They’re also called “flicker tails.”

Because these ground squirrels, which enjoyed plowed ground and seedy crops, were considered agricultural pests, there was a bounty — not on their heads but on their tails, which boys attached to each other in long strings.  Wallace Stegner wrote about his accumulation of potential fortune, which he kept under his bed until his mother detected the stink.

I have considerable experience with “gophers” because we kept a “pet” eagle and several confined foxes and bobcats through the Sixties and that meant shooting the day’s meat in the fields around Browning every morning.  In my animal control days in Portland, where as sheriff’s deputies we were required to qualify on a rifle range, I got better scores than anyone else except a veteran Vietnam sniper.

Richardson's ground squirrel acting fierce

Some naturalists treated ground squirrels with flea powder, which improved their health, but that was not the goal.  Rather they were after the insect carriers of Rocky Mountain Fever, which were predators bugging the little animals.  The squirrels are thought to possibly kill and eat smaller rodents, and have been seen committing cannibalism, esp. of juveniles.

“Predators of the Colombian ground squirrel include the brown bear (Ursus arctos), coyote (Canis latrans), American marten (Martes americana), American badger (Taxidea taxus), weasels (Mustela sp), and mountain lion (Felis concolor). Predatory birds include the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)."   

Richardson's ground squirrel used to be killed on the highways in considerable numbers, which meant seeing a lot of hawks, and also meant that we could pick them up in quantity to freeze for winter.  Poison put an end to that.  The ecological consequences are detectable, for instance soil compaction and reduced ground water that used to run down the burrows.

“The Asia Minor ground squirrel (Spermophilus xanthoprymnus), or Anatolian souslik, is a species of rodent in the family Sciuridae. It is found in Armenia, Iran, and Turkey. The scientific name roughly translates as "seed-lover with yellow underparts".  There's also an arctic ground squirrel that is bigger than a Columbian.

“Fossils of Asia Minor ground squirrels are known from the early Pleistocene, and include some specimens from as far west as Chios,[a Greek island] suggesting that the species formerly had a wider distribution than it does today.

“Biochemical studies indicate that the species diverged from the common ancestor of the European souslik and the Taurus ground squirrel, its closest living relatives, around five million years ago. This coincides with the formation of the Bosporus, and the subsequent separation of Anatolia from Europe, during the late Miocene. During the last Ice Age, they may have survived in small mountain refugia in the Anatolian region.”

I learned (sort of) two new words in doing this research:  “The Holarctic is the name for the biogeographic realm that encompasses the majority of habitats found throughout the northern continents of the world.”  Actually, according to the map with the definition, it’s the whole northern hemisphere, much bigger than "circumpolar."  The other was “fallfield” which I imagine from context (a place where ground squirrels live) is maybe where avalanches have ended up.  Not even my “Dictionary of Geological Terms” listed it.

I also finally realized that C. Hart Merriam was not a Montana person, but rather one of those 19th century relentless explorer/scientists who followed Lewis and Clark across the prairies.  I had confused C. Hart with H.G. Merriam, a Missoula professor, writer, historian and editor of “Frontier,” the first literary magazine in the Rocky Mountains.  (His widow was a member of the Missoula UU congregation when I served there.)

So my version of Ground Hog’s Day is not repetition except for repeat patterns as life spreads out across the land, seeking niches and sometime snoozing underground, maybe a “literary” underground.  Sometimes eating each other and sometimes displaced from their homes.  It’s not one big fat groundhog with a formal Christian name, but rather a fecund and multiple cloud of little ground hogs, with many nicknames.  Like days.

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