Rodents and Other Small Mammals
Several species of squirrels are common in Alberta. The golden-mantled ground squirrel, found in rocky outcrops of subalpine and alpine regions, has black stripes along its sides and looks like an oversized chipmunk. The Columbian ground squirrel has reddish legs, face, and underside, and a flecked, grayish back. The bushy-tailed red squirrel, a bold chatterbox of the forest, leaves telltale shelled cones at the bases of conifers. The lightly colored Richardson’s ground squirrel, which chirps and flicks its thin tail when it senses danger, is found across much of Alberta; on the prairie, it is often misidentified as a gopher. Another species, the nocturnal northern flying fox, glides through the montane forests of mountain valleys but is rarely seen.
One of the animal kingdom’s most industrious mammals is the beaver. Tipping the scales at approximately 20 kilograms (44 pounds), it has a flat, rudderlike tail and webbed back feet that enable it to swim at speeds up to 10 kilometers per hour (6.2 miles per hour). Beavers build their dam walls and lodges out of twigs, branches, sticks from felled trees, and mud. They eat the bark and smaller twigs of deciduous plants and store branches underwater, near the lodge, as a winter food supply. Muskrats also inhabit Alberta’s waterways and wetlands. They are agile swimmers and are able to stay submerged for up to 12 minutes.
Closely related to muskrats are voles, which are often mistaken for mice. They inhabit the prairies and lower elevations of forested areas. Kangaroo rats live on the shortgrass prairie within the Palliser Triangle. They propel themselves with leaps of up to two meters (6.6 feet). The furry shrew has a sharp-pointed snout and is closely related to the mole. It must eat almost constantly because it is susceptible to starvation within only a few hours of its last meal. The pygmy shrew, widespread throughout Alberta, is the world’s smallest mammal.
High in the mountains, hoary marmots are often seen sunning themselves in rocky areas at or above the tree line. When danger approaches, these large rodents emit a shrill whistle to warn their colony. Porcupines are common and widespread throughout all forested areas of the province.
Alberta has been rat-free since the 1950s.
Hares and Pikas
Hares and pikas are technically lagomorphs, distinguished from rodents by a double set of incisors in the upper jaw. Alberta’s varying hares are commonly referred to as snowshoe hares because their thickly furred, wide-set hind feet mimic snowshoes. Unlike rabbits, which maintain a brown coat year-round, snowshoe hares turn white in winter, providing camouflage in the snowy climes they inhabit. One of their Albertan cousins, the white-tailed prairie hare, has been clocked at speeds of 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour). Finally, the small, gray-colored pika, or rock rabbit, lives among the rubble and boulders of scree slopes above the tree line.
The weasel family is composed of dozens of species of small, carnivorous mammals, many of which can be found in Alberta. Widely considered pests by farmers, they are highly prized for their furs. The smallest weasel, and the world’s smallest carnivore, is the least weasel, widespread through lightly grassed areas and open meadows; it weighs just 70 grams (0.2 pound). At the other end of the scale is the wolverine, largest of the weasels, weighing up to 16 kilograms (35 pounds). This solitary, cunning, and cautious creature inhabits northern forests and subalpine and lower alpine regions. Inhabiting the same environment are fishers, quick, agile hunters that feed at night. Also frequenting subalpine and lower alpine regions is the marten, which preys on birds, squirrels, mice, and voles as it moves through the trees. The badger, a larger member of the weasel family, inhabits the prairies and parklands, and although widespread, is rare and very secretive. It is endowed with large claws and strong forelegs, making it an impressive digger. Two other related species divide their time between land and water. River otters have round heads; short, thick necks; webbed feet; long facial whiskers; and grow larger than one meter (3.3 feet) in length. These playful characters are active both day and night, and prey on beavers and muskrats. They are widespread but not common throughout the northern half of Alberta. Mink, at home in or out of water, are smaller than otters and feed on muskrats, mice, voles, and fish. Mink are especially sought after for their pelts; they are raised in captivity for this purpose at mink farms throughout the province.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition