What’s eating our research?
June 10, 2015
Also known as a natural history of the ground squirrel:
Upon visiting our newly planted fields of research corn, we encountered something a little peculiar with the young sprouts. Our four inch corn was systematically dug out of the soil with the remainder of the plant lying next to a careful hole. We investigated, discussed, took pictures and with some sleuthing and conversation we determined that our culprit must be the thirteen lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus) also called “striped gophers,” “gophers,” “thirteen-liners,” and “striped ground squirrels.” They are identified by the 13 stripes that run down the length of their back with a tan underside, and are typically about 10 inches long with a not-so-bushy tail of about 3 inches. They remind me of a large chipmunk and are easily confused, but “thirteen-liners” are in fact members of the squirrel family which includes prairie dogs, woodchucks, tree and ground squirrels, and the smallest member of the family, the chipmunk. While thirteen lined ground squirrels have a common name of “striped gophers,” it is interesting to know that true pocket gophers are in a different family. “Thirteen liners” are native to the grass, prairie lands in North America’s Great Plains and used to be limited to that area, now they extend to central Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in the north all the way to Texas and New Mexico in the south, and from central Ohio in the east to Colorado in the west. There are also a few colonies, limited to one county in Western Pennsylvania, where the thirteen lined striped ground squirrel was introduced in 1919.
Like everything in life there is good and bad, right?
“Thirteen-liners” are beneficial because they feed on many undesirable weeds, weed seeds, crop-damaging insects. They are beneficial because their digging behavior may actually improve aeration in the soil and soil quality. They are an important piece of the food chain for coyotes, hawks, snakes, badgers, and weasels – and hey, if the weasels are fed then maybe they’ll stay away from our chickens, which is certainly a benefit. And of course they are cute, their markings are certainly attractive and the way they stand up and poke their head around can be quite amusing, if they don’t irk you too much.
On the flip side they rip our corn out of the ground. Since we are planting for research, we are planting a mere 5,000 selections of corn and if they pull out 20 or 30 plants to eat the tasty seeds that are still attached below, they can essentially eliminate a variety or corn. In Nebraska alone, it is estimated that thirteen-lined ground squirrels can cause $2 million damage to corn fields each year by uprooting young corn plants. They can dig up newly planted seeds, clip emerging plant shoots, and pull over wheat, barley and oats to eat the grain. Often they find their way into the vegetable garden, damaging much more than they consume. I even found one in my home stashing various seeds in little corners of the house and causing a general ruckus.
Since we are certified organic, rodenticides and fumigation are not an option as a method of pest control for us. We can however use various types of traps and hope that the coyotes and birds of prey are able to catch their fair share of these cute yet pesky critters.