Have you seen a Franklin's?

By Jackie DeSanty-Combes | April 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2003

If you were north of the Missouri River, and saw a squirrel scurrying across the road that didn't quite look like a gray squirrel, you may have spotted a rare Franklin's ground squirrel.

During the summer of 2002, I drove more than 7,000 miles in north Missouri visiting sites where people had reported seeing these elusive squirrels. One hot, sunny day in July, I was on the border of The Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch Preserve in Harrison County with Paul Frese of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. He was showing me several places where he had recently spotted Franklin's ground squirrels.

Paul's interest is reptiles so, in return, I took him to an abandoned badger den where I had seen three prairie skinks in the day before. The skinks were gone, but as we walked away, I glanced back and noticed a Franklin's ground squirrel at the edge of the road near the badger den. We held absolutely still as the mottled brown and black body sped across Highway M and into a narrow strip of dense vegetation on the other side.

In less than a minute, the squirrel reappeared with a mouse hanging from its mouth. It scurried back across Highway M and disappeared in the grass near the badger den. I had read that most squirrel species occasionally eat meat, and according to researchers, about one quarter of most Franklin's ground squirrels' diet consists of meat, but I had never before seen a squirrel prey on another mammal. I guessed it would be sharing the mouse with its young.

A Franklin's ground squirrel (sometimes called a gray gopher or whistling ground squirrel) is the same size as a gray squirrel and has the same general appearance, but when you look at them closely you can see differences between the two. A gray squirrel has a solid gray body with a white belly. A Franklin's ground squirrel has a grayish head, the top of its body is mottled brown and black, its underside is yellowish, and its rump is yellowish-red. A Franklin's has shorter ears that do not protrude over the top of its head. The gray squirrel has a longer and bushier tail than the Franklin's. Also, Franklin's have cheek pouches and a band of white around their eyes, which gray squirrels lack. Franklin's ground squirrels (Spermophilus franklinii) are in the Sciuridae (meaning "squirrel") family, along with six other species that live in Missouri: gray squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks (groundhogs), and thirteen-lined ground squirrels. The latin word Spermophilus refers to the species' preference for eating plant seeds. Franklin's ground squirrels are omnivorous foragers, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter.

Missouri's only other Spermophilus species, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecimlineatus), also lives in north Missouri and is much more common. It is considerably smaller than the Franklin's ground squirrel and has 13 alternating black and white lines on its back. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels live in cemeteries and golf courses and other mown areas, while Franklin's ground squirrels prefer tall grass borders along grasslands and woods, fencerows and gullies.

Franklins live in only 10 states and three Canadian provinces. North Missouri is the southern extent of the species' range, but even there, they are uncommon to rare. Unlike the more common and less timid tree squirrels, Franklin's are secretive, and will likely retreat to their burrows or find cover in tall grass before being seen by humans.

In addition, Franklin's ground squirrels only spend about 10 percent of their life above ground. They hibernate from September to April and during spring and summer, they emerge to forage during daylight hours only when it is warm and calm. While above ground, they remain in dense vegetation. They may not be observed in the same vicinity from year to year because they tend to relocate annually.

That helps explain why, despite their interesting biology, Franklin's are likely the least studied of North American ground squirrels. During the summers of 2001 and 2002, I headed the Department of Conservation's survey to determine the species' status and distribution. I asked more than 500 natural resources staff from four governmental agencies in north Missouri to report sighting information. Then we live-trapped Franklin's ground squirrels on both public and private land near the sightings. We actually caught Franklin's on two public land areas of eight surveyed: Bilby Ranch Conservation Area in Nodaway County and Nodaway Valley Conservation Area in Andrew County). Two Franklin's ground squirrels also were seen along a roadside bordering Dunn Ranch Conservation Area in Harrison County.

In all, we collected data on 44 sighting locations in 11 counties. The trapping results indicated that Franklin's ground squirrels typically select burrowing sites in steep roadside ditches with mixed forbs and grasses. Living along roadsides probably allows them easy access to insects, road-killed carrion and grain spilled from farm trucks. Despite their propensity to use roadsides, carcasses of only six road-killed Franklin's were reported during the two-year survey.

Our survey continues this year, and we are asking for your help. If you observe a Franklin's ground squirrel during 2003 (or have seen one since 2000), please report your sighting by calling (toll-free) (888) 571-1042. You could also send us a letter. Please provide your name and phone number, the date and county of observation and the number of Franklin's ground squirrels you saw. We would also appreciate a description of the location or, better yet, mark it on a map. Please mail your information to: Franklin's Ground Squirrel Survey, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102.

With your help, we hope to learn more about Missouri's most secretive and elusive squirrel.

Franklin's Ground Squirrel Facts

Although historically referred to as a "prairie squirrel", most Franklin's ground squirrels are spotted along roadsides and railroad embankments.
They typically form small colonies of 10 to 20 individuals, but unlike prairie dogs, they are not very social.
Burrow entrances are about three and one-half inches across and are well concealed. Entrances are usually found near a dense clump of grass or a shrub, fence post or telephone pole.
Both sexes whistle like birds, especially after emerging from hibernation in the spring.
Reproduction takes place after hibernation. Gestation takes 30 days. Juveniles remain for two to three months before dispersing.
Twenty-five percent of a Franklin's ground squirrel's diet is composed of animal matter, including insects, amphibians, young rabbits, mice and other ground squirrels.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler