Crawlies with Cri: Merriam’s ground squirrel

(Photo by Christy Solo for the Illinois Valley News)

Merriam’s ground squirrel (Urocitellus canus)

This week’s crawly may win the coveted title of “Cutest Crawly Ever!” Meet Merriam’s ground squirrel (Urocitellus canus).
Unfortunately, your chance to see one this summer has probably just passed because these cuties go into hibernation in early August.
Next year though, you can catch them out and about from March through July if you take a road trip to the Oregon Outback, the high desert basin and range country of the central southern portion of Oregon. It covers most of Lake, Klamath, Malheur and Harney counties.
Merriam’s are one of Oregon’s smaller ground squirrels averaging seven and one-half inches in length. Compare that to California ground squirrels who average 17 inches, and you begin to see what makes Merriam’s so adorable.
To be fair, our pictured Merriam’s is a baby, AKA a “pup, kit or kitten” – any of the three names are acceptable. The pups are even smaller than the adults (of course) and their “baby fur” is fuzzier. Still, adults are quite cute too.
Aside from their adorableness, the most distinguishing thing about Merriam’s is their lack of distinguishing marks. In Oregon, only Merriam’s and Belding’s ground squirrels rock shades of gray and brown and lack all striped or spotted markings.
The ranges of Merriam’s and Belding’s do overlap, though Belding’s range is larger, running all the way west to the western edge of the Cascades. Belding’s are larger by an average of two inches in length.
Merriam’s are in the Genus Urocitellus, long-tailed ground squirrels. Of the 13 species in the genus, six can be found in Oregon.
What’s in a name? Merriam’s ground squirrel is not named for George and Charles Merriam who founded the dictionary that bears their name.
They were, instead, named for Clinton Hart Merriam (1855 –1942) who was an American zoologist, mammalogist, ornithologist, entomologist, ecologist, ethnographer, geographer, naturalist and physician. He was commonly known as the ‘father of mammalogy’.
Merriam was quite a control freak, but a lot of animals are named after him anyway. He did do a lot of good work; he just did much of it alone because no one wanted to work with him.
A little bit about ground squirrels – they live in a variety of shrub-steppe, grassland and montane habitats in the northwestern United States.
When they are out of hibernation, a time that ranges depending on species from February–March through May–September, they use their burrows for cover from severe weather and extreme temperatures, protection from predators and shelter for rearing young.
Predators include barn and great horned owls, as well as hawks, snakes, and various carnivorous mammals such as coyotes and foxes.
Merriam’s are active during the day generally foraging. They are omnivores eating everything from seeds, roots and bulbs as well as insects.
They forage close to their burrows and don’t wander far from the burrow entrances, of which they may have a few. The range for a family of Merriam’s is under two acres.
Females will have a single litter of up to 10 pups late in April or early in May. Then the family starts putting on the pounds for their long hibernation.
Final fun facts: Merriam’s are quiet, secretive squirrels, though they have a shrill alarm call to warn family members of potential dangers. They will climb into low bushes and shrubs for food and are good swimmers when the need arises.