Botta's Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae
DIET: Plants, especially their roots.
PREDATORS: Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes, herons.
HABITAT/RANGE: Mainly Western US. Anywhere with dry soil (for easy burrowing) and plenty of food. Commonly found in fields, forest edges, and backyards.
CONSERVATION STATUS: Least concern
WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB:
Most people have probably seen a Botta's pocket gopher before. These familiar rodents live in the ground in many backyards and fields, and the holes and mounds they make are telltale signs. While they are probably best known for the destruction they can cause to gardens and landscaped areas, in the wild they serve as an important part of the food web, as a food source for coyotes, raptors, and other predators.
The Botta's pocket gopher is a rodent that resembles a small hamster and has large buck teeth which are normally discolored. As a camouflage adaptation, the fur of a gopher usually matches the color of the local soil. Usually only the head and upper body of a gopher is seen, since it doesn't normally come fully out of the ground.
Even more commonly, gophers can be identified just by their holes and mounds.
Botta's pocket gophers are herbivorous, eating only plants. They usually eat from underground, by gnawing on the roots of plants or pulling the whole plant into their tunnels.
Gophers have many predators. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats, owls, hawks, snakes, and herons are among the animals that prey on the Botta's pocket gopher. Snakes, such as gopher snakes, crawl into the tunnels and eat the gophers. Great blue herons are often seen standing patiently in fields, waiting for a gopher to appear from its hole so the heron can catch it with its long beak. (More Mesa or Ellwood are good places to observe herons doing this.)
The Botta's pocket gopher spends most of its daily life underground (the term describing animals that do this is fossorial). While you may not see them, gophers are active all day, especially at dawn. They dig elaborate tunnel systems using their clawed feet and large teeth. The deeper tunnels have different compartments, such as latrines and food storage areas. They eat mostly from within shallow underground tunnels where they can pull plants by the root, but frequently dig up to the surface to survey their surroundings. Since they are low in the food web and adapted to being prey, they are very vigilant of their surroundings while above ground, and will return into their tunnels at any sign of a possible predator.
How to Observe Gophers
The best time to look for gophers is the morning. Go to a field or open space where there are a lot of gopher mounds and be quiet and still. You will likely see a few gophers poking their heads out of the ground.
Gophers, Gardens, and You
Despite gophers' important role in the food web, there's no denying the damage they can cause to people's yards, including eating plants and making the ground unstable and sunken. The best way to avoid these problems is to keep gophers out of your garden to begin with, such as by lining it underground with hardware cloth, and also making your yard unattractive to gophers by encouraging natural predators such as owls (and domestic ones such as cats). Traps are most strategically used when in combination with these exclusion-type methods, because otherwise by trapping one gopher you might just be making room for another to move in. Poisons should not be used, because they run the risk of harming local raptors and other rodent-eating animals, which is not only inhumane, but also counterproductive because these animals could otherwise be helping rid you of the gophers.
For more information about avoiding and resolving conflict with gophers in your yard, see Controlling Gophers.