Pocket gophers (Thomomys spp.) are burrowing rodents that get their name from the fur-lined external cheek pouches, or pockets, that they use for carrying food and nesting materials. They are well equipped for a digging, tunneling lifestyle with powerfully built forequarters, large-clawed front paws, fine short fur that doesn't cake in wet soils, small eyes and small external ears, and highly sensitive facial whiskers to assist movements in the dark.
Depending on the species, they may range in length from 6 to 10 inches. Although they are sometimes seen feeding at the edge of an open burrow, pushing dirt out of a burrow, or moving to a new area, gophers for the most part remain underground in the burrow system.
Mounds of fresh soil are the best sign of gopher presence. Mounds are formed as the gopher digs its tunnel and pushes the loose dirt to the surface. Typically mounds are crescent- or horseshoe-shaped when viewed from above. The hole, which is off to one side of the mound, is usually plugged. Mole mounds are sometimes mistaken for gopher mounds. Mole mounds, however, appear circular and have a plug in the middle that may not be distinct; in profile they are volcano-shaped. Unlike gophers, moles commonly burrow just beneath the surface, leaving a raised ridge to mark their path.
One gopher may create several mounds in a day. In nonirrigated areas, mound building is most pronounced during spring or fall when the soil is moist and easy to dig. In irrigated areas such as lawns, flower beds, and gardens, digging conditions are usually optimal year round and mounds can appear at any time. In snowy regions, gophers create burrows in the snow, resulting in long, earthen cores on the surface when the snow melts.
Pocket gophers live in a burrow system that can cover an area of 200 to 2,000 square feet. The burrows are about 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches in diameter; feeding burrows are usually 6 to 12 inches below ground, whereas the nest and food storage chamber may be as deep as 6 feet. Gophers seal the openings to the burrow system with earthen plugs. Short, sloping lateral tunnels connect the main burrow system to the surface and are created during construction of the main tunnel for pushing dirt to the surface.
Gophers do not hibernate and are active year-round, although fresh mounding may not be seen. They also can be active at all hours of the day. Gophers usually live alone within their burrow system, except for females with young or when breeding, and may occur in densities of up to 16 to 20 per acre.
Gophers reach sexual maturity at about 1 year of age and can live up to 3 years. Females produce one to three litters per year. In nonirrigated areas, breeding usually occurs in late winter and early spring, resulting in one litter per year, whereas in irrigated sites, up to three litters per year may be produced. Litters usually average five to six young.
Pocket gophers are herbivorous, feeding on a wide variety of vegetation, but generally preferring herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees. Gophers use their sense of smell to locate food. Most commonly they feed on roots and fleshy portions of plants they encounter while digging. However, sometimes they feed aboveground, venturing only a body length or so from their tunnel opening. Burrow openings used in this manner are called feed holes. They are identified by the absence of a dirt mound and a circular band of clipped vegetation around the hole. Gophers will also pull entire plants into their tunnel from below. In snow-covered regions gophers may feed on bark several feet up a tree by burrowing through the snow.
Pocket gophers often invade yards and gardens, and feed on many garden crops, ornamental plants, vines, shrubs, and trees. A single gopher moving down a garden row can inflict considerable damage in a very short time. Gophers also gnaw and damage plastic water lines and lawn sprinkler systems. Their tunnels can divert and carry off irrigation water and lead to soil erosion. Mounds on lawns interfere with mowing equipment and ruin the aesthetics of well-kept turfgrass.
To successfully control gophers, the sooner you detect their presence and take control measures, the better. Most people control gophers in lawns, gardens, or small orchards by trapping and/or by using poison baits.
IPM Program, University of California
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