European ground squirrels in Vienna

European ground squirrels and other wildlife have found a habitat in the capital of Austria - Vienna. One good spot to observe these ground dwelling rodents are the Blumengärten Hirschstetten in the north of the city. In this blog entry I write more about this place and the European ground squirrels which live there.

They love steppes. Or any type of grassland. But also, lawns, parks and any other man-made habitat. Thus, why not choose Vienna as a home as a short-grass-and-steppe-loving squirrel?

Well, the European ground squirrels indeed did so.

European ground squirrels

European ground squirrels (Spermophilus citellus) - also known as European souslik - are small animals and very adorable with their small rounded ears and their large and dark eyes.

But what kind of animals are European ground squirrels?

Well, they belong - as the name already suggests - like the Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) to the squirrel family Sciuridae. Both are animals with slim bodies and bushy tails.

However, not all animals of the squirrel family are like that.

Just think of the Alpine marmots. They have a bushy tail, as well, but they are not that slim like the other two squirrel species.

Eurasian red squirrel
Alpine marmot

There are many, many more squirrels on earth. Even in Brazil. In Brazil I encountered, for example, Brazilian squirrels (Sciurus aestuans), also known as Guianan squirrels (photo below).

Importantly, however, the Brazilian squirrel is closer related to the Eurasian red squirrel than to the European ground squirrels as both - the Brazilian squirrel and the Eurasian red squirrel - are in the same genus Sciurus.

European ground squirrels, in contrast, belong to the genus Spermophilus.

Guianan squirrel

Interesting: There are about 15 ground squirrel species within the genus Spermophilus. The European ground squirrel is one species. Other species are, for example, speckled ground squirrels (Spermophilus suslicus) or Anatolian ground squirrels (Spermophilus xanthoprymnus).

Another genus within the Sciuridae family are prairie dogs (Cynomys). Their natural habitats are in North America and there are just five species known so far.

One species is the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).

I saw them once in the Tierpark Berlin.

black-tailed prairie dog

I will not go more into details with respect to taxonomy. It is complicated and often requires further research.

Nevertheless, European ground squirrels and all the other squirrels are adorable rodents and possess like all rodents a single pair of continuously growing incisors, both in the upper and in the lower jaw.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

I could especially see very well these incisors in Alpine marmots when I encountered them at the Königsbacher Alm in the Berchtesgadener Land.

Alpine marmot

The good thing about European ground squirrels is, that they are diurnal. Thus, no sleepless nights and night walks are necessary to observe these charming animals.

European ground squirrels live in underground burrows and hide when they feel threatened like, for example, in the proximity of a predator. Therefore, they use these underground burrows also as a save place for their young.

European ground squirrel

Interesting: European ground squirrels need their burrows also in the winter months for hibernation. Similar to Alpine marmots or common hamsters, they hibernate from already August until the next March or April.

As they live in burrows, they rely on short vegetation and well-drained soils. They also prefer a habitat with enough light.

As ground dwellers they possess sharp claws for burrowing.

Other physical characteristics are their short, dense and yellowish-grey fur on the rear which is typically lighter on the ventral side.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

With their body length ranging between about 20 and 28 cm and a weight lower than 400 g, European ground squirrels are rather small animals.

If there is one European ground squirrel, there might be even more of them around as they live in colonies. And indeed, I saw quite many of them at the same time.

European ground squirrel playing in the grass

Interestingly, however, they interact with each other, but in contrast to many primate species like golden lion tamarins or common marmosets, they are not considered as social animals. They occupy their own burrow and don’t share with nearby members of the same colony.

Interesting: Although European ground squirrels are no social animals, they warn other members of the colony against predators using vocalizations. There are eight types of calls that have been already described among these squirrels. Alarm calls, however, are the loudest and most commonly used calls.

European ground squirrels are typically characterized as omnivorous animals with respect to their food habits. They principally feed on leaves and flowers.

They even store food like seeds, grains, and fruits under the ground in their burrows.

European ground squirrel feeding
European ground squirrel feeding
European ground squirrels in Vienna

In a study it was shown that European ground squirrels might even feed on voles, mice, shrews, moles, and hedgehogs!

Reading more about these facts was indeed quite surprising for me, because rodents are principally herbivores. On the other hand, rodents like alpine marmots, as well, do not exclusively feed on plants. They, for example, might also feed on insects, spiders or worms.

As European ground squirrels are interesting and enchanting animals, I decided to pay them a visit when I was in Vienna. I knew before that there was a colony of them in a place called Blumengärten Hirschstetten.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

In the next paragraph I will write more about this public place in the northeast of Vienna.

Information: European ground squirrels are native to southeast Europe including Austria, but also Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, or Moldova among other countries. In the past, they were even distributed in Germany and Poland. However, in Germany they are now extinct, but in Poland they were successfully reintroduced again.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Due to the short active season, of course, summer is the best month to visit the European ground squirrels in Vienna. Before I started to write about these magnificent animals on this blog, however, I was asking myself a very important question.

Should I share the name of the place where the European ground squirrels can be found in Vienna? Or shouldn’t I do that?

Well, at the end I came to a compromise.

As the Blumengärten Hirschstetten is a public place, I name this location.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

The other place in Vienna where European ground squirrels can be observed, in contrast, is also a public place, but not a place like the Blumengärten Hirschstetten. It is a place just next to a housing development. Therefore, I won’t tell the name of this location.

The reason for this is easy to understand.

As these European ground squirrels are wild animals, I don’t want too many people to know where to find them.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

But why do I write about the European ground squirrels in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten and not about the other place?

Well, the Blumengärten Hirschstetten is a public place and most people interested in visiting this place will see these animals anyway (you cannot oversee them). Furthermore, people that wish to see these animals will find out about them anyway quite quickly. I also perceived that the European ground squirrels in the Blumengarten Hirschstetten are quite less shy than the ones at the other place.

When I entered the gardens, I was heading into the direction of the zoological area where I thought to might find the European ground squirrels.

But when I was close to a playground, I stopped.

There was the first European ground squirrel!

European ground squirrel in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Information: There are several areas in the Blumengärten Hirschstätten. There are even theme playgrounds like the one about insects. Especially important to mention is that they also have an environmental program. Please visit the official website of the gardens to get more information.

I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. I didn’t want to disturb this animal.

Although these European ground squirrels live in the middle of a public area - here on a playground! - I thought they might be used to people.

But still, this animal was quite shy, elusive, and even frightened!

I only had a short moment alone with this individual. Just a few moments later, a group of preschool children arrived at the playground. I backed down, packed my camera, and left.

Unfortunately, the European ground squirrel could not retract!

European ground squirrel in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten
European ground squirrel in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Information: According to the IUCN, the European ground squirrel is in the category “endangered” on the red list. Threats are urban and industrial developing, but also recreational activities. Not to forget pollution and climate change or agricultural activities.

It was trapped in an area filled with sand and was too frightened to cross the lawn to flee into its burrow.

I couldn’t help.

The preschool teacher saw what happened but didn’t intervene.

In my opinion they should have asked the children to back down for a minute to give that European ground squirrel a chance to flee into its burrow...

I could flee and went into the direction of the TCM garden.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

In that area - which is closer to the small zoo of the gardens - were even more European ground squirrels.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Information: TCM is the abbreviation for Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is an area close to the zoological area in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten. There are several typical plants in the TCM garden used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I'm sure that this is an interesting place for botanists.

Although I was not the only visitor, it was much quieter in the TCM garden than on the playground. It was around midday when I arrived. Another wildlife photographer was present. She was lying on the grass with her camera capturing beautiful moments of some European ground squirrels.

When she left, I did the same.

European ground squirrels

In that moment, I didn’t want to disturb her and decided to look for another place, as there were so many of the squirrels around.

Quite many of these animals were in the close-by Mexican garden where some of them hid in their burrows while others were searching for food.

European ground squirrels in Vienna
European ground squirrels

Information: Just next to the Mexican garden is the Pannonian Garden. This garden is characterized by three types of dry grassland depending on the soil. Thus, it is either a lime, loess or sand steppe. In that area I found again several European ground squirrels.

The gardens looked like a paradise for European ground squirrels (except for the many visitors...). Or was it the wrong impression I got?

I’m sure they also have some of their typical predators to fear. Even in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten. Birds of prey, foxes, weasels, domestic cats and even snakes might find their way to the gardens and be a threat for them.

European ground squirrels reach on average a lifespan of 2.3 years. In captivity they might even reach a lifespan of 6.7 years on average.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

I spent most time around the Mexican and TCM garden. As it was a hot day, I enjoyed the few shady places and the cool grass under my barefoot feet.

I had such a joy observing these amazing animals. Sometimes they were just lying in the grass. Just like me. And sometimes they were playing.

European ground squirrels in Vienna
European ground squirrels in Vienna

When other visitors came by or when I was moving too fast, they vanished. But after a short moment, they appeared again from their burrows.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

Considering that European ground squirrels even might occur on sports fields, golf courses or pastures, I think, the Blumengärten Hirschstetten is a comparatively nice, good, and quiet place for them.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Even with all us visitors. There is staff around which hopefully intervenes when these animals are disturbed by people.

In the afternoon before I was leaving the Blumengärten Hirschstetten, I walked around the gardens and admired all the beautiful other areas.

I found colorful meadows.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Or a garden for turtles. Some of the turtles were aquatic, while others live on land.

Correspondingly, there was a small pond in the center of the turtle garden and several small caves for the turtles as hiding place or bushes to find shadow.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten

I especially liked the Indian garden. It was colorful and very beautiful. However, as it was very hot on that day and as I had already been in the Central Cemetery to photograph common hamsters in the morning, I decided to leave the Blumengärten Hirschstetten after visiting the Indian garden.

Blumengärten Hirschstetten
Blumengärten Hirschstetten

Information: If you cannot find any European ground squirrel - which is very unlikely - there are some of them in enclosures in the zoological area. Please visit the website of the Blumengärten Hirschstetten to find more information.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

Vienna is an amazing place for wildlife watching. If I would live in Vienna, I would have a great time in the city. Although it is the capital of Austria and has almost two million inhabitants, Vienna is still a great wildlife spot.

I already mentioned in my previous post about the common hamsters that I wished to have been able to see more wildlife in Vienna.

But I had to focus.

And my focus in Vienna were the common hamsters on one side and the European ground squirrels on the other side.

European hamster in Vienna
European ground squirrels

I really had a good time in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten with the European ground squirrels. But anyhow, it didn’t really feel like having wild animals in front of me. The animals were shy and elusive. They didn’t live in any enclosure. And they lived in their burrows.

But they lived so close to a recreational area often filled with many people.

It was difficult to think of “wild animals” in that case.

Therefore, I decided to look for another place to observe European ground squirrels.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

I have to say that it was quite a different experience.

While the European ground squirrels in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten were already quite shy and elusive, the animals at that other place typically vanished even before seeing me.

There were two meadows.

On the first meadow I could not get a close-up of any ground squirrel.

But on the second meadow (closer to the houses), one individual remained at its burrow entrance observing me.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

I tried my best to be as inconspicuous as possible. Every move might frighten the animal.

It was the only individual I saw at that place. But it showed up several times.

When it was down in its burrow, I moved a little bit closer to the burrow and sat down quietly again.

Luckily, I didn’t frighten the squirrel. If it didn’t show up, I knew it was too close and I backed down again.

European ground squirrels in Vienna

However, I didn’t want to stress the animal and I didn’t want to stay too long close to it.

I went twice to those meadows. On the first visit it was quite hot and humid. On the second visit I was longing for a quiet and “boring” place like those meadows, as in the morning I was in the zoo of Vienna. It was such a contrast. Although I'm okay with visiting a zoo, it felt quite busy there. And on those two meadows, on the other hand, I was quite far away from all the people and the rush of zoo visitors. It felt good in that moment.

Nevertheless, be it in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten or on that meadow anywhere in Vienna, I had a good time with the European ground squirrels and enjoyed every moment!

Tip: If you are interested in wildlife photography, I recommend to use a lens with a long focal distance. Even in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten it is necessary to use such a lens due to the great flight distance of the animals.

Practical information

There are three entrances in the Blumengärten Hirschstetten. There is one in the north, one in the south and another in the west of the gardens. I arrived at the entrance in the south.

There are different options to get to the gardens. As Vienna has a great public transportation net, I got easily around by bus, tram and train. There are several options for visitors. I bought a 72-hour Vienna City Card.

Please visit the website of the Blumengärten Hirschstetten or the Wiener Linien to find a connection.

On the website of the gardens, you will also find up-to-date information about opening hours, workshops and tours.

More information

European ground squirrels
European ground squirrels

Have you ever seen European ground squirrels? Or have you been in the gardens Blumengärten Hirschstetten? If yes, please let me know about your experiences in the comments.

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