Hello. I’m Guy Gopher. I live in old farmer Bob’s prized alfalfa field—at least I used to live there. Let me tell you about our “war.”
My two sisters and I were born in a burrow under the ground. Mama gopher’s burrows of several dozen feet in length were located in a fertile field at the mouth of an Idaho canyon. The sloping ground allowed rain and irrigation water to quickly drain away, so we didn’t have to worry much about being flooded out of our burrows—a main worry of many of our relatives. Our nearby cousins living in very flat nearby fields where the farmer flood-irrigated periodically experienced awful problems, even displacement from burrows for a time, exposing them to enemy predators.
Our life was like heaven. We were one happy gopher family! Then it happened—Mama gopher called a family meeting. “Guy, you and the girls are all grown up enough to dig your own burrows.” Though we probably wouldn’t be going far, we said our fond goodbyes and each began digging our own new underground tunnels, which varied in depth between one and four feet below the surface. Nests would be placed in the deepest parts of the tunnel with small caches of plant for food nearby. Feeding tunnels were close enough to the surface to have access to plant roots which were our source of food.
At times, we would dig a short burrow off the main tunnel which we called laterals. One kind of lateral was a short burrow dug up to the ground surface where excess dirt from new tunnels could be pushed with the front part our chests and forefeet, forming a small, irregular “mound” of dirt on the aboveground surface. The bad part about this was that it gave our enemies instant information as to our likely whereabouts. So, in order to disguise our main tunnel locations as much as possible, we would plug these little surface “lateral” burrows, usually located directly adjacent to the mound, with one to several feet of compact soil. The part of the field Mama suggested I go was at the edge of a productive alfalfa field and in a raspberry patch. I loved the taste of alfalfa roots and when procuring food, would fill my cheek pouches–extra pockets outside but near my mouth–with alfalfa and dandelion roots and other nearby plant parts and carry them back to my home den area.
By the time winter arrived, I had many lateral tunnels branching off from the main tunnel in most every direction. We gophers hardly ever went aboveground as there were so many predator dangers there, including cats, dogs, foxes, humans, etc. However, I kept warm and cozy in my deeper nest area even during below zero temperatures above. During earlier wintertime when there were several feet of snow on the ground’s surface, I dug only a few additional tunnels because nearer the surface, the ground was frozen and it was downright hard to dig. Later in the winter when I did begin burrowing more and dug some short lateral tunnels to the snow-covered surface. Then I went up to the surface and carved out tunnels between the snow and the ground surface into which I could push my excess dirt from my new tunnels. After the snow melted these snow tunnels, now filled with compacted dirt, appeared as cores of solid soil meandering unevenly across the landscape on top of the ground.
When springtime finally did come, I found out right away that old farmer Bob both detested and hated us pocket gophers—that’s when our infamous “war” began. I never completely understood why, because I only did what I had seen Mama do and then follow my instincts. I admit that I probably damaged a few of his ‘ol plants—but, he would never have probably missed them! Obviously, that was not the mindset of farmer Bob! First, he tried to drown me when he watered his plants. He had found a recent surface mound and dug down through the plugged access tunnel until he came to my main burrow. Soon, a wave of irrigation water rushed towards me. I can swim when I have to–but it certainly is not my favorite sport! As the water level in my main tunnel rose rapidly, I first did my best to build a dam to stop the water, then I swam to the part of my burrow which was higher in elevation than the water source and curled up and shivered awhile and slept until I felt better and drier.
A few days later after the water was dried out, I made the mistake or digging new surface lateral tunnels to deposit excess soil into mounds on the surface. That did it! Soon I felt the ponderous vibrations of a heavy vehicle overhead. I heard a shovel, digging into my main tunnel. Then, I began smelling something yukky–what I later found was automobile exhaust—it made my head ache, so I immediately blocked my side of the tunnel with extra dirt I was pushing.
Farmer Bob must have gotten awfully frustrated, because I kept pushing up excess digging soil, forming mounds on the surface. One day, I smelled a new scent identified as oats and corn. They were poison, but I didn’t know it. I probably would have helped myself to them, but an uninvited meadow mouse, accidentally roaming through my burrows, ate all of the grain before I found it and lay dead in the bottom of the burrow. I began to get the idea that someone up there didn’t like me!
A few days later, I found some strange smelling metal object in my runways. I later found they were called “traps.” By now, I was becoming very cautious. As I quietly investigated the strange objects, I heard a “click” as the trap tripped. It’s jaws grabbed my fur and pinched me real proper, but I was able to free myself. That really scared me, so I was VERY careful from then on. Later, I heard the farmer say as he checked his traps, “That pesky gopher is smarter than I am.” I felt real proud!
From then on, each time I made a mound, even discretely, there would be a metal traps in each direction down the main tunnel. I was wise to the traps, even though some were set very cleverly. I would carefully trip each one and push dirt around them so they were very difficult to remove from above. Every day as Farmer would come to check his traps, I would hear him say something like, “Dang it, foiled again!”
With so many hazards to look out for, I finally told myself, “Guy, it time to be discrete and retreat.” So, I tunneled under the nearby fence out of the berry patch into the alfalfa field and begin constructing new tunnels. I noticed that Farmer Bob continued to check his dreaded traps inside the raspberry patch for an entire week—I smirked to myself.
My most dramatic near-encounter with old farmer Bob occurred the very next spring. I had moved back to the raspberry patch burrows. By now, I figured that I knew all of his sneaky tricks. I even carefully hid my mounds of extra dirt among the nearby weeds bordering the field. I was so wrong! The third day after I had concealed several mounds, the dreaded metal traps again appeared in my tunnels. While I was scurrying about trying to cover them up, I came a across a curious circular band of metal with a rock fastened to it. After I had finished tripping traps and covering them, I noticed the circular object still stuck in my burrow floor. The very next time I dug a lateral tunnel to get rid of extra dirt, I made sure that I pushed it together with the excess soil to the surface.
Then an extraordinary thing happened: Sure enough, Farmer found the new mound of soil and was fussing around trying to figure out how to shoot something called “tear gas” (whatever that was) into my tunnels, when he must have spotted the circular metal object. “Gazooks,” I heard him yell, “Here it is—my grandmother’s diamond wedding ring, the one I lost 50 years ago when I was a little kid picking peas in her garden. That pesky gopher found it.” I heard him shout all the way to the house as crashed headlong through row after row of his prized berry bushes.
Well, that’s the end of my story, sort of, that is. Today I am sitting in a tunnel under my very own berry patch, planted especially for me by my good friend and neighbor, farmer Bob, right next to his own patch. He even planted some delicious veggies, alfalfa and allowed dandelions to grow alongside to vary my diet.
“You see, I’m what you might call one very lucky GUY!”
Postscript – Have you ever seen a live pocket gopher?
There are several species of pocket gophers in the U.S., mostly in the western and southern parts of the country. Gophers are not popular with many farmers, ranchers and gardeners due to damage wrought on plant and crop roots. The northern pocket gopher, Thomomys talpoides, inhabits parts of most of the western United States as well as several southwestern Canadian provinces. There are 58 named subspecies. Coloration is variable depending on subspecies, from yellowish brown to grayish brown to almost black, and they are normally the size of a large mouse. Pocket gophers are fossorial (living underground) mammals and have poor eyesight, but their short hairless tails are sensitive to backwards movements in the dark underground tunnels. Large facial whiskers are sensitive and also assist in movement, even in the darkest of tunnels. Forefeet have long claws. These and teeth are used in digging burrows. Burrows consist of a main tunnel with lateral side branches which originate from the main tunnel. Gophers are herbivorous and often construct a nest with nearby food caches containing shrubs, grasses, forbs and tree roots. At rare times they may feed upon aboveground vegetation. Nests may be in burrows from one to four feet below the surface. An average of three to four young are born from March to June and there is usually only one litters/year, possibly two in the southern portions of their range. The gestation period is about 20 days. Sexual maturity is reached at one year. Longevity rarely exceeds five to six years.