Foxtail Solution

Wherever nature presents a problem, it often also offers a solution. Problem: Foxtails. Solution: Ground Squirrels. These individuals (in the video) from opposite sides of the park had the same idea and the same skill set. Foxtails are devices for distributing seeds. The seeds are configured in circles around a central spine, much like grains of corn on a cob. These seeds are nutritious. Most foxtails are barley, one of the major grain crops on earth. An enormous range of foods and feeds is made from barley; everything from bread to beer. We humans don’t think of foxtails as potential nutrition; to us it’s a nuisance underfoot, and a potential injury to our pets. The squirrels are down there eye-to-eye with the foxtails, more or less as peers. They understand that foxtails are food. With their clever front paws, they tear off the head of the foxtail stalk and rapidly gnaw the seeds, much like we do with an ear of corn. Given enough squirrels the foxtail problem at the park would soon be cut to scale.

As I mentioned earlier, the squirrels’ scientific name, Otospermophilus beecheyi, means “Beechey’s eared seed lover.” Frederick William Beechey (1796-1856) was a British Navy officer and explorer. As captain of the ship Blossom, he visited a Catholic mission in California in 1826, and penned this description of a mass:

” …with whips, canes and goads or sharp, pointed sticks to preserve silence and maintain order, and what seemed more difficult than either, to keep the congregation in their kneeling posture. The goads would reach a long way and inflict a sharp puncture without making any noise. The end of the church was occupied by a guard of soldiers under arms with fixed bayonets.”

Beechey may have seen the ground squirrel, which has long made its home in California, during that voyage, but left no record of the observation. It was his contemporary John Richardson, a Scottish Navy surgeon, explorer and naturalist, who attached Beechey’s name to the animal, “in honour of the able and scientific Commander of the Blossom.” Beechey considered it a kind of marmot (Arctomys). It was Richardson who noted that its ears were larger than that of a similar species, the basis of the “oto” (ear) preface to the scientific name. An engraving appears in Richardson’s Fauna Boreali-Americana; or the Zoology of the Northern Parts of British America, published in London in 1829, now readily available online.

“Arctomys spermophilus Beecheyi” engraving published 1829

Apparently neither Beechey nor Richardson nor any naturalist since has taken the trouble to inquire about the indigenous people’s name or names for the squirrel. So we have ended up with a California native mammal bearing a name bestowed by two British explorers, only one of whom ever set foot in California, almost two hundred years ago.

Ground squirrel breaking off a foxtail to eat

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