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Columbian Ground Squirrels and Their Life in Manning Park, BC

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

A close-up photo of a Columbian ground squirrel

A close-up photo of a Columbian ground squirrel

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 Provincial 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 animals live in colonies and build an extensive burrow system. Their chirping calls at their burrow entrances and their cautious explorations beyond the burrows are very entertaining to observe. The Manning Park ground 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 Columbian 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.

Location of Manning Park in British Columbia

Location of Manning Park in British Columbia

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 and cabins, a restaurant, and a store. In winter, the resort becomes a ski resort; in summer it's a base for walkers, hikers, kayakers, and canoeists. The park also contains multiple campsites run by the provincial government. The accommodations occupy only a small area of Manning Park. Most of the park is still in its natural state and is forested. Trails enable people to explore the different habitats.

A 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.

Part of Lightning Lake in Manning Park

Part of Lightning Lake in Manning Park

How to Identify a Columbian Ground Squirrel

The Columbian ground squirrel is often a 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 chest and belly are generally reddish tan or orange yellow. Some individuals have a paler undersurface. The animals often have a light ring around each of their eyes.

The head and body of an adult 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.

A Columbian ground squirrel in the Roger's Pass  area of Glacier National Park, British Columbia

A Columbian ground squirrel in the Roger's Pass area of Glacier National Park, British Columbia

Burrows

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 a safe 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 ground squirrel is eaten by many animals, including mammals such as bears, lynx, coyotes, and badgers and birds such as eagles and hawks.

The animals are territorial, but within their colony they are quite social. In an interesting greeting behaviour that has captured people's imagination, ground squirrels meeting near a burrow often rub their muzzles together. The action may give the impression that 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.

Diet and Feeding

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 ground squirrels live near an area frequented by the public, some people are tempted to offer them food, which they may take. The animals 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 (a period of receptivity to the males), they emit an odour that attracts the males and leads to mating. Gestation lasts for about 24 days.

A litter often contains three to five youngsters, but the number is quite variable. Females living at lower elevations tend to have larger litters than those living at higher ones. 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.

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 animal's population isn't in danger at the moment. There is some concern that the poisoning campaigns used to remove the animals from certain areas may be having an effect on their population, though.

A ground squirrel beside the Lightning Lake parking lot in Manning Park

A ground squirrel beside the Lightning Lake parking lot in Manning Park

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.

Hibernation

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 front paws 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 animals. Having lots of routes to an underground burrow is very important in order for a ground 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.

A ground squirrel beside the Lightning Lake day use parking lot

A ground squirrel beside the Lightning Lake day use parking lot

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 animals 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.

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.

A scene in the park

A scene in the park

Travelling to 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 and is regularly cleared of snow in winter. Snow tires in good condition are required for a winter trip. 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 Manning Park. Unfortunately, the company recently ceased operations in British Columbia. Other major bus lines have filled some of the gaps, but not the journey to Manning Park. Two options are available for people who want to travel to the park by bus, however.

According to the resort's website, one individual has established a bus route from Vancouver to Manning Park on weekends. He drives his 22-seat bus to the park (and other locations on the route) on Sundays and away from the park on Saturdays. The service may become more frequent if the ridership increases. The service has been approved by the BC Passenger Transportation Board. The resort's website provides a link to the driver's website. The only other 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.

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.

A Beautiful Park and Interesting Animals

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.

References

  • Columbian ground squirrel features and behaviour 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 (a provincial government website)

© 2014 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 22, 2014:

Thank you very much for the comment and all the votes, Prasetio! I appreciate your visit.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on December 22, 2014:

Hi, Alicia. Nice to see you with great information about the Colombian ground squirrel. Very well written and I love the pictures as well. It looks cute animal. I remember "Alvin and the chipmunks". Thanks for writing and sharing with us. Vote up (useful, interesting, beautiful and awesome).

Prasetio

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2014:

Hi, Dianna. Thank you for the comment. I think that some ground squirrels look sweet, too!

Dianna Mendez on December 21, 2014:

I am not a fan of squirrels but I found your article very interesting. I did not think squirrels could hibernate, guess it makes sense for this small critter. Thanks again for the education. The first photo is quite sweet.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2014:

Hi, ignugent17. Thank you for the visit and the comment!

ignugent17 on December 21, 2014:

I know there are white, red and gray squirrels but I did not know that there are also Columbian ground squirrels. I always thought they make their nest on trees. Thanks for the information. :-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 18, 2014:

Hi, vespawoolf. Thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience. Ground squirrels are very interesting animals to watch!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on December 18, 2014:

I enjoyed your informative article on ground squirrels. We watched a family of them every morning and evening when vacationing in Purgatory, CO. The Columbian ground squirrels look smaller and more fit than the ground squirrels of CO. I noticed their alarm system when anyone was near, as the parents would warn the youngsters. It´s too bad their burrows can be a hazard for humans who walk on them. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 16, 2014:

Hi, Ann1Az2. It is unfortunate when animals become pests or interfere with human aims. Poisoning is a horrible way to get rid of them. Thanks for the comment and the vote.

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on December 16, 2014:

These little guys do remind me of prairie dogs. They sure are cute. I can see where they would become pests in a crop area. It seems drastic to put out poison, though. Why does man continually have to be cruel?

Well done and voted up. I enjoyed the little video with the song.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 16, 2014:

Thank you very much, Vellur. As always, I appreciate your visit and votes.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on December 16, 2014:

Great hub about the Colombian Ground Squirrel. Interesting and informative article. The resort seems to be a great place, voted up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 09, 2014:

Thank you, MsDora. I appreciate your comment and vote. Manning Park is appealing. It's definitely worth visiting the park!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 09, 2014:

Manning Park seems quite appealing with its lakes and mammals. Thanks for all this interesting information and pictures of the very sophisticated-looking ground squirrel. Voted Up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 09, 2014:

Thank you very much for the comment, Flourish. Yes, describing prairie dogs as cousins of the Columbian ground squirrel is very apt! All the animals are in the same family and tribe. Prairie dogs belong to the genus Cynomys, however, while the Columbian ground squirrel belongs to the genus Spermophilus (or Urocitellus, according to the opinions of some scientists).

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 09, 2014:

Such a cute animal. I wonder if it's cousins to the prairie dogs. I hope the humans can let them co-exist. They're just doing what little Columbian Ground Squirrels do. Great hub, as always, Linda!

muhammad abdullah javed on December 08, 2014:

You are most welcome. Take care.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 08, 2014:

Thank you for the vote and for the kind and interesting comment, m abdullah javed. I love your second paragraph, which is very thought provoking!

muhammad abdullah javed on December 08, 2014:

Hi AliciaC. I admire you have keenly observed the cute creature. Very interesting, dealing with precise details about small creatures is considered a valued study. Pics are attractive. Thanks for sharing voted up.

I always think, what if we were destined with a responsibility to provide food and shelter for these creatures? Thank God all these animals strive on their own to fulfill there needs, they just need a gentle care and concern from us, that's all. The animals like this communicate a lively message that dynamism is life.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

Thank you so much for such a lovely comment, Venkatachari M. I appreciate your visit and your votes a great deal.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on December 07, 2014:

Very great hub. It is so interesting to watch the cute squirrels and learn about their life. Wonderful presentation of a very simple thing so beautifully. I watch squirrels very often and like them.

Thanks for sharing such beautiful information. Voted up, beautiful and interesting.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

I love your comment, Lisa. It's very nice to hear that an article brought a smile to someone's face! Thank you for the visit.

Lisa VanVorst from New Jersey on December 07, 2014:

What an interesting narrative of the Colombian Squirrels. They are adorable and the area they live in is so beautiful. The videos were great. Reading this hub brought a smile to my face. Nice Hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

I know what you mean about a love-hate relationship with squirrels, Maren Morgan! I love watching both ground squirrels and tree squirrels, but when they cause problems they can be very annoying. Thanks for the visit.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on December 07, 2014:

Wow - some of those photos show very long (to me) facial fur. I have a love-hate relationship with our squirrels. I love them until they start digging in my gardens. Then they become "undesirables"..hahaha.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

Hi, Mel. It is interesting how some ground squirrels make sure that they benefit from human activity! You're right - members of the genus Spermophilus are classified differently from tree squirrels. Thank you very much for the comment.

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on December 07, 2014:

We have our own resident form of ground squirrels here in the San Diego city limits, but I am not sure what species they are. They seem to be highly adapted to human habitation and build their burrows close to where people are, probably with the idea of stealing handouts. I am amazed by the tenacity and intelligence of squirrels in general, although I don't believe the spermophile ground squirrels are true squirrels, if I'm not mistaken. Great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

Thanks, Bill. I appreciate your visit and comment, as always.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 07, 2014:

Your articles are always interesting and filled with information. Love this little critter. Thanks for the education.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

Hi, Devika. Thanks for the comment and the votes. I agree with you - squirrels are interesting!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2014:

Hi, Bill. Yes, ground squirrels do build burrows. I think the word "squirrel" in their name confuses people! Thanks for the comment. I hope you have a great day, too.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 07, 2014:

I like squirrels. We picked most of the walnuts for the end of season and had left some for the squirrels. I had watched them pick the nuts and run off to store in their secret places their homes. I found their behavior very interesting. Voted up, interesting, useful.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on December 07, 2014:

Hi Linda. What an interesting little creature. I wasn't aware that there was a burrowing squirrel species? They do remind me of a meerkat or a praise dog. Would love to see them in action someday. Great hub with great info on the area. Have agreat day.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Hi, Arachnea. Prairie dogs are related to the Columbian ground squirrel, but they are different animals with different scientific names. I think that all ground squirrels are interesting, though! Thanks for the visit.

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on December 06, 2014:

Oh, these look like prairie dogs. I wonder if there aren't different names for prairie dogs depending on the region in which they're found.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Hi, ologsinquito. I think the squirrels are cute, too! They are a bit like prairie dogs. Thanks for the comment.

ologsinquito from USA on December 06, 2014:

These squirrels sure are cute. They remind me a little of Prairie dogs.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Yes, you've raised a good point, Faith.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on December 06, 2014:

Yes, it was very strange and a bit disturbing, but being they did not think of smoking inside their home as dangerous to themselves or their children, so ... back then the true dangers of smoking was not known as it is nowadays.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Hi again, Faith. Thanks for sharing another interesting story! Stories like the one that you've shared are certainly interesting, but they are also strange, as you say, and a bit worrying. It's sad that your friend's pet squirrel was exposed to potentially dangerous substances.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on December 06, 2014:

Oh, I was just reminded of a childhood friend of mine, who actually had a pet squirrel in their home! I was a bit intimated by it, but when you entered their home, it would hop on your shoulder. It never bit anyone, but another thing that was not good at all, was that the squirrel would pick up her parent's cigarettes (after they left them in the ashtray lit) and put them in its mouth, as if it were smoking! This was way back in the early 60s or 70s. So strange ...

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Thanks for the interesting comment, Faith. I appreciate the votes and the shares very much! I think that both ground squirrels and tree squirrels are interesting animals. They can sometimes be very bold. I've never had one enter my home, though!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on December 06, 2014:

Aw, such a cute little creature, the Columbian ground squirrel. I love their coloring. The squirrels we have here are mostly grey in color. It would be fascinating to watch them in that park there. I do hope people keep in mind that they are wild animals and are not tempted to feed them by hand. Maybe the park officials could put up signs to make people aware of such ... that it is not good for the squirrels to stray from their natural diet

When my husband was in the Air Force way back when we were first married, we lived in a small efficiently courtyard apartment in Tampa, Florida. I guess the squirrels were used to having people feed them there, as we opened our apartment door and one just came right in. He was so friendly and I think we found some nuts to feed him or her. We had taken a photo of our so-called pet and still have it. Little did we realize he was actually a wild animal. We were certainly young and dumb then : ) Sorry, my comment posted twice, so I deleted one.

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