Ground squirrels become more active on the coastal bluffs

By Kelly Stewart

You can find these furry little rodents running all over the cliffs in La Jolla, munching on ice plants and roots, and then disappearing into a burrow at the first sight of an approaching dog. Mottled brown and white, California ground squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi) are found throughout California, and along other parts of the West Coast of the United States. They are related to chipmunks, groundhogs and prairie dogs.

Although they are able to climb trees, they prefer to take refuge in their burrows. Burrow openings are about 4-inches wide, but may extend 30 feet long and go several feet below the surface of the ground. Squirrels live in colonies within the extensive network of burrows. They maintain a home range around their burrow and really don’t venture far from home. Baby squirrels appear in late April or early May, having spent their early days inside the burrow within a nest. There may be as many as seven or eight young per litter, and they will emerge after about six weeks in their burrow.

Considered pests in many places because of their extensive destructive burrows and the annoying habit of eating foods that humans are growing in their gardens, visitors to the coastal bluffs here in town enjoy watching these inquisitive little mammals. Feeding squirrels is discouraged in San Diego because they learn to accept food from humans and become nearly tame. The extra food that squirrels may get from humans also causes a population explosion with the end result being that they may need to be controlled because the burrows undermine the soil, damage plants and make hazardous holes for walking in parks and along the beach.

When ground squirrel populations are booming, they are also more susceptible to disease outbreaks (including fleas and diseases that affect humans).

Normally ground squirrels like to eat juicy green plants but they also enjoy seeds and nuts. I’ve also seen them feasting on rose petals left by wedding parties on the Wedding Bowl. Their curious ability to stand on their hind legs for extended periods of time while eating something or peering over tall vegetation makes them fun to watch.