Curious Nature: High Rockies home to many varieties of ground squirrel (column)
If you’ve attempted a picnic in Colorado, then you’ve probably learned it’s hard to find a spot where your picnic won’t be crashed by some of our local wildlife. These barbecue bandits emerge quietly and cautiously from under a pile of rocks or a small hole in the ground, slowly creeping over until they’re boldly sniffing around your shoes for spilled chips and cracker crumbs. Small, fluffy and charming, the ground squirrel family certainly has begging for food down to an art.
Despite living underground, these cookout crashers are part of an impressive family tree. Ground squirrels belong to a large subfamily within the squirrel family, but there are just a few we commonly run into in the high Rockies, and their antics are well known to long-term residents.
Sometimes mistaken as a wayward beaver high in the mountains, the yellow-bellied marmot is the largest member of the ground squirrel family living in the Rockies. When it comes to family, marmots are true experts. Living in colonies of up to 20 individuals, these large rodents have one another’s backs, with one keeping watch while the rest of the colony is gathering food or sunbathing. One of the most commonly recognized behaviors of the marmot is its distinct alarm call, a telltale whistle that has earned the species its nickname of “whistle pig.”
If you’ve grilled out at Sylvan Lake or walked the Beaver Creek Rodeo grounds, then you may have noticed the small, tan heads of Wyoming ground squirrels, often mistaken for prairie dogs, peeking out of an area peppered with holes. Wyoming ground squirrels are simple animals with a complex social system. With many predators such as snakes, coyotes, foxes and hawks, the Wyoming ground squirrels use alarm chirps to alert the colony of nearby threats so others know to retreat back to the burrow.
The two most commonly confused rodents in the Rockies are the chipmunk and the golden-mantled ground squirrel. Both bearing black and white stripes, chubby cheeks and a curious nature, these charismatic critters can be difficult to tell apart. Some telltale features to look for are size, as gold-mantled ground squirrels are larger than chipmunks, and stripe location.
In chipmunks, the black and white stripes continue up over the neck to create a “mask” over its face, while the gold-mantled ground squirrels’ stripes end right below their shoulders. The golden-mantled ground squirrels are some of the boldest critters in the area, with many tales of them crawling into lunch bags or trying to steal shoelaces; sometimes they’ll even sneak upstairs to the office space at Walking Mountains and leave scat surprises on staff members’ desks.
By this time, many of our ground squirrels have snuggled in to hibernate for the winter, but there may still be some “night-owls” out and about looking for some free handouts to top off their fat stores before tucking in. As adorable as they may be, any biologist or ranger you speak to will discourage you from feeding these creatures, no matter how many other visitors you may see doing it.
When animals become dependent on human handouts, they may lose their fear of humans or even become aggressive, which can become a safety risk to themselves and any humans they interact with. As is the case with most wildlife, ground squirrels are better off when you admire their natural behaviors without indulging them in their panhandling ways.
Haley Baker is a naturalist and sustainability intern at Walking Mountains Science Center. She is proud to say her desk has yet to be “scat” on by the resident golden-mantled ground squirrel.