Imagine yourself hiking on your favorite hiking trail lush and green with beautiful spring wildflowers, flowering shrubs, thick grasses and moist area with native sedges. Along side the trail you notice a fat snake-like mound of dirt that weaves around for several feet. It’s just sitting there, fresh dirt with nothing growing out of it. Is this the work of a destructive animal? Well, no actually.
These are the “castings” of a pocket gopher, an animal you will likely never see. Pocket gophers dig just below the surface of the ground and feed on the lush roots of plants. During the winter they feed at the snow-soil interface and leave behind snake-like castings of dirt. They are akin to nature’s roto-tillers in that they turn over fresh nutrient rich soil and aerate the ground so new plants can take hold. The actions of the pocket gopher actually facilitate diversity within the green landscape.
While we rarely would see a pocket gopher, one digging animal that we see a lot of is the ground squirrel. Ground squirrels are super common in fields and roadsides. The have a network of underground tunnels and burrows that they utilize for denning and to escape predators. Their holes are about two inches across within a small mound of dirt. Ground squirrels provide food for birds of prey such as red-tailed hawks and golden eagles. Carnivorous mammals such as coyotes, fox, and weasel also join in on the feast.
I recently observed a coyote hunting ground squirrels in a field up Lake Creek. The coyote would wait by a hole and when the ground squirrel popped out the coyote would pounce like a cat and trap the ground squirrel with its front feet, then follow up with a quick snap with the incisors.
Speaking of predators, there is a fast digging weasel that specializes in digging up ground squirrels-and that’s the badger. Badgers are roughly the size of a raccoon but possess powerful claws and strong shoulders for digging. When threatened they can dig themselves out of sight in a matter of moments.
Visually, badgers have a white dorsal stripe from their face down their back, and have noticeably long claws and sharp teeth. Badgers hunch down low when spotted, and have a sort of flattened look about them. A badger’s hole can be recognized by its oval shape at the entrance. Badger holes are flat on the top and bottom and about 6-7 inches across.
Foxes also burrow underground to make a den for rearing their kits or to escape severe weather. Fox holes are roughly the same size as badger holes but lack the oval shape and instead are round. An underground den is relatively warm at night and cool during the day.
Eagle County is also home to digging birds including bank swallows, kingfishers, and the burrowing owl. The burrowing owl is rare and is found in association with prairie dog towns, where it feeds on insects during daylight hours. Look for this nine-inch owl on a fence post or on the ground.
These are a few examples of animals and birds that dig. Some digging animals are predators while others are prey. We are blessed here in Eagle County to have lots of wild places where animals can thrive to keep the natural order in balance.