Capturing the elusive thirteen-lined ground squirrels

“Go, go gophers, watch them go, go, go,” — W. Watts Biggers

At a recent late afternoon visit to the Marquette County Fair, I inadvertently found myself on an information quest after I saw a small animal skulking on the warm cement in the sunlight, outside the open door to the 4-H building.

I recognized the animal from pictures I’d seen in books as a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, but I couldn’t recall ever having seen one in “real life.”

As I grabbed my camera, the ground squirrel abruptly turned and ran out of the doorway. It then hurried along the foundation of another building, disappearing around a corner and into a burrow, dug into the sand at the edge of the building, but not before I was able to snap a few photos.

These animals resemble chipmunks, but they have 13 lines or stripes running down their bodies — seven dark and six that are light, some broken into dots.

John Pepin

By the next day, I was still wondering how I couldn’t remember ever having seen one of these creatures before. I asked a couple of friends whether they’d seen one before.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “Thirteen-lined ground squirrel?”

Them: “What the hell is that?”

Doing some reading and asking around, I discovered these ground squirrels are widespread across the long- and short-grass prairies of the U.S. and Canada.

They are sunshine-loving animals retiring to their underground burrows on dark and rainy days. They are omnivores that eat various seeds, flower heads, roots and vegetables and animals, including grasshoppers and baby birds, small cottontail rabbits and even their own young.

Because of their affinity for seeds and plants, and their propensity to dig, they are considered pests or a nuisance to some. Unlike other squirrels, they are not often hunted, except by animal predators, including birds and badgers.

They are on the list of species able to be harvested year-round, statewide, with a valid Michigan hunting license, like feral swine and pigeons, porcupines, weasels and starlings.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels stand at attention on their hind legs to look around in a pose called a “picket pin.” They move in a waddling fashion and rarely climb trees or drink water.

In Michigan, prior to settlement and the clearing of the state pine forests, they may have been found in the southwestern part of the state, favoring open, sandy or cultivated areas and grassy places, including lawns.

Once land was cleared by loggers and homesteaders in the 1800s, thirteen-lined ground squirrels expanded their range north.

In the Upper Peninsula, these ground squirrels arrived from Wisconsin, reaching the Michigan border during the early 1900s. After that, the species slowly widened its range, east and north.

Eventually, they were found in Menominee, Iron, Dickinson and Marquette counties and may be continuing their expansion in the region.

During fall and winter, beginning in late September, they retire to grass-lined burrows where they curl up and fall into a state of torpor, significantly dropping their heartbeat, temperature and breathing. They re-emerge in spring.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels dig extensive earthworks underground, from their grass-lined hibernation burrows to hiding burrows and those used for nesting.

In birdwatching, there is a phenomenon some call “Murphy’s Rule of Birding,” whereby if you’re trying hard to find a particular species, usually a rarity, you may miss seeing it for years by mere moments or miles.

However, once you find one, you start seeing them all over. This happened to me in southern California with Lewis’ woodpecker, a colorful crow-like woodpecker — named for famed explorer Meriwether Lewis — I sought for at least four years.

Then, at Malibu Creek State Park, where some of the characteristic scenes for the CBS television series “M*A*S*H” were filmed, we were just getting out of the car and I finally spotted one, sitting on top of a telephone pole.

By the end of our hike that day, I had seen 18.

There must be a similar rule for ground-dwelling mammals too.

On a visit to Van Riper State Park this past weekend, you’ll never guess what I saw when walking down to the beach from the parking lot?

A thirteen-lined ground squirrel caught my eye as it darted under a pine whose branches hung low to the ground. Within just a couple of weeks, having never seen one of these specimens before, I had now seen and photographed two.

These ground squirrels are known to some by other names. Elsewhere, they are called “stripers,” “thirteen-liners” or “gophers.”

They are sometimes referred to as “federation squirrels” because the pattern on their backs and sides resembles an American flag.

In Minnesota, they are the “Golden Gophers” the University of Minnesota adopted as its mascot. However, cheering for these seed-loving hibernators from the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is not to be confused with “Go, Go Gophers,” the classic 1960s animated television show.

In those cartoons, U.S. Cavalry Colonel Kit Coyote had an impossible time trying to run the last two surviving Gopher Indians out of Gopher Gulch.

A few years back, a sportsmen’s website chat debated what ground squirrels were and whether anyone had seen them in Michigan.

One writer had caught one in a fish net. Another wondered whether they were the same thing as woodchucks (they’re not), while one guy said there was one fewer in Dickinson County after one had tried to make its home under his cabin. Still another writer said he sees them at baseball fields.

“They have tunnels right on the fields,” he wrote. “One ran through the infield during practice today. Every one of the players started watching it and laughing.”

With the hint of autumn in the air, maybe I’ll see another one or two of these interesting animals this month as they store food away for their winter hibernation.

Maybe you will too.

John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

A thirteen-lined ground squirrel on the grounds of the Marquette County Fair in August. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources photo)

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.