Not a title I’d ever believed in a millions years that I would write, but I couldn’t think of a better one. A week or so ago I was passing through Selah, WA and stopped at a rest area on Interstate 82 just outside of Yakima and within the circle formed by the exit ramp and on-ramp, I heard a series of sharp barks. I got out of the car just in time to see what looked like a prairie dog dart into a hole in the ground. Then the stalking and waiting began.
Townsend’s Ground Squirrel (Urocitellus townsendii)
Within about ten minutes I saw a number of individuals poking their heads out momentarily followed by a chorus of squeaky barks. Totally perplexed and unable to get a clean shot, I went back to my car and remembered my field guides I had in my backpack. I didn’t remember there being any reported prairie dogs this far west, but I’ve been surprised before so after a couple of minutes, I found what they were – Townsend’s ground squirrels (Urocitellus townsendii) which is strange because of the number of ground squirrel posts I’ve done on this blog over the past few years and I’d never even heard of them before. But there they were, the Pacific Northwest’s smallest species of ground squirrel, and also the plainest in regards to having no stripes, no interesting color or particular characteristics which make them special – besides being incredibly cute. And I’m the type who sees rodents in this ecological niche as necessary and valuable as food source for higher carnivores, not the sappy sentimental type who personifies wildlife with human attributes.
Then I learned something that is especially peculiar about them. They have unbelievably long hibernation periods. They can literally hibernate up to eight months! A little shorter for warmer, wet periods or longer for colder, dry periods. This means that most of their lives they are deeply asleep in their underground burrows, followed by a quick summer of breeding and eating as much as they can while avoiding hawks, falcons, coyotes, rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, crows and other predators. Furthermore, because of human encroachment and development, they are now listed as a vulnerable species (the lightest level on the threatened status scale).
As I was driving up to the on-ramp to get back on the Interstate, they didn’t seem to see me in the car so I pulled over and ran off a few shots from behind the wheel, which were successful. Click on either image to enlarge.
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