Description of the Pest
The adult California ground squirrel:
- Head and body 9 to 11 inches long
- Somewhat bushy tail is about as long as its body
- Fur is mottled dark and light brown or gray
Ground squirrels live in colonies that may grow very large if left uncontrolled. They are active during the cooler times on hot days and sunny periods during the cooler months; they are usually most active in morning and late afternoon. In periods of high winds, ground squirrels retreat to their burrows.
California ground squirrels live in underground burrows and form colonies of 2 to 20 or more animals. Each ground squirrel burrow system can have several openings with scattered soil in front. Individual ground squirrel burrows may be 5 to 30 feet long, 2.5 to 4 feet below the surface, and about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Burrows provide the ground squirrels a place to retreat, sleep, hibernate, rear their young, and store food. Ground squirrels often dig their burrows along ditches and fencerows around buildings, within and bordering many agricultural crops, and on other uncultivated land. They tend to avoid flood irrigated areas, thick chaparral, dense woods, very moist areas, and lands that are under complete and frequent cultivation. They will travel 100 yards or more to feed in adjacent crops. When uncontrolled, they frequently move into perennial crops, such as orchards and vineyards, and dig burrows beneath the trees or vines.
The California ground squirrel can be active throughout the year in coastal areas of Southern California. Ground squirrels in the southern San Joaquin Valley become much less active during the winter, but seldom truly hibernate. Especially in hot locations, adult ground squirrels become temporarily dormant (estivate) when food is scarce or temperatures are extreme, primarily in late summer. Winter hibernation and summer estivation are more typical among ground squirrels in inland areas where temperature variations are more extreme. Regardless of location, young ground squirrels tend to be active all summer.
Ground squirrels that do hibernate generally emerge around January when weather begins to warm. In late winter and spring, they feed on green vegetation but switch to seeds and fruit in late spring and early summer as the vegetation dries up. Females have one litter, averaging 8 young, in spring. Young ground squirrels emerge from their burrow when about 6 weeks old; they do not estivate their first summer, and many may not hibernate during their first winter.
California ground squirrels are responsible for major damage throughout the state. Their damage is most prevalent in crops adjacent to uncultivated areas where ground squirrels are not controlled.
- Adult ground squirrels often cache seeds and nuts in their burrows, especially in the late summer and early fall. During this period, crop losses greatly exceed the amount the ground squirrels have consumed. Ground squirrels also consume vegetative crops (e.g., alfalfa, cole crops, and lettuce) and berries.
- In addition to above ground damage, they can damage roots, enabling fungal pathogens to infect trees.
- They often chew plastic irrigation lines, and their burrows can contribute to soil erosion.
- When digging burrows, ground squirrels bring soil and rock to the surface and deposit it in mounds near burrow openings. They enlarge burrow systems each year by constructing new tunnels and creating more entrances, so the longer the ground squirrels occupy the burrow, the more extensive it becomes. They create more entrances to serve a growing population. Large and numerous burrow openings and soil mounds are hard on equipment and can make mechanical harvesting especially difficult.
- The burrows of ground squirrels can divert irrigation water and have been known to cause severe damage to levies and other water retention systems.
- In some areas, ground squirrels can also pose a health risk to humans through the spread of sylvatic plague.
The management action needed for ground squirrels depends on their activity pattern and feeding preferences during the time of year when action is taken. The choice of tactics is also influenced by the location of the infestation and number of ground squirrels present. For more detailed information on managing ground squirrels, see Ground Squirrel Best Management Practices.
Predators such as coyotes and hawks are usually not sufficient to effectively control ground squirrels. These predators consume a number of ground squirrels, but usually not enough to keep populations at sufficiently low numbers to eliminate the need for additional control measures.
Ground squirrels often burrow beneath long-standing piles of prunings, wood, or rock, or use them as harborage. Removing such piles may make the area somewhat less desirable to them, but the base of trees, fence lines, and ditch banks still offer burrowing sites. Peripheral cleanup may somewhat reduce the potential for ground squirrels. In addition, it makes burrow detection and monitoring easier and improves access to burrows during control operations. Ground squirrels are extremely adaptable so habitat modification has limited benefit in a management program. Squirrels may quickly reinvade abandoned burrow systems. Deep plowing (ripping) along field perimeters will destroy burrow entrances and will help slow the rate of invasion. Burrow fumigants, toxic baits, and traps currently are the most effective control methods.
Monitoring and Treatment Decisions
To make it easier to monitor and help reduce numbers, remove brush piles, debris, and stumps in and around the crop fields. Monitor for ground squirrels year round, even in winter, especially during midmorning when they feed most actively. Monitor within the crop field during routine activities. Mid morning is usually the best time of day to observe squirrel activity.
- Observe feeding grounds and watch for other signs of activity especially the appearance of burrows.
- Check the perimeter of the crop fields at least once a month during the times of year when ground squirrels are active.
- Periodically monitor areas from which ground squirrels are likely to invade, such as along ditch or road banks or in crops adjacent to your field.
Keep records and use them as the basis for future management decisions, noting:
- When ground squirrels emerge from hibernation
- When the first young are seen above ground
- Approximate number of ground squirrels you see and the location and number of burrows
- Changes in the general number of ground squirrels
- Management actions implemented, dates of use, and their effect
When even one or two ground squirrels are present in or immediately adjacent to the crop field, be prepared to take action. Treatment options for ground squirrels include the use of fumigants (e.g., gas cartridges, aluminum phosphide,* and carbon monoxide-producing devices) and baiting with multiple-dose anticoagulants (e.g., chlorophacinone* and diphacinone*) or zinc phosphide*. These are restricted-use pesticides that require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use.
Select the control method best suited for the time of year.
- The most effective time to control ground squirrels is in late winter or early spring when adults have emerged from their burrows but before they reproduce. For best control, use burrow fumigation about 2 to 3 weeks after the first ground squirrels emerge from hibernation.
- Because ground squirrels feed almost exclusively on green vegetation early in the season, poisoned grain baits are generally not effective until late spring or early summer.
- Trapping can be used year round but is most effective when numbers are low.
- In late spring or summer, at locations where squirrels are moving from adjacent lands into the crop field to feed, baiting or trapping along the perimeter offers the most effective control if access to the neighboring property is not possible.
Fumigation can be very effective against ground squirrels. The best time to fumigate is late winter or early spring when the ground squirrels are active and soil is moist. Fumigation is also possible later in the year as long as sufficient soil moisture is present, although it is not effective when ground squirrels are hibernating or estivating: at those times, they seal themselves off from within their burrows. When the soil is dry, fumigation is much less effective because more of the toxic gas escapes from burrows through cracks in the soil.
When using a fumigant, make sure to treat all active burrow systems in and around the crop field. Recheck all areas a few days after fumigation and re-treat any that have been reopened. For safety's sake, do not fumigate burrow systems that are adjacent to buildings or may open under structures.
A relatively easy way to fumigate is with the use of gas cartridges. They are available commercially and from some county agricultural commissioners' offices. Use one or two cartridges for each burrow that shows signs of activity. A large burrow system may require more than two.
- Quickly shove the ignited cartridge into the burrow using a shovel handle or stick and seal the burrow entrance with soil.
- Watch nearby burrow entrances; treat and seal any that begin to leak smoke.
- If smoke is observed escaping from other entrances, it means the burrows are connected. If the burrow is believed to be small, this additional entrance only needs to be sealed. If the burrow appears to be large, an additional cartridge may need to be inserted following the above-outlined protocol.
The larger and more complex the burrow system, the more smoke it takes to be effective.
Aluminum phosphide* is also a highly effective burrow fumigant. In fact, studies of this material for ground squirrel management indicate an efficacy of 95 to 100%. When aluminum phosphide* tablets come into contact with moist soil and air in the burrow they produce phosphine gas, which is highly toxic to any animal (never add water directly to the burrow to increase moisture as spontaneous combustion can occur if the product contacts water). When using aluminum phosphide*, treat every active burrow, fill the entrance with a wad of newspaper, and cover with soil. In addition to being somewhat more effective than gas cartridges, aluminum phosphide* is also much cheaper to apply. However, aluminum phosphide* is a highly restricted-use material, and these restrictions are frequently changing. Be sure to understand the current restrictions in place before using for ground squirrel control. Application personnel should be trained in the material's proper use and on its potential hazards.
As of 1 January 2012, pressurized exhaust machines can now be used to apply carbon monoxide to burrow systems. As of 2014, the author is aware of two commercial products available: the Pressurized Exhaust Rodent Controller (PERC®) machine and the Cheetah rodent control machine. Initial research into the efficacy of these devices has indicated that the PERC® is moderately effective for California ground squirrels, although results were highly variable. The Cheetah rodent control machine did not prove to be effective. Plans are in place to further test these devices in the future.
Poison bait is usually the most cost-effective method for controlling ground squirrels, especially when numbers are high. Bait consists of grain or pellets treated with a poison registered for ground squirrel control. To be effective, bait must be used at a time of year when ground squirrels are feeding on seeds and will readily accept baits such as in late spring or early summer. In fall, ground squirrels store a lot of the seed instead of eating them, so it may require more bait to control the population.
Before you use baits, place a small amount of untreated grain, such as breakfast oats, near burrows in the morning and check in the late afternoon to see if the ground squirrels have taken it (this ensures that nocturnal animals have not eaten the grain). If the grain is taken during the day, proceed with baiting. If it is not taken, wait several days or a week and try again. Remember: bait is only effective if eaten by the target pest. If in a nut orchard, once squirrels begin feeding on nuts, they no longer show much interest in grain baits. Therefore, baiting programs must be initiated before this time to ensure effective control of ground squirrels. When using poison baits, make sure to follow label directions carefully to reduce hazards to nontarget species.
Multiple-dose anticoagulant baits (e.g., chlorophacinone* and diphacinone*) can be applied in bait stations, as spot treatments near burrows, or broadcast over larger infested areas. Check the label to make sure that the bait you plan to use is registered for the method you intend to use. For a multiple-dose bait to be effective, animals must feed on it over a period of 3 to 5 days so if spot or broadcast treatments are used, 2 or 3 applications may be necessary.
Zinc phosphide* is an acute toxicant that can also be use to control ground squirrels. It kills ground squirrels after a single feeding, so it can reduce numbers more quickly than anticoagulants. However, zinc phosphide* has a distinctive odor and taste that many ground squirrels seem to avoid. Likewise, ground squirrels will occasionally consume a sublethal dose of zinc phosphide* that will cause individuals to get sick but will not kill them. This leads to bait shyness in a ground squirrel population. These problems with bait acceptance and bait shyness sometimes result in greater control of ground squirrels when using anticoagulant baits. Pre-baiting the area with untreated grain 2 to 3 days prior to the application of zinc phosphide* may reduce the chances of bait shyness and improve the effectiveness of baiting programs. Control with zinc phosphide* is usually achieved within 48 hours of the bait application.
Baits Applied as Broadcast or Spot Treatments
When specified on the label, zinc phosphide* and anticoagulant baits* can be applied as spot-treatments, which are economical and effective for small populations. Reapply according to label directions to make sure there is no interruption in exposure to the bait. Scattering the bait takes advantage of the ground squirrels' natural foraging behavior and minimizes risks to nontarget species that are not as effective at foraging for seeds. Never pile the bait on the ground because piles increase the hazard to livestock and certain nontarget wildlife.
When ground squirrel populations are larger or cover a broader area, broadcast applications of zinc phosphide* or anticoagulants* may be used. This can be an effective and economical method for controlling this species over a large area. Usually squirrels retreat back to burrows when sick and will die there, although up to 20 to 30% of ground squirrels may die aboveground.
Baits Applied in Bait Stations
Various kinds of bait stations are commonly used with diphacinone* and chlorophacinone* 0.005% baits; all are designed to let ground squirrels in but to exclude larger animals. Special types of stations must be used within the ranges of the San Joaquin kit fox or endangered kangaroo rats to ensure that these species are excluded. Consult your local agricultural commissioner or the California Department of Pesticide Regulation website for the latest recommendations on use of poison baits in areas that are within the range of endangered species.
- Place bait stations near runways or burrows and secure them so they cannot easily be tipped over. If ground squirrels are moving into the crop field from adjacent areas, place bait stations along the perimeter of the field where ground squirrels are invading, one station every 100 feet. Use shorter intervals between stations when the number of ground squirrels is high.
- Check bait stations daily at first, then as often as needed to keep the bait replenished. If bait feeding is interrupted, the bait's effectiveness will be greatly decreased. Make sure to pick up any bait that spills and to replace bait that is wet or moldy. Successful baiting usually requires 2 to 4 weeks. Continue to supply bait until feeding ceases and you observe no ground squirrels; then remove and properly dispose of unused bait if there is not a threat on continued reinvasion.
- Zinc phosphide* cannot be used in bait stations.
After treatment, pick up and dispose of any carcasses whenever possible to prevent secondary poisoning of dogs or other scavengers. Burial is a good method for disposal as long as the carcasses are buried deep enough to discourage scavengers. Do not touch dead animals with bare hands.
Assess the potential hazard to humans, livestock, and nontarget wildlife before you use baits; if it is risky, use another method for ground squirrel control.
Because trapping is time-consuming, it is most practical for small infestations any time of year when ground squirrels are active. Trapping is especially effective from mid-spring through fall. Ground squirrel traps include Conibear traps and modified gopher box traps. As with all traps, take precautions to minimize trapping of nontarget wildlife and pets.
Conibear kill traps are usually placed unbaited in the burrow entrance, where ground squirrels are trapped as they pass through. Trap effectiveness can be increased by putting a tunnel of roofing paper (24 inches long) at the entrance of the burrow. The ground squirrel will mistake the light at the end of the tunnel for the burrow opening and run full speed through the trap. The tunnel also minimizes any sun reflection off the metal trap.
If you are using this type of trap within the range of the San Joaquin kit fox, you must place the trap in a covered box with an entrance no larger than 3 inches wide to exclude the fox, or you must spring the traps at dusk and reset them again in the morning.
Modified wooden pocket gopher box traps consist of a pair of box traps that have been joined together by removing the backs, connecting the two traps with wire mesh, and then to a board. Another very effective trap is a single wooden box trap. The single wooden box trap (Critter Getter DK-3) is larger than the pocket gopher box trap (DK-2) and has a pull trigger rather than the push type for pocket gophers. The traps are baited with foods such as almonds, barley, melon rinds, oats, or walnuts. Place bait in traps well behind the trigger or tied to the trigger without setting the traps for several days, until the ground squirrels become used to taking the bait. Then put in fresh bait and set the traps. With the single pull trap, secure the bait to the trigger and wire the trap to a stake, fence, or other stationary object. Place traps so that nontarget animals are not likely to be caught. For example, place traps inside a larger box with openings no larger than 3 inches wide, just large enough to allow ground squirrels to enter.
Live-traps, such as wire-cage and multiple-capture traps, can also be used to capture ground squirrels. The Black Fox repeating live trap has proven to be very effective in catching several individuals at one time. This 24"x 24"x 4" heavy gauge wire trap has doors that are wired open for several days for pre-baiting. When the self-closing doors are dropped down after pre baiting, the ground squirrel pushes to get in but cannot get out. As with box traps, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, oats, barley, and many fruits and vegetables are all effective baits. Because these traps keep ground squirrels alive after capture, they are useful in areas where nontarget captures are a concern (e.g., areas with pets, children, etc.). However, ground squirrels must be euthanized by the trapper upon capture as translocation of ground squirrels is illegal unless in possession of a permit issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, unloads your problem on others, and can spread disease such as sylvatic plague. It is this extra step that limits the utility of live-trapping for some growers. Methods considered humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association include: gassing with carbon dioxide and shooting. Drowning is not an approved method of euthanasia and is illegal in California. Traps need to be checked once daily, and any animals found must be removed and should be euthanized.
Gas Explosive Device
The use of a gas explosive device that combines propane with oxygen has been used to kill ground squirrels through concussive force. This device has the added benefit of destroying part or all of the ground squirrel's burrow system, thereby potentially slowing reinvasion rates. This control method carries with it a substantial fire hazard. To date no scientific studies have shown this method to be overly effective at ground squirrel control.
No repellents have proven effective at substantially reducing damage caused by ground squirrels.
No frightening devices have proven effective at substantially reducing damage caused by ground squirrels.
*User must be a certified applicator or be under the supervision of someone who is. Some products also require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use.