The Ground Squirrel’s scientific name, Otospermophilus beecheyi, means “eared seed lover of Beechey.” This individual testified to the accuracy of the “seed lover” part. It climbed up into the crown of a fennel bush in the northeast corner of the park and feasted on the ripening seeds that grew there in abundance. Usually I see only birds feeding on the seeds up that high in a fennel bush. The squirrel seemed to have little trouble navigating the delicate swaying twigs.
The fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) isn’t every human’s favorite plant. It would be lovely if something more indigenous like coffeeberry, huckleberry, or the like thrived in this location. But they don’t. Until a large-scale effort to grow edible natives on the north side is begun and successfully completed — and there are no signs of that — the fennel remains a vital habitat for local wildlife. Squirrels dig burrows that provide shelter for other species, including gopher snakes, Western fence lizards, Burrowing Owls, and others. Several bird species, such as the Red-winged Blackbird, rely on the fennel not only for its nutritious seeds, but also as a habitat for nesting. Although it’s an immigrant with an invasive habit, the fennel has earned a place in the local ecology. There are many places in the park where it doesn’t belong, notably in the native plant communities established by DAWN, and elsewhere. But the existing fennel forests on the north side form a key link in the natural food chain, and deserve our acceptance.