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THE OUTDOORS DIGEST | FIELD GUIDE

Golden-mantled ground squirrel

September 09, 2003|David Lukas

[ Spermophilus lateralis ]

In the Sierra Nevada and Northern California mountains, "copperheads" are inescapable. Also known as golden-mantled ground squirrels, these bold and curious rodents grow up to a foot long -- nose to tip of tail -- and scamper eagerly among campsites in search of handouts, making them a perennial favorite of (or nuisance to) visitors.

In late summer, with winter looming, these bulging beggars panhandle relentlessly. With cheeks stuffed to the size of Ping-Pong balls, they dart around burying surplus in secret caches under logs and at tree bases. By the time ground squirrels retreat into burrows in September or October to hibernate for six months, they have tripled their body fat and can barely waddle. Watch for the golden-mantled ground squirrel in the mountains this month. Their antics may delight you, but resist feeding them "people food" no matter how imploringly they gaze into your eyes.

NATURAL HISTORY

Mainly found in open, rocky forests. Usually solitary. Feeds on fungi, seeds, fruit, insects and carrion; during outbreaks of tortoise-shell butterflies, may feast entirely on caterpillars.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

Golden russet head and shoulders, body striped black and white; virtually identical in coloration to chipmunks except that stripes stop at shoulders and don't extend onto the head.

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