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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Squirrel Subdivision

Air Date: Week of

California ground squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi) (Courtesy of National Biological Information Infrastructure)

An empty lot across from the local Donut & Burger in southern California is the surprising habitat of a colony of ground squirrels. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg muses on the squirrels’ adaptation to city living.


CURWOOD: Few species are as adaptable to different conditions as humans. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg recently encountered one of them in the wilds of Los Angeles.

KLINKENBORG: It was a blank noon on one of those southern California days that is like a shallow bowl filled with almost nothing, a day when the main event turns out to have been lunch at Donut & Burger. I ate in the truck with the windows down, looking at the vacant lot next door through a chain-link fence. The view seemed to say more than I wanted to hear about the kind of day this was turning out to be.

But the grass beyond the fence parted and a head poked up. Then more heads. The vacant lot wasn’t vacant at all. It was occupied by a prosperous colony of ground squirrels, Spermophilus beecheyi, named after the English explorer Sir Frederick William Beechey, who visited California in the HMS Blossom 180 years ago. I didn’t know about Sir Frederick at the time. I knew only that these were ground squirrels and that this vacant lot was a ground-squirrel subdivision and that I had just eaten a burger and a donut for lunch in the city of Pomona, California, which is named for a minor Roman goddess of tree fruits.

California ground squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi)(Courtesy of National Biological Information Infrastructure)

What surprised me was the burrows. They were mounded at the entrance, and they somehow turned the vacancy of that empty lot into habitat. The squirrels stood guard on their haunches and raced from hole to hole. Almost instinctively I found myself imagining their tragic history, composing the saga of the ground squirrel in my mind. This was the last of a dying breed, cut off by human encroachment, their world now bounded by an auto parts store, a busy highway, the back alley of an apartment complex, and the parking lot of Donut & Burger. The San Gabriel Mountains loomed impossibly distant for these creatures. I wondered if they had been reduced to eating fries.

But you don’t have to read very much about Spermophilus beecheyi to realize that California ground squirrels are nearly human in their adaptability. And like all creatures, that are nearly human in their adaptability, humans consider them pests. Ground squirrels invade gardens and damage plants. They can carry bubonic plague. They destroy the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Their burrows can extend for dozens of feet. I found myself telling a new story. The ground squirrels in that vacant lot are colonists, opening new terrain to an expansionist species, developing the site before human developers can do so. Perhaps there is an archipelago of ground squirrels quietly shaping the earth to suit their needs. They watch the humans eating at Donut & Burger and know their time will come.

[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “Broken Arrow” from ‘Into The Blue Again’ (Sub Pop – 2006)]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg is an editorial writer for the New York Times. And is teaching writing this year at Pomona College in California.



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