The Columbian Ground Squirrel in Manning Park, British Columbia
An Engaging Animal
The Columbian ground squirrel is an engaging little animal that lives in North America. One of its Canadian habitats is E. C. Manning Park in British Columbia. The park is located in the southern interior portion of British Columbia. I live in BC and have enjoyed observing the ground squirrels in Manning Park for many years.
The Columbian ground squirrel lives in colonies and builds an extensive burrow system. The chirping calls of the animals at their burrow entrances and their cautious explorations beyond the burrows are very entertaining to observe. The Manning Park squirrels are often seen in the picnic area beside Lightning Lake, where there is sometimes a large concentration of the animals.
The scientific name of the ground squirrel is Spermophilus columbianus or Urocitellus columbianus. It's found in British Columbia and Alberta in Canada and in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in the United States.
E. C. Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia
E. C. Manning Park is a beautiful provincial park with an area of about 70,844 hectares. It's located in the Cascade Mountains in southern British Columbia close to the U.S. border. It's named after Ernest Calloway Manning, who was the First Forester of British Columbia from 1936 to 1941.
The park contains a resort with a lodge, cabins, restaurant, and store. In winter the resort becomes a ski resort; in summer it's a base for walkers, hikers, kayakers, and canoeists. The resort occupies only a small area of Manning Park, however. Most of the park is still in its natural state and is forested. Trails enable people to explore the different habitats in the park. The park contains both large and small campsites to accommodate visitors.
The Skagit River flows beside the highway that travels through the park. The highway is known as the Crowsnest Highway, or less attractively as Highway 3. Just south of the river is a chain of four lakes named Lightning Lake, Flash Lake, Strike Lake, and Thunder Lake. Lightning Lake is nearest to the highway and is the most accessible and popular of the four lakes. The large picnic and boat launch area beside the lake and the parking lot is one of the Columbian ground squirrel's favourite places for building its burrows.
How to Recognize a Columbian Ground Squirrel
The Columbian ground squirrel is often a richly colourful animal. The top of its head and its back are covered with a mixture of grey, black, brown, and white hairs. Its bushy tail usually has a similar colouration but has longer hairs. The animal's face and legs are a reddish tan colour. The contrast between the rusty patch above the animal's nose and its grey head is very noticeable. The squirrel's chest and belly are generally reddish tan or orange yellow. Some individuals have a paler undersurface, however. The squirrels have a light ring around each of their eyes.
The head and body of an adult squirrel is ten to twelve inches long. The tail adds extra inches to the length. Columbian ground squirrels may get quite heavy, but their weight is very variable. They are lightweights when they emerge from their burrow after their winter hibernation. They eat as much food as they can in the spring and summer and continuously gain weight as their body builds up its fat stores for the next hibernation. Females are at a disadvantage in this process because in the first part of the season they spend most of their time in a burrow taking care of their new litter. This is why females enter hibernation after the males. They need the extra time to build up sufficient fat to keep them alive while they hibernate.
Columbian ground squirrels are generally found in alpine and subalpine meadows and on grasslands at lower elevations. They live in colonies, which may be quite large, and build extensive burrows that become more complex over time. The animals are active during the day and sleep at night.
The burrows are not only a place to sleep and give birth to young; they are also a place of safety when the weather is too hot or too cold and a place to hide from predators. The squirrel is eaten by many animals, including mammals such as bears, lynx, coyotes, and badgers and birds such as eagles and hawks.
The squirrels are territorial, but within their colony they are quite social. In an interesting greeting behaviour that has captured people's imagination, squirrels meeting near a burrow often rub their muzzles together. They may look like they're kissing, but the animals are actually smelling secretions from each other's oral glands.
The video below was filmed at Glacier National Park in Montana, but it reminds me very much of the situation at Lightning Lake. It looks like the Montana squirrels have established their home beside a parking lot, too.
Columbian ground squirrels are primarily herbivorous animals, although they do eat some insects and carrion. The main components of their diet are berries, seeds, roots, bulbs, stems, leaves, and grass. The animals also eat remains of human food left near their burrows. Unfortunately, in some areas they build their burrows near cultivated land and feed on grain, becoming pests.
When the squirrels live near an area frequented by the public, some people are tempted to offer the animals food, which they may take. The squirrels even beg for food in some areas. Like any wild animal, though, they should follow their natural diet and shouldn't be fed by hand.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Females ovulate soon after they emerge from hibernation. As they enter estrus they emit an odour that attracts males and leads to mating. Gestation lasts for about 24 days. There are usually around three to five youngsters in a litter, but the number is quite variable. Females living at lower elevations tend to have larger litters than those living at higher elevations.
The youngsters are hairless and helpless at birth but develop rapidly. They are able to move by themselves at around two weeks of age. They nurse for around a month, however.
Males are reproductively mature at three years of age. Females can reproduce when they are two years old but are not fully grown for another year. The females tend to stay where they are born while the males tend to leave their birth colony to find another group of females.
In the wild, it's thought that many Columbian ground squirrels die before reproductive maturity or shortly afterwards. Being a popular prey animal makes life dangerous. However, the squirrel's population isn't in danger at the moment. There is some concern that the poisoning campaigns used to remove squirrels from certain areas may be having an effect on their population, though.
Hibernation allows animals to survive during winter when the environment no longer provides enough food to keep them alive. It enables the animals to expend much less energy than they would do if they were awake.
Columbian ground squirrels hibernate for a large part of the year. They emerge from hibernation in late March or in April, depending on the local climate. They return to hibernation in late July or in August, depending on the dryness of the local vegetation.
The chamber used for hibernation is called a hibernaculum and is specially prepared. It's created below the frost line and is lined with grass. Males emerge from hibernation a week or more before the females. This may make a critical difference in the amount of food available in the outside environment. Unlike females, males often deposit plant material in their hibernaculum before they enter hibernation so that they have something to eat when they awaken. The squirrels block the entrance to their hibernating chamber with soil once they're inside.
During hibernation, a ground squirrel's temperature drops significantly. Its heart and breathing rates decrease and the metabolic activities in its body are dramatically slowed. According to some sources, Columbian ground squirrels sleep throughout the winter without the brief periods of wakefulness that some hibernating animals experience. Other sources say that the animals do awake for short periods of time to eliminate the small amounts of waste that their body produces, however. It is agreed that the animals neither eat nor drink during their hibernation period.
Columbian Ground Squirrels at Lightning Lake
Columbian ground squirrels have established multiple burrows in the picnic area beside Lightning Lake. The antics of the animals are very entertaining to watch. They often partially emerge from a burrow entrance to survey their surroundings. They also stand upright at the entrance to their burrow to chirp at perceived threats or to eat, using their forepaws as hands to hold their food. The animal's call can be heard in the video above. When they leave their burrow, the squirrels hardly ever walk. Instead, they either move across the grass in a series of jerks or dart towards a source of food. Their behaviour provides some opportunities for great photos.
Unfortunately, the squirrels' extensive digging leaves the grass and earth riddled with holes, which means that people have to walk over the area with care. The main entrance to a burrow is large and noticeable, but there are also smaller entrances to the burrow which are easy to miss until you are top of them. These smaller, somewhat camouflaged holes act as an escape route for the squirrels. Having lots of routes to an underground burrow is very important in order for a squirrel to escape from a predator.
When I visited Lightning Lake a few years ago, I noticed that the burrow openings had been filled in and the squirrels had disappeared. I understood why the parks department had filled in the holes. They were becoming more and more numerous and were becoming a hazard for humans. Still, I missed the sound and sight of the squirrels. When I visited the park recently I discovered that the animals had returned, although their burrow system wasn't as extensive as before. It seems that they couldn't stay away from such prime real estate.
Ground Squirrels at the Manning Park Resort
Columbian ground squirrels are also easy to observe at the Manning Park Resort. This is another good area for their burrows (from their point of view), since there are lots of food tidbits available. The animals have become quite bold around people at the resort. Some squirrels will take food out of people's hand, a practice which is definitely not recommended. I've read more than one report saying that the animals will also climb into someone's bag that's been left on the ground to see what's inside.
The Pacific Crest Trail travels from Manning Park into the United States. It's very important that people in both Canada and the U.S. contact their customs agency about the rules for travelling along this trail if they want to move between countries.
Exploring the Park
The Manning Park website contains some useful information for people who would like to explore all four lakes in the Lightning Lakes chain. The lakes are connected by a walking trail. The trail is easy, apart from a few slightly tricky areas, but the walk is time consuming. Careful planning is necessary before starting a journey. It may be very tempting to continue along the trail after seeing Lightning Lake. The extension should be planned instead of being spontaneous, however.
Many other interesting sights exist in the park. Some require hikes in isolated areas, so explorers should always take suitable supplies with them and be aware of safety. They should also make sure that they are physically capable of the expedition. Research is important before travelling along a difficult or lengthy trail.
Visiting Manning Park
Manning Park is a three-hour-drive away from Vancouver, which is the biggest city in British Columbia. Vehicles should be able to travel along a mountain road in order to reach the park. The road is always in good condition in summer. It does climb, however. The nearest border crossing for visitors from the United States is the Sumas crossing located in Abbotsford.
A Greyhound bus used to travel from Vancouver to the Manning Park Lodge. Unfortunately, the company recently ceased operations in western Canada. Other bus lines have filled some of the gaps, but not the journey to Manning Park. According to the resort's website, the only option for people who want or need to travel to the park by bus is to hire a private shuttle bus in Vancouver. This might be cost-effective for a group of people.
According to the Manning Park Resort website, in summer the park contains 63 species of mammals and over 206 species of birds. It's a wonderful place to explore nature. The Columbian ground squirrels are a special treat for visitors. They are easy to find and fun to observe. The fact that they've established colonies in areas frequented by humans is potentially problematic, though. Hopefully humans and ground squirrels can continue to coexist in these areas.
- Columbian ground squirrel facts from NatureWorks (A Public Broadcasting System or PBS program)
- Information about the Columbian ground squirrel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Urocitellus columbianus entry from the Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
- Information about E. C. Manning Park from BC Parks
© 2014 Linda Crampton