North Dakota has a few nicknames: the Peace Garden State, Roughrider State, and of course, the Flickertail State. Flickertails are not however, gophers, as they are so often called. The Gopher State is our eastern neighbor.
Whether you call them flickertails, picketpins, or Dak rats, the scientific name of this animal is Urocitellus richardsonii. The common name I hear most frequently from zoologists is Richardson’s ground squirrel. They are a species of the grasslands of the northern Great Plains. As such they range throughout the southern portions of the Prairie Provinces, as well as Montana, and North and South Dakota, north and east of the Missouri River. Although they may be found in a variety of conditions on our grasslands, they seem to be particularly abundant on heavily and overgrazed pastures.
Richardson’s ground squirrels look like a small version of the prairie dog, although they are in different genus of the squirrel family. However, their social habits and other aspects to their biology and ecology are noticeably different.
As one would expect, Richardson’s ground squirrels are largely vegetarian, feeding on seeds, leaves, and other plant parts. However they are also known to feed on insects and other small animals. And, as many North Dakotans have observed on our highways, a road killed Richardson’s ground squirrels may be scavenged by its own kind.
Richardson’s ground squirrels are actually an important species in the grassland community. Like many other small mammals, they are important prey items for a variety of predators ranging from hawks and eagles to badgers and weasels. Plus their burrowing activity mixes and aerates the soil, and provides cover and habitat for a variety of other animals.
There are not very many species that can be confused with the Richardson’s ground squirrel with the exception of the Franklin’s ground squirrel. The Franklin’s may be observed in the eastern portion of the state, and although the two species are similar in size, the Franklin’s may be easily distinguished by its gray color and longer tail.
So who is this Richardson that has a ground squirrel named after him? It is Sir John Richardson, a Scottish naturalist that lived in the 1700’s-1800’s. He published papers on botany, geology, but most importantly on ichthyology, the study of fish.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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