Have you noticed tunnels, holes, chewed up tree roots, and devastated plants and flower beds on your property? What could possibly be going on? Chances are you are undergoing a gopher infestation. Only by learning the general facts about gophers can you hope to successfully combat their invasion of your back yard or farm field. Gophers in the wild are a helpful part of the local ecosystem; gophers in your yard are disruptive and unacceptable. Here’s what you need to know:
What Is a Gopher? In the construction industry, a “gopher” is an errand boy, someone sent to “go-for” this or that tool and bring it back. In your yard, a gopher is a medium-large, furry rodent normally weighing about half a pound and measuring 6 to 8 inches long with a short stubby tail.
Gophers’ fur can range from black to an off-white, but it is typically some shade of brown. And fur color is usually a close match to soil color with gophers.
There are some 35 species of gophers spread out all over the continent of North America, but the gophers you are dealing with are likely “pocket gophers.”
Pocket gophers have furry pouches, or “pockets, ” on their cheeks in which they store food while transporting it. They have small beady eyes and use their one to two inch long tails to “navigate by feel” when walking backwards through their tunnels.
Being similar to many other rodents, gophers often get confused with any of the following other burrowing animals: Groundhogs, Ground squirrels, Prairie dogs, Moles, Voles. Look for the features we mention just above to avoid any confusion, and especially for the tell-tale mouth pockets.
Do Gophers Live Alone? Within a particular gopher burrow, you will probably find but a single gopher, unless a female is there caring for young or it is breeding season. That said, if you see one gopher on your property, you can expect to find more. Up to 60 gophers can infest a single acre of land.
Gophers live only in North and Central America, except for a few in the South American nation of Colombia. Their spread ranges from southern Alberta on the Canadian Great Plains, down through all the western U.S. and Mexico, and as far south as Panama. There is also one species of gopher that lives in Florida, though most of eastern North America is “gopher-less.”
Gophers aren’t especially picky about their habitat, and they live at elevations ranging from just above sea level to over 12,000 feet. They will take up residence in almost any soil type, though lighter soils are preferable. They like a thick covering of vegetation, which can anything from sod to an alfalfa field.
On the other hand, soils must be sufficiently deep to allow for tunneling and temperature control during hot and cold seasons. And anything more than 10% rocks can deter gophers from burrowing in a locality.
What’s in a Gopher’s Diet?
Pocket Gophers love to nibble on all manner of vegetation, especially on underground bulbs.
Their diet includes:
- Flower bulbs,
- Tubers of common weeds,
- Thick roots of grasses,
- Garden vegetables,
- Crops in farm fields,
- Small, soft-bodied insects.
Gophers will chew on roots they encounter while tunneling. Sometimes they will come to the surface to feed or even bring food back underground or store it in their cheek pockets. And one final amazing fact about gophers’ eating habits: gophers consume over half their own body weight every single day!
We see what gophers feed on, but what feeds on gophers? The most common predators of pocket gophers are other burrowers and diggers like coyotes, foxes, skunks, and weasels. Above ground, they often fall prey to owls and large birds of prey.
Do Gophers Eat Tree Roots? Yes! Gophers will eat tap roots of trees, especially of fruit trees of of young saplings. This can devastate newly planted trees. But after a few years in the ground, most trees are safe.
Types of Gophers
There are dozens of gopher species in the U.S., but the two most troublesome among them are:
- Botta’s Pocket Gopher: The Botta is common in California and can tunnel successfully in almost any soil type. It is a major pest on landscaping projects and in alfalfa fields.
- The Plains Pocket Gopher: Inhabiting all the Great Plains from Canada to Texas, the Plains Pocket Gopher can tunnel up to 65 feet per week and is known to both fight other gophers for territory and share burrows with other gophers.
Other common gopher types include:
- The Yellow-faced Pocket Gopher of West Texas, which prefer rural, short-grass prairies.
- The Giant Pocket Gopher of Central and South America that grows up to a foot long.
- The grey-furred Smokey Pocket Gopher of southern Mexico.
Looking at the damage they have done to your property, you might be tempted to say “Gophers don’t behave!” But, all animals have characteristic behaviors. Learn these gopher behavioral traits to better understand “the enemy:”
Tunneling and Other Activity
Gophers are built for burrowing and tunneling, and they have the instinct for it as well. Their squat necks, sturdy, muscular legs, and impressively large claws are ideal equipment for a life of underground excavation. Gophers also use their overgrown teeth to push dirt and dig tunnels.
Gophers will also construct volcano-shaped hills or create grassy, hidden “doors” over their subterranean entry points. Aside from foraging for food below or above ground, sleeping in their burrows, and producing more gophers, there is little else that a gopher’s life involves.
Mating and Reproduction
A gopher will mate one or two times during a year, spring being the prime breeding season. The females will have litters of between one and six, the young being born only 3 weeks after conception.
The newborns are pink, hairless, and wrinkled, with eyes shut tight. Only about 5 weeks after birth, however, baby gophers are weaned from mama’s milk and ready to go dig a burrow of their own.
Gophers have very little social interaction aside from during the mating season and while raising up a litter of baby gophers. They tend to be solitary in disposition, even though dozens of them live in relatively close proximity.
How to Identify Damage
Believe it or not, not all damage to your yard is due to gophers. After all, there are other critters out there who would love to wreck you lawn. Here are some signs that it may indeed be a gopher who is to blame:
Signs of Damage
The most obvious sign of a gopher infestation is, of course, the mounds and other signs of their burrows. Tunnels can wind throughout a whole yard or field in a complex way and lead to holes when you accidentally stop on one too heavily.
Another sign you have gophers and thus gopher damage is when you hear someone whistling at you but see no one in sight. Gophers, like groundhogs, try to scare off “intruders” with their whistle.
Signs of gopher damage include:
- Mounds of dirt covering and killing vegetation and destroying your well manicured lawn.
- Zones devoid of vegetation located near a gopher mound.
- Plants that look very unhealthy because their roots have been gnawed on.
- The soft bark of young trees being eaten away or “girdled” as it is called.
- Damaged underground electric cables, telephone lines, gas lines, water lines, or other utilities.
- Ground crickets and carrion beetles appearing in your house in great numbers. They probably got in through gopher tunnels leading up to your home’s foundation.
How Deep Are Gopher Burrows/Tunnels?
Gopher tunnel systems can cover up to 2,000 square feet of turf and can lead as far as 3 to 6 feet under the ground. Burrows are usually only 6 to 12 feet underground and about 2.5 to 3.5 inches across. The nesting area and food-storage room may be a full six feet down.
Pocket gophers are industrious and amazing creatures, but when they dig their extensive tunnel systems in your yard or field, that is unacceptable. Now that you know some essential gopher facts and know how to identify gopher damage, it may be time to get started de-gophering your property instead of just reading about it!
You can find further details of Gophers Control here.