SciSun: Yule Haul   Leave a comment

Santa’s coat never had a chance of making it through the winter. Intended as Christmas decorations for front porches and neighborhood parks, fur-wrapped Santas – as well as scarf-wearing plastic snowmen, plush stuffed reindeer and even the occasional fuzzy abominable snowman – have been found slowly plucked of their warm wrappings. As nights grow longer, temperatures become colder and snow begins to fall, throughout much of the southwestern US; areas normally with little vegetation and during winter, even less; holiday trimmings are not falling victim to an unknown case of Yuletide mange, but the work of small rodents – such as the Antelope Ground Squirrel (Ammospermophilus leucurus), who are collecting fur, string, yarn, and other scraps of soft, warm, and plush material to line their nests for the winter. And possibly add some season decoration inside their homes. There’s no place to hang a front door wreath, on a burrow.

While not related to the deer- like Antelope (which, isn’t a deer, either), the Antelope Squirrel; along with the other more than three dozen types of ground squirrels native to North America; are among the most widely-distributed, variously colored and patterned, and found in the most diverse environments of any other rodent genus. Ranging from just a few inches to over two feet long (Marmots!), various species of ground squirrel can be found living among rocks; in open fields; digging burrows in soft soil or packed dirt; in vacant lots or mountain meadows; and just about any place there’s enough space to fit into. Ranging from dusty brown to tan and gold to deep chocolate with black and white highlights (all natural – that’s the way it grows in!); the squirrels can also sport solid colors or stripes. Many of the smaller species, between six to eight inches long, are often confused with the Chipmunk (Tamias spp.). While somewhat difficult to tell apart, particularly as all rodents usually move quickly and always seem to have somewhere to go or something to do, chipmunks are often seen in trees while ground squirrels seldom leave the ground. A more reliable measure is to observe the dark and white stripes on both sides of their bodies; while found on both squirrels and chips, the stripes continue onto the head only on the chip, while the squirrels head is a solid color with fading color variations and usually a very lightly-colored ring, or eyespot, around each eye. Also, chipmunks are often chased by an angry duck.

Ground squirrel in snow

“It’s like, really cold out here. Are my teeth chattering?”

True omnivores, relying mostly on grass, seeds and other plant material, most ground squirrel species will happily eat insects, lizards, and for some, even gnaw on dead animals. Always ready to accept human left-overs (don’t feed the wildlife), ground squirrels can carry fleas which, themselves, could transmit the Bubonic Plague (Yersinia pestis), the same disease that killed 25 million Europeans in the mid 1300’s, the time known as the Black Death. While this can’t be blamed on ground squirrels (the fleas were probably spread by rats and humans themselves, who weren’t as clean then as most of us try to be now), there are still cases of the disease reported today. So while having a family of ground squirrels digging burrows under your house or taking food from your hand might be cute, there’s over 25 million reasons not to do that.

But the squirrels have to live somewhere, usually just, literally, a hole in the ground, and in the desert there’s very little soft grass or cushioning moss or comfortable left-over hair from other animals to make a home really feel like a home (Best: Bison fur. Worst: Cat hair-balls). Ground squirrels – or most all squirrels, for that matter – don’t truly hibernate (shelter underground for the entire winter, not eating nor drinking; the heart rate and other body functions slow to the point the animal could appear dead), most squirrels do take long naps to conserve their energy and avoid the harshest winter weather. When you’re only a few inches long with short hair, and the humans are nice enough to put out all those fuzzy and furry and fleecy things, just sitting there, at exactly the right time of the year when most squirrel thoughts turn not to holiday parties and gifts but to preparing a safe, comfortable burrow, it’s hard for a squirrel to resist helping herself to some free home improvement materials. And if in the process that makes our front-yard santas and reindeer and plush animals look a little threadbare, maybe that’s a way we, who have a lot, can give to those, who have a little.


Michonne Says: Marmots are the worlds largest squirrels! Sometimes I see the little squirrels and I think they must feel bad being so small and all, but they don’t seem to mind. Some of them have pretty stripes that might be nice to have, and it’s easier for them to hide when hawks come around. But that’s one good reason to be a squirrel, we come in all shapes and sizes. Just some of us are more naturally rounded than others.

Posted November 29, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in ECOVIA Central

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