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Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

October 19, 2020

The other day, I was out kicking around a natural area just enjoying nature with no particular agenda. I imagine a lot of my readers think that I am constantly on the hunt to capture the next wildlife image. While it’s true that I spend a lot of time “attempting” to capture wildlife images, I often just go out to enjoy nature just because. I like to move around freely, let my eyes wonder across the landscape to see what I can see and hear what I can hear. When I am not concentrating on capturing images, I often see and hear so much more. And it is so enjoyable.


So, there I was feeling calm and enjoying nature when I spotted an old friend. Standing on his tiny hind legs with his head poking out above the bright yellow flowers of the Bird’s-foot Trefoil. His short round ears just behind his large dark eyes. What a cool critter. It was a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus)


For some crazy reason, I haven’t had an opportunity to photograph the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel for many years. So, you guessed it, I turned on my heals and took off for my truck to get my camera gear. A few minutes later I was back trying to capture some images of this cool squirrel in a beautiful field of flowers.


Also called the Striped Gopher or Leopard Ground Squirrel, it sometimes has other regional names. No mater what you call them, they are a short-legged, ground squirrel that has, as its name implies, thirteen alternating brown and tan lines or stripes on its back and sides. The dark stripe often has small tan spots creating a row of spots running the length of the body. This patterning of spots and stripes has led to another common name, the “Federation Squirrel”, because of its pattern of “Stars and Stripes”. They have a short well furred tail that is often hard to see because it’s usually hidden in the vegetation.


These adorable squirrels’ range across a huge area of the U.S. from Ohio and Michigan in the east to Montana in the west and up north into Canada. They also range down the center of the country, right down to the Texas coast. All together they cover nearly 20 states and 3 Canadian provinces.


We have two groups of squirrels in North America. The more familiar Tree Squirrels, such as the Eastern Gray Squirrel and Red Squirrel. And the Ground Squirrels, such as Chipmunks and Prairie Dogs. Ground squirrels are very different from the more familiar tree squirrels. Unlike their tree-climbing cousins, the ground squirrels, such as the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel lead a subterranean life rarely leaving terra firma. They live in underground tunnels and dens and rarely come out unless there is favorable weather conditions. Living underground has many advantages such as fewer predators, shelter from the weather and a labyrinth of tunnels to retreat to when presented with danger.


The Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel is often very tame and can be easily approached. They are a diurnal animal which simply means that they are most active during the daylight hours and usually only on sunny days. Cloudy, wet, and cold days are usually spent underground. They are also true hibernators--sleeping from late August until mid April. Without a doubt they spend more time underground than they do above ground, which leads me to think, would they be more aptly named “underground squirrels”? But that’s just one naturalist’s opinion.


They are sometimes confused with the Eastern Chipmunk. The Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel is larger, about 6-7 inches and has smaller ears and of course don’t forget the thirteen stripes or lines on its back is a dead give-away. Their tail is about one-third the length of their body. Compared to the Eastern Chipmunk which is only 3-4 inches long and has only 3 stripes.


To accommodate its life scurrying through narrow tunnels, the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel has short powerful legs for digging, and short ears. Since it’s protected from the weather by living underground it doesn’t have to snuggle up to a fat bushy tail like the Gray Squirrel.


Due to their long hibernation they only have enough time for one litter of young each summer. It’s not uncommon for a mother to give birth to 7 to 10 young. The high birth rate might make up for the single litter. The young emerge from the underground den between four and six weeks of age. And since they are gregarious animals the young will stay together and later will digging tunnels near their parents.

Their genus name (Spermophilus) is Latin and means “seed lover” or “seed eater” and describes its preference for eating seeds. The only problem is they often will eat a wide variety of foods such as insects, mice, voles, lizards, toads, and even eggs of ground nesting birds. The term used to describe this wide variety of diet is called omnivore.


I was able to capture some stunning images of the thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel before he scurred back into his underground tunnel. I was happy that I retrieved my camera spent some quality time with one of my old friends. Until next time…


Stan Tekiela an author and naturalist who travels the U.S. capturing images and studying wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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