Our Suburban Friend, the Squirrel
This engaging little fellow is certainly more welcome than his cousins, the tunneling ground squirrels, which include prairie dogs and woodchucks, and which can be quite a bit more destructive to the typical suburban lawn with its ordered landscape of annuals and perennials. Pictured here is an Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciuridae carolinensis), one of the most commonly encountered species of tree squirrel in eastern North America. A variant subspecies of Black Squirrel also happens to be quite prevalent in my area; there is a full tribe of the jet-black rodents scampering from tree to deck to grille to flowerbed most mornings. Other common North American strains include the Fox Squirrel, the Douglas Squirrel, the American Red Squirrel, and the Western Grey Squirrel. Europe is home to both the Eastern Grey Squirrel and the Red Squirrel (sometimes referred to as the Eurasian Red Squirrel). Other squirrel species inhabit Africa and Asia, including the world's smallest squirrel, the African pygmy (no more than five inches from nose-tip to tail-end). There are perhaps more than 200 species of squirrel worldwide.
Squirrels tend to get along fairly well with humans, though their need to insistently chew on just about anything they encounter, including power lines and power components (to control the constant growth of their teeth), leads to a great number of power outages annually. Squirrels have reportedly felled the mighty NASDAQ exchange twice. These creatures can also bedevil bird feeders, or make a 'drey', or squirrel nest, in an accessible basement or attic. Nut farmers can sometimes feel besieged by voracious squirrels; as a creature that stores (or caches) food, the squirrel will often take as much of a food source as it finds available. The most stressful time for squirrels is typically early spring, when the previous year's nuts have already started sprouting and are therefore inedible, but the new year's nut crop has not yet developed. Squirrels will most often subsist on nuts, seeds, cones, fungi, fruit and some greenery. But, when confronting scarcity and hunger, a squirrel may also consume eggs, insects, small birds, young lizards or snakes, and even smaller rodents. Squirrels' amicable urban and suburban coexistence with human populations depends in great part on humans being ready and willing food suppliers, and squirrels being ready eaters.
Also endearing squirrels to humans are their small size and rather cute appearance, their antic behavior, and their intelligence. Squirrels can be trained and can be made pets, though both tasks are substantially easier with squirrels that have been raised by humans from birth. However, one should probably not consider training nor taking on as a pet the Indian giant squirrel, a creature that can reach three feet in length (how many nuts must one provide daily to a squirrel that large?). Virtually all tree squirrels are excellent climbers; the flying squirrels can also coast through the air for distances of 150 feet or more, employing astute leaps and the winglike skin flaps that connect their extended limbs to their bodies. Environmentalists are striving to protect small pocket groups of flying squirrels residing in higher elevations of portions of West Virginia and Virginia.
Squirrels are rodents, as are mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, beavers, gophers and porcupines. In fact, about 40 percent of all mammals on the planet are rodents. They are all graced with gnawing incisors that never stop growing; the name rodent derives from the Latin word for 'gnawing'. But being rodents, like many other animals considered vermin, hasn't stopped squirrels from becoming popular. In Olney, Illinois, that town's peculiar breed of white albino squirrels has right-of-way on all city streets. An Albino Squirrel Preservation Society exists at an Austin university. Other popular populations of albino squirrels pepper cities throughout America's Midwest. Squirrels in popular culture (all animated) include the hapless Scrat of the Ice Age movies, SpongeBob SquarePants' friend Sandy Cheeks, and, of course, Rocket J. Squirrel, better known as Rocky the Flying Squirrel, pal to Bullwinkle the Moose.
Squirrels are also popular in yet another way. They have been hunted for food throughout the Southern United States for just about as long as there have been squirrels and humans jointly occupying the region. They are considered just another free-range game animal (albeit a rather small one). You know a food is fairly popular when several recipes listing it as a primary ingredient appear in The Joy of Cooking cookbook. To combat the apparent ouster of the native red squirrel by the invasive grey squirrel throughout the United Kingdom, Brits have in fact been encouraged to save the red, by trapping and eating the grey.
A group of squirrels is known as either a dray or a scurry of squirrels. (So, do we watch the scurry scurry, as the dray heads to their drey?) The name 'squirrel' has evolved from a Greek term meaning 'shadow-tail', describing the animal's habit of seemingly shading itself with its tail as it perches on a lawn or tree branch. Squirrels can be prolific, since the average litter is around four pups, and, if food supplies are adequate, a female can bear two litters a year (gestation periods for different species of squirrels range from about 1 month to 2). Pups are born at about an ounce in weight, hairless, toothless and sightless. Most suburban squirrels grow to no more than a foot or so in overall length, and up to about one pound in weight, and may live to a mature six years. In urban and suburban areas, squirrels often expire earlier, from encounters with vehicles. The squirrel's natural instinct when sensing an approaching predator is to zig-zag and scurry about to confuse it; unfortunately, however, there are just not that many SUVs that can be confused by a zig-zagging squirrel. Find out more at rickzworld.