Sunday, May 12, 2013

Squirrel Facts: The European Ground Squirrel

The European ground squirrel, also called the European souslik, is one of only two species of ground squirrels that inhabit Europe. Its range covers parts of eastern and southeastern Europe, including Poland, southern Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

Like most ground squirrel species, European ground squirrels are diurnal (active during the day), and live in colonies made up of individual burrows. Their favored habitat is short-grass steppe, pastures, lawns, or park land. This squirrel is gray or yellow-gray in color, with a body about 8 inches long and the tail slightly over 2 inches.

This species eats a primarily herbivorous diet made up of grasses, roots, and seeds, along with some insects, which they carry in their cheeks to eat in the safety of the den. During foraging, some individuals act as sentinels, alerting the colony to danger with a whistling call. They hibernate from autumn until March, with the exact length of the hibernation varying by location depending on the severity of the winter.

Unfortunately, the European ground squirrel is threatened and has declined or disappeared over much of its range. It was declared extinct in Germany around 1985, and had also completely disappeared in Poland although it has since been reintroduced in that country. The primary reason for its disappearance has been the conversion of its meadow and grassland habitat into cultivated farmland. However, in some areas of Bulgaria and Romania, populations have stabilized or increased since the 1980s as agricultural intensity has reduced with the fall of former communist governments.

The European ground squirrel has been in the news recently in Vienna, Austria, where a colony of the threatened squirrels is delaying the construction of a new apartment complex. Officials in the city are trying to lure the animals away from the site by designing and constructing a new park nearby. The fifteen acre park will include "a wide range of flowers and herbs" that designers hope will induce at least half of the ground squirrels to move voluntarily, after which the remaining squirrels will be persuaded through the use of "light pressure" (what this would involve is not explained).

Of course, one might think that a more obvious solution would be to build the apartments on the site of the planned park, and let the ground squirrels stay where they are.

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