K-Country is home to 4 different varieties of ground squirrel. The primary two are Golden Mantled and Columbian Ground Squirrels. Richardson’s and Thirteen-Lined are the other two, but they can really only be found in the extreme eastern grassland areas of K-Country. The latter two are really more of a prairie species.
You notice Columbians a lot in the spring, when after up to 220 days of hibernation, the males emerge, filling up meadows. A great place to see them is Canmore; there’s dozens of them that hang around the gas stations on the west side of town, and near the western railway crossing on both sides of Bow Valley Trail.
Columbians live in colonies, with a dominant male typically in a burrow in the colony’s centre. Colony members share holes and interact with each other, including grooming behaviour. Research says they spend 50% of their awake time sitting upright, as in all of the photos. As noted, males emerge from dens first, and spend about 10 days fighting to gain mating rights. When the ladies wake up, the successful males mate, then 2-7 kits are born, popping into the open about 50 days after that, typically in early July. The young may not mate until they are 2 years old. They can live up to 13 years – if they aren’t predated first by birds, foxes, coyotes, bobcats or lynx, or even dug up by hungry Grizzlies.
Home sweet home
They can be found from valley bottoms all the way up to high alpine meadows.
Unlike the simple tunnel structure of the Golden Mantled guys, Columbians make pretty complex homes. The main entrance, always with a dirt mound to sit atop, angles down to about 1 m, then levels. Down a main chamber is the summer bedding chamber, which can be almost a meter in diameter. Other tunnels radiate outwards from this chamber, usually underlying their feeding areas. Some of these tunnels have more subtle emergency entrances. Late in the season, a small hibernation chamber is dug, and a drain sump is dug below that to remove any water. The hibernation chamber is lined with bedding and grass. Hibernation starts as early as August, depending on elevation. They are not true “hibernators”. During hibernation, they wake up regularly, at least every 19 days, to use the bathroom and eat some stored food. They never come above ground in the hibernation window.
They mostly eat grass, seeds and leaves, but will eat insects, and – each other. Dominant males will occasionally kill and eat juveniles, and there is some evidence they eat voles.
Columbians have a fairly detailed set of chirps, squeeks and shrieks. Some signal avian attackers, some ground based ones, and some are just to communicate back and forth. The can squeak like marmots, and it can be confusing in the high country to tell the two apart by sound alone. Colonies are quite good at kicking out unwanted members, and repelling “invading” Columbians from other colonies.
It’s never a good idea to touch wildlife (even the friendly ones who beg or hang in campgrounds), and these are no exception. They can easily carry fleas. According to Ben Gadd, Columbians have been responsible for occasional cases of bubonic plague in the Rockies. They also often have the wood ticks that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And they bite, resulting in many hospital visits.
Meet more of the critters of K-Country here!