Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the ground squirrel is? Well, by mid-April or early May, these indicators of Yukon spring will be everywhere - along the roadsides, standing straight up watching and talking. Most people call them gophers and that's OK, but they really are squirrels.
You'll be happy to see them too, because they have been well hidden in their burrows under the deep snow since mid-September. Ground squirrels live all over the Yukon, from southern meadows to the Arctic coastal plain and from sea level to above 2000 meters - or 6000 feet. They like ground that has sandy soil because it makes digging easy and quickly drains spring flood waters and the heavy summer rain.
The ground squirrel is built for life close to the land, with stubby legs and powerful claws which makes them natural diggers. These digs or burrows are their colonies, where the dominant male controls the territory.
A colony's burrow may have fifty entrances and a maze of tunnels that are used year after year. In winter, arctic ground squirrels go into deep hibernation and their body temperature falls to near 0°C.
They are the only mammals known to allow their body temperatures to drop below freezing. By super cooling in hibernation, they save lots of energy needed for the long winter snooze and early spring romps when food is scarce.
In the spring mating season, encounters between males gets downright nasty and can turn into a boundary brawl. The fighters roll around in a ball and sometimes can be hurt quite badly. The winner earns the right to mate with the females residing in their hard-won space. Females come out one to two weeks after males do, and are ready to mate within a few days.
The young are tiny, but grow up fast. At twenty days, their eyes are open. Soon after, the young squirrels make their outside debut.
Female Arctic ground squirrels produce a single litter of five to ten young each year. To protect their offspring, mothers move them to different burrows and forcefully defend them from marauding predators, including strange squirrels. A Yukon study proved that male intruders from other colonies sometimes kill the young.
If a coyote comes by, the ground squirrel exhibits its native name by chattering "sik-sik-sik".
They often sit on rocks or brush piles, always on the lookout. So keep an eye out for them, and take some time to enjoy their antics. They are a hoot to watch as one of the Yukon's natural summer treasures.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Yukon Flying Squirrel