Monday, November 24, 2008
Along with the shortening days there coincides a dramatic decrease in the number of active ground squirrels (Spermophillus beechii) on our property. This is a very good thing. Biological clocks being what they are, about this time of year the ground squirrels snuggle down in their subterranean burrows for a winter hibernation period. However, as I rode Gemma, my four year old Dutch horse today, I heard their chirping calls cascading back and forth across the southern fence line. I am guessing all their shouting was related to a last ditch foraging expedition to gather food tidbits. They were probably saying, "Over here, seeds over here, NO dumb ass, don't go that way, seeds over here..."
My neighbors let the ground squirrels run rampant on their side of the fence. Occasionally, I see a grand daddy ground squirrel who looks like he could take out one of my cats or chew off my foot, take your pick. These rodents have a hidden fortress beneath a brush pile the size of a large military tank which provides them almost unlimited protection from predators. Bin Laden may be in there too for all we know. There are back doors, front doors, sideways escape shoots and probably elevators in their compound beneath the sticks. They probably get better dish reception than me. In other words they are thriving. BUT, the dirty truth be told, on our property we trap and exterminate about 50 ground squirrels a year to control their population. Sounds harsh, I know, but if there was a better balance between the number of predators and prey, we would not have to do this. The few we euthanize hardly puts a damper on their population; it just keeps them from making Swiss cheese of my pastures.
In my relationship with ground squirrels I am like a paranoid schizophrenic serial killer on Ecstasy. I really love you but must kill you. You are extremely cute but must die. There are times when I coo and admire their big dark, liquid eyes and adorable little faces, their dainty little paws, and the way they stand up on their haunches doing reconnaissance around their domain. I have been known to make cute and fuzzy noises in seeing their little family units working together when spreading out in the grasslands. All these quaint qualities are appreciated by yours truly when they are on the NEIGHBORS property, not on mine.
When I see them scurry along the railroad ties bordering my arena in route to their favorite digging spots, I mumble low cursings, which should be basically inaudible to my children, "Little no good bastards, little bleepity, bleep, bleeping, bleepers, etc...." But then Wyatt, hearing only those things that he wants to, will ask me what I am saying. Then I have to make up something so that he doesn't think mommy is crazy-talking to voices in her head. So, I gently explain that the ground squirrels are very, very naughty because they dig so many holes, and we will have to start trapping them even though I like them so much.
Every summer new litters of babies come exploring at our house and attempt to set up colonies within our property boundary. I simply can not let this happen. When the juveniles come and dig like a CAT excavator at the base of my walnut tree, I start to freak out and know it is time for some heads to roll. That is when the steel cage trap is baited for a non refundable boarding pass to vulture snack time. After the ground squirrels enter the trap they are shot by my sister-in-law, Suzi,who has become quite proficient with a 22. Yes, I have avoided the dirty work here... Thank you Suzi for your pioneer-like pragmatism. Then the carcasses are placed on our west property line where the beautiful, magnificent turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) sniff them out for a fine dining experience. FYI: If you did not know, turkey vultures primarily smell their food rotting while gliding on the thermals above. Then they circle it and come down for a feast. I marvel that there have been times when as many as 13 birds were lined up for the buffet.
Photo Credit: Ron Wolf. Photo Credit: Joyce Gross
Now everyone don't start "hatin" on me over this and attack me like a frenzied pit bull. What we do is totally legal and we use a humane method for extermination. No painful poisons or vice-like traps which result in slow tedious deaths. The way we trap and dispatch is about as nice as it can be done. I rationalize this under the following defense:
1. By definition, ground squirrels are fossorial and dig hundreds of holes in the ground where they live. They can not be stopped from digging. These holes are a one way ticket to a broken leg for my not so inexpensive equine friends.
2. Secondly, they destroy the foundation of my riding arena. Again hole in arena base equals glue factory for my horse.
3. Lastly, they make a huge mess with their tailings, and I have enough trouble maintaining what little landscape aesthetics we have on our property. Thus, this dirty deed must be done.
My ambivalent feelings about the ground squirrels are complex since these rodents play a critical role in annual grassland habitats across the western U.S. In addition to their attractive physical attributes, they are a feed source for predator species such as coyotes, numerous raptors, and reptiles (snakes in particular). They dig holes in the ground providing refuge sites for insects, amphibians (toads, salamanders, and frogs), reptiles, and burrowing owls (this includes several Federally listed species such as the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense). And as thus, they are an integral part of the natural ecosystems. It is just too bad that I can not let nature run its course and we have to "manage" our situation. We all leave a footprint in some way on environment and this is one of my unfortunate and not so guilt free paw prints.