NUSHAGAK GROUND SQUIRREL
PIONEERS OF ALASKA commonly call these rodents "parka" squirrels because the native Indians and Eskimos make their summer parkas or coats from their pelts. The Eskimo name for this ground squirrel is "sic-sic," and that for the hoary marmot "sic-sic-puk" or big ground squirrel.
A parka squirrel weighs about a pound and measures 14 or 15 inches from end of nose to tip of extended tail. The tail is about 4 inches long and is used as a prop or support when the squirrel sits upright in its characteristic "picket-pin" pose. Its ears are short and lie close to the head. In fresh fall pelage the squirrel's color has a grayish cast, but in summer coat the cheeks, forehead, and under parts all acquire a rusty tinge.
"Parka" squirrels become fat in late summer and usually go into hibernation for the winter early in October. They remain in hibernation under the snow for 6 months and do not reappear until the following April. Although excessively fat when they enter their long winter sleep, they emerge in the Spring so hungry!
By June, five to eight young have been added to the squirrel family. These youngsters grow rapidly, and in July each may be found independently seeking its own food. It is necessary that "parka" squirrels have large families because they are preyed upon by so many birds and animals, such as golden eagles and Alaska red foxes. These lowly ground squirrels are an important food for the large and powerful Toklat grizzly bear.
On July 2, 1926, at Sable Pass in Mount McKinley National Park, I watched a large female grizzly and her two cubs harvesting ground squirrels. The mother bear would chase a squirrel into its burrow and then, after tramping in all nearby squirrel burrows so that it could not escape, she would proceed to dig it out. First, she removed the sod and earth covering of the den with a few strokes of her powerful paws, then reached in, grasped the struggling victim in her teeth, and dragged it forth. Meanwhile the cubs stood expectantly close by, seemingly realizing that dinner was about to be served.
Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010