Sounds of a hot summer's day: a cicada's drowsy buzz, a Cassin's Sparrow's sweet melody, and a high whistling trill, neither insect nor bird. This voice, so characteristic of west Texas pasture lands in summer, belongs to the ground squirrels. Ground squirrels are small, slender, sandy colored rodents, either striped or spotted, or both. Slightly larger than rats, they have tails, which are only a little bushier than rat-tails. Ground squirrels habitually sit up straight like ten pins in order to peer over the tops of the grasses. Their whistle seems to be a warning cry given to sound the alarm when a hawk circles overhead or other enemies approach.
Ground squirrels live in burrows, which may be as much as 50 inches deep, and up to 20 feet long. Each burrow has several entrances. Unlike prairie dogs, they do not mound up dirt around their holes. This combined with the hidden location under a shrub, clump of grass, or cactus, makes it very difficult to find a ground squirrel burrow. Ground squirrels have only one litter of young each summer, but may have as many as 10 babies at once. Mrs. Herd Midkiff recently watched a mother ground squirrel lead her family across a road. First came the mother, followed by six babies. A little behind came three more young ones. Suddenly the mother spotted the human intruder. She sat up, chirrred, and the watching MIDNAT saw two other young ones pop back into a hole from which they were emerging. The observer could be certain the parent was indeed the mother, for mother ground squirrels chase father off after the young are born. Evidently he is more trouble than help in raising the family.
Scientists often call ground squirrels "Spermophiles," which means seed lovers. For seeds of any kind are eaten with relish. MIDNATS, have frequently observed Spermophiles eating "goat-heads." The squirrels hold the prickly morsel between their forefeet, carefully biting off the thorns before eating the kernel. During summer, when grasshoppers and other insects are plentiful, great quantities of them are added to the Spermophile diet.
Ground squirrels hibernate through the winter months, during which time they eat nothing. Near Midland, they usually, enter winter quarters by mid-November, and emerge by early March.
There are more than 30 species of ground squirrels in the United States. Three of these are found in Midland County. The Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel has thirteen alternating dark and light stripes. The dark stripes contain rows of squarish, buffy spots. The Mexican Ground Squirrel is buffy all over, with nine rows of squarish white spots on his back. The Spotted Ground Squirrel is the palest of the three, and has scattered light spots on his back.
Like all rodents, ground squirrels can become pests, and do much damage. Their burrows are dangerous to a horse and rider. When they live near farms, they make much trouble, digging up newly planted grain, eating just-sprouted plants, and feasting on mature grain. They may also carry disease. In California, ground squirrels have become infected with bubonic plague. In Colorado, they are hosts of the Rocky Mountain spotted tick, which carries spotted fever. So however much naturalists enjoy watching these interesting little animals, they must not become overly concerned when population control measures become necessary. Apparently there will always be rodents, just as there will always be insects.