Richardson’s ground squirrels,
better known as gophers, are one
of the first signs of spring
As the calendar turns to March, nearly everyone it seems wants to leave winter and move into spring.
There are exceptions, people who do not want winter to end just yet. Folks like hardcore ice anglers, skiers and those who make a living plowing snow. But most of us are ready for a change.
Throughout the rest of the country (read: everywhere south of Montana) signs of spring are sprouting, from sales at local garden centers to newspaper headlines and blog sites telling you how to perk up your home for spring.
What’s your first sign of spring?
If it’s the first gopher, they are out and about already. Several people have reported seeing them scampering in late February.
Richardson’s ground squirrels, a.k.a. gophers, form a solid foundation in the food chain, eating mostly plants and serving as a prey base for carnivores.
Gophers feed primarily on a variety of native plants, like pigweed and blue grama. They can also become a pest in agricultural areas, eating grass and alfalfa.
They spend half of the year, or more, hibernating. Starting in mid to late summer, the small rodents disappear into their underground lairs and sleep.
The early appearing gophers are usually males. Females emerge mid-March to mid-April just in time for breeding season. And just in time for migrating raptors that eat gophers.
A friend once told me if it’s March it’s time to drive the back roads and watch for hawks perched on fence posts and eagles soaring over head, waiting for a gopher to pop up from underground.
As for other birds in the spring, March is the time when early migrants, such as western meadowlarks, make their first appearance.
Our state bird, the western meadowlark, has a distinct warbling song that it seems proud to show off even in the face of a March snowstorm. In the homestead era, the meadowlark’s song – a gushing of notes like water pouring from a bucket – signaled for prairie dwellers the end was near of another long, dark winter.
For antler hunters, March is when mature bull elk drop their headgear and immediately start growing a new rack. Bull elk take up to five months to grow a set of antlers. Since antlers usually stop growing by late August, big bulls must drop their antlers in March and start regrowth within a week or two.
March for anglers may mean heading to a reservoir to catch rainbow trout cruising shorelines that are looking for a place to spawn. The fish are searching for suitable gravel to deposit their eggs and milt, creating the next generation.
However, those eggs need oxygen typically provided by running water, like that found in a stream. As a result not many reservoir rainbows spawn successfully, which is why Montana’s reservoirs are stocked regularly.
Birds, mammals and fish all signal the coming of spring this month. Take time to notice.