Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Ground Squirrels and Gophers
Nature Bulletin No. 224-A   April 2, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

On sunny summer days, a dusty-colored animal with yellowish and brown stripes, about the size of a small rat, often may be noticed creeping through the grass of prairies, pastures, golf courses or lawns. Watch him. He pauses every few feet to sit up, look and listen for a moment. Nervous and timid, he crouches low at every distant sound or passing shadow. Startle him and he scurries away, and then may suddenly halt and freeze, bolt upright, as stiff and straight as a stake driven in the ground. If approached, he gives a loud shrill trilling whistle and, with a flip of his tail, pops out of sight. Watch that spot closely and, in less than a minute, a snaky head appears. Be quiet. He has many enemies above ground and he also has a lot of curiosity. Presently he sits up upon his haunches again.

You have been watching what is commonly called the Striped Gopher, more correctly named the Thirteen-striped Ground Squirrel, because of its six yellowish-white stripes alternating with seven brown ones, each of the latter being broken by a row of light spots. It is one of three burrowing rodents common in the prairie regions of the Central States. It digs tunnels, several feet long, that reach below the frost line in winter, but the small opening of the burrow is hidden in the grass and is not betrayed by any pile of earth because that is carried away, in their cheek pouches, and scattered.

Here, in early autumn, when they are very fat, they retire for the winter and hibernate until early April. During this winter sleep their body temperature falls to 40 or 45 Fahrenheit, their breathing almost stops, and their heart beat drops to about 5 per minute -- as compared with their summer normal rate of 200 to 350.

In addition to plant foods, a large part of their diet is grasshoppers, crickets, cutworms, beetles and other insects. One litter of 5 to 13 naked, helpless, blind young is born about June 1st.

The Franklin Ground Squirrel or Gray Gopher has almost the same habits as its 13-striped cousin. Its burrow openings are larger and the dirt is piled at the mouth, often in the middle of farmers' fields. In size and appearance it is considerably different, weighing about twice as much and being colored iron-gray or brownish all over. Its hair is coarse and grizzled and the tail is rather bushy, so that sometimes one is mistaken for the tree-dwelling gray squirrel. In addition to plants and insects they also eat a few small birds and mice. They, too, have only one litter of young each year, usually 4 to 8, about June 1st.

In contrast, the Pocket Gopher -- so called because it has a large fur- lined pouch on the outside of each cheek, in which it carries food -- seldom shows itself above ground and is active below ground, both day and night, throughout the year. About the size of a rat, it is dark brown above and lighter beneath, with strong forelegs and heavy claws for digging. The tail is short, hairless, and used as a guide when running backwards in the burrow. Its eyes and ears are very small, and its voice is a mere squeak.

The pocket gopher feeds on roots and bulbs which it gathers by tunneling through the soil, and upon green food about the holes. Large amounts are stored for future use. The actively used burrow of one gopher may be several hundred feet long, the earth being brought to the surface in many large loose piles, but the holes are carefully plugged to prevent the entrance of enemies such as mink, weasels and snakes. They usually have several litters, of 4 or 5 young, per year.

Any gopher born on April First is an April Fool.

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