Saturday, June 15, 2019

A California Ground Squirrel Family Experiencing the "Trials of Life"

It's now June 15th and all has settled down, but a week ago or so there was high drama surrounding a mother California Ground Squirrel and her offspring who live among the boulders outside the house, in perfect view from the living room window.

Around June 1st, we first noticed some very young ground squirrels tentatively venturing from a hole at the base of some rocks to the south of the house. We could see them clearly from the upper storey, and I commented to Gary that it must be tough to live with the local snakes, which to them would seem like truly massive serpents. And then Gary said "Like that one?", and sure enough, there was a large Southern Pacific Rattlesnake gliding along, moving in the direction of the burrows. Within a couple minutes it had arrived and entered one of the burrows.

The mother squirrel, obvious from her enlarged nipples, vigorously tail-flagged (whipped her tail from side to side) to distract the snake, and possibly lure it towards her. Apparently California Ground Squirrels can direct warmth into the tail through shunting blood there, possibly to appear bigger, and I would postulate to attract a thermal-sensitive snake like a rattler. Research has shown that the squirrels do NOT direct warm blood to the tail when confronting a non-heat-sensitive snake species!

Eventually, but fairly soon, actually, after entering the burrow, the snake exited again. We assumed that it had not consumed any pups, as that is typically a fairly long process.

The mother squirrel was seen carrying some of her pups to the west, to another burrow, presumably. She carried it with the pup curled around her face, and completely immobile, unlike a dog or cat which would carry young by the scruff.

Mother squirrel with baby in characteristic curled posture.

The snake left the scene later and the family seemed to settle down.

This scenario played itself out for the next several days, with the snake visiting and the mother squirrel becoming highly agitated, tail-flagging and sometimes relocating her pups.

The "regular" Southern Pacific Rattlesnake leaving the squirrels' "favored" burrow.

The mother tail-flagging from atop a boulder.

One time we thought we might have seen five pups, but the fifth is uncertain. We did see four pups repeatedly, though, and that remained constant as the days passed. The snake never seemed to really get a meal from among the young squirrels. One day, TWO rattlesnakes showed up, each one disappearing down a burrow! The number of pups still remained at four (which is a small litter, as this species goes, and may reflect earlier losses that we did not observe). In between snake visitations, the squirrels were highly photogenic and often could be photographed from the living room through the big window. Sometimes the pups would allow photos to be taken of them as I hunkered down on the concrete walkway around the house outside. First, a variety of images of the mother on the boulders. Flies seemed ubiquitous. She has an odd, almost shaved look about her "mantle", with the fur on her shoulders being shorter than that further down her back, creating a black line where the black bases of the hairs are visible. She is also "redder" in coloration than many ground squirrels of this species are.

A rare quiet moment for grooming.

With a fly on her head.

Here are some of the pups on June 1:

Tentatively emerging from the burrow.

The "bold baby". Still at quite a tender age.

The bold one, relaxing in the sun.

On June 2nd, when the snake was not present, the pups were becoming more bold and photogenic.

Two pups would often emerge, with the third being quite shy, and the fourth extremely shy. 

The "lineup"

Over the next couple days I was unable to photograph the family, but did see the snake visit each day.

On June 5, I was able to do some more photography. There was a snake visit, and I managed to capture the mother just a few inches from the head of the rattler, which is emerging from her favored burrow between the two bigger rocks.

The plants are irises given to us by a neighbor over ten years ago. I divided them for the first time this year.

In the afternoon, after the snake had departed, the pups and their mother spent some relaxed time on the rocks. There is one pup who seems a bit bolder than the rest, and that pup interacts with its mother quite a bit. Flies were still very numerous.

The "bold baby", looking like a baby (kittens and puppies strike this sort of pose sometimes too!).

The bold one and his (or her) mother. Note the flies.

This mother seems amazingly patient and tolerant of difficult circumstances. Now, after two weeks with her pups out of the nest, she is less patient with the young ones, and often rebuffs them when they sniff at her face. Eventually the males will leave the area, although the females may stay near their mother.

The pups were out on the rocks quite a bit and easily photographed through the glass of the window.

Here is the mother with her nipples visible. The pups tentatively ate grass, but I suspect they may still have been nursing.

On June 6th, the babies were active in the morning and allowed me to photograph them from the sidewalk. The "bold baby" spent some time by him or herself on one of the bigger boulders and struck some awfully cute poses. The pups seem to yawn and stretch quite a bit.

They also scratch quite a bit - they are attractive to flies, and likely have fleas.

The bold baby also climbed one of the small oaks near the boulders.

Only a couple days after these photos were taken the family seemed to disappear, but then reappeared again by the mother's favored burrows. As of the 15th they are still active outside our living room window and we have not seen a snake in quite a few days!

No comments:

Post a Comment