Thursday, March 20, 2008

Gophers

The gophers are back, a reliable sign of spring and a good source of protein for the bald eagles that are just starting to return. An old name for gophers is "picket pins". Gophers sit straight up when they are keeping watch, looking a lot like the wooden pegs that used to be used to picket (or stake out) horses while the riders were in camp (easier than building a rope corral, especially on the plains). This time of year, we start seeing the picket pins on brown patches in the receding snow; in a month or two, the babies will be out and playing. By August, they will be heading into hibernation for the fall and winter, to wait out the season of plant dormancy.

Gophers are more accurately Richardson ground squirrels, which I thought was a piece of mildly interesting trivia until I discovered last year that it makes a difference when you are trying to poison the little critters that dig holes in the fields. Gophers can be safely (to the rest of the ecosystem) be poisoned with strychnine and other long-lasting poisons, because they stay underground when they die; ground squirrels come to the surface to die, where coyotes, dogs, and other predators eat them - and the poison. Since we have a lot more ground squirrels around here than gophers, knowing which one you are trying to get rid of can make a real difference to dogs in the neighborhood. While I would prefer to skip the poisoning, a lot of the farmers and ranchers around here still use it to rid their fields of the holes and mounds the ground squirrels make, and newcomers make mistakes every year when they try to follow the local practice.

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