Visitors of Putah Creek often keep their eyes to the sky and the tree canopy to search for soaring and perching birds or to the water to find splashing fish. To find this furry friend, you must look to the ground. The California ground squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi, is a commonly found and easily observed rodent. While they can be mistaken for a tree squirrel after a quick glance, California ground squirrels have a short tail that is less bushy than a tree squirrel’s tail. Their coarse fur is a mixture of gray, light brown and dusky hairs, with their underside being a lighter duffy color.
California ground squirrels are of course found in California, but can also be found across the western United States and the Baja California Peninsula. Their range has also recently expanded into Washington and northwest Nevada. While their range is quite expansive, colonies do not roam far. Most of the California ground squirrel’s time is spent within 25 meters of their burrow and they rarely venture further than 50 meters from it. California ground squirrels live in open, well-drained habitat, where they live in excavated underground burrows. They are social animals that can live in groups in the same burrow. While they do live communally, each individual will have their own entrance to their shared burrow. California ground squirrels help with soil aeration when they dig burrows and also help create habitat for reptiles and other rodents, who also use their burrows for shelter.
For the California ground squirrels that live in the colder parts of their range, they will hibernate for several months of the year to escape the snow. In areas where their habitat is particularly hot, California ground squirrels will estivate, or pass their time in a state of dormancy, for several days at a time. All other California ground squirrels are active year round.
California ground squirrels are herbivores and their diet mainly consists of seeds, grains, nuts, fruits, and sometimes roots. Like other ground squirrels, California ground squirrels have cheek pouches which they use to carry food to their burrows. California ground squirrels are one of the only animals that can eat the large seeds of the California buckeye. These animals are also an important source of prey for raptors, large mammals, and snakes. One way California ground squirrels deter predation is by chewing on the shed of rattlesnakes and licking themselves and their pups. By doing so, they can mask their scent and confuse predators. California ground squirrels are also extremely vigilant and will devote a significant amount of time to being alert and searching for predators. The next time you visit Putah Creek, watch your step when walking beneath a twisting buckeye. You’re in California ground squirrel country!