Pocket gophers, often called gophers, Thomomys species, are burrowing rodents that get their name from the fur-lined, external cheek pouches, or pockets, they use for carrying food and nesting materials. Pocket gophers are well equipped for a digging, tunneling lifestyle with their powerfully built forequarters; large-clawed front paws; fine, short fur that doesn’t cake in wet soils; small eyes and ears; and highly sensitive facial whiskers that assist with moving about in the dark. A gopher’s lips also are unusually adapted for their lifestyle; they can close them behind their four large incisor teeth to keep dirt out of their mouths when using their teeth for digging.
Five species of pocket gophers are found in California, with Botta’s pocket gopher, T. bottae, being most widespread. Depending on the species, they are 6 to 10 inches long. For the most part, gophers remain underground in their burrow system, although you’ll sometimes see them feeding at the edge of an open burrow, pushing dirt out of a burrow, or moving to a new area.
Mounds of fresh soil are the best sign of a gopher’s presence. Gophers form mounds as they dig tunnels and push 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, usually is plugged. Mole mounds are sometimes mistaken for gopher mounds. Mole mounds, however, are more circular and have a plug in the middle that might 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 can 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 usually are 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 that is 200 to 2,000 square feet. The burrows are about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter. Feeding burrows usually are 6 to 12 inches below ground, and the nest and food storage chamber can 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; gophers create these while pushing dirt to the surface to construct the main tunnel.
Gophers don’t hibernate and are active year-round, although you might not see any fresh mounding. They also can be active at all hours of the day.
Gophers usually live alone within their burrow system, except when females are caring for their young or during breeding season. Gopher densities can be as high as 60 or more per acre in irrigated alfalfa fields or in vineyards. Gophers reach sexual maturity about 1 year of age and can live up to 3 years. In nonirrigated areas, breeding usually occurs in late winter and early spring, resulting in 1 litter per year; in irrigated sites, gophers can produce up to 3 litters per year. Litters usually average 5 to 6 young.
Pocket gophers are herbivorous and feed on a wide variety of vegetation but generally prefer 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, they sometimes feed aboveground, venturing only a body length or so from their tunnel opening. Burrow openings used in this manner are called “feed holes.” You can identify them by the absence of a dirt mound and by a circular band of clipped vegetation around the hole. Gophers also will pull entire plants into their tunnel from below. In snow-covered regions, gophers can feed on bark several feet up a tree by burrowing through the snow.
Pocket gophers often invade yards and gardens, feeding 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, which leads to soil erosion. Mounds on lawns interfere with mowing equipment and ruin the aesthetics of well-kept turfgrass.