Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day. I blogged about it last year, and couldn’t resist blogging about it again this year. After all, if it weren’t for the squirrels, I wouldn’t have any wildlife in my backyard during the winter!
Despite having a mostly-undeserved reputation as “vermin”, squirrels are beneficial to the ecosystem. They help disperse seeds, nuts, mushrooms and other types of fungi, and, as a result, are an important agent of reforestation. Eastern Grey Squirrels prepare for winter by burying stockpiles of seeds and nuts in several different places. Contrary to popular myth, squirrels do not find buried nuts by memory but by their highly developed sense of smell. Those which are not retrieved germinate, resulting in new growth in the spring. This helps to re-establish dwindling hardwood forests.
Red squirrels do not bury nuts or seeds, but instead leave them in huge piles beneath trees. It is thought that because Red Squirrels evolved in damp coniferous forests where their clearly-defined territories were relatively free from interference by other squirrels, the main problem they faced was not poaching by other squirrels but keeping their cones dry through the winter. This problem was solved by creating large piles of cones, nuts and other food items in the center of their territories which they live off of all winter long.
Both squirrels are opportunists when it comes to finding food. Their diet depends chiefly on what is available during each season. In early spring they feed mainly on the buds of hardwood trees, particularly maples. During the summer, their diet shifts to berries and other wild fruits, seeds, nuts, apples, insects, caterpillars, and occasionally birds’ eggs or young birds. In the autumn, hard nuts such as acorns, hickory nuts, butternuts, walnuts, beechnuts, and pine seeds are their most important foods, and squirrels spend most of the daylight hours gathering stockpiles for the winter. If a nut crop fails, the following winter can be very difficult for the squirrel.
Of course, birdfeeders and discarded people-food often become another source of food for these opportunistic feeders. Once I came across a squirrel feeding on a ketchup packet it had found on the ground!
In some parks and backyards, squirrels are so used to being fed by humans that they often run right up to people looking for handouts.
Red Squirrels are more wary and are less likely to climb up someone’s pant leg in an attempt to get the bag of seed in said person’s coat pocket. They will cleverly wait until the person scatters seeds and peanuts on the trail or on a stump for the birds before moving in and claiming the food entirely for itself!
The squirrels in my backyard are highly trained. They know that if I see them I will toss them a handful of peanuts, so they wait patiently on my back deck until I come to the door. Sometimes I have as many as eight or ten squirrels in the summer; winter numbers are usually lower. Only once have I seen a Red Squirrel in my backyard – the ones that I usually get are Eastern Grey Squirrels. Perhaps I don’t live close enough to the woods to get the red ones.
The abundance of both Eastern Grey and Red Squirrels makes them an important source of food for predators. Mammalian enemies of adult squirrels include mink, weasel, red fox, fisher and wolf. Young squirrels in the nest are vulnerable to raccoons, snakes, and even Red Squirrels. Birds of prey which feed on squirrels include Northern Goshawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks and occasionally Broad-winged Hawks. Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls also prey upon squirrels when the opportunity arises, and will feed on Northern Flying Squirrels in particular given that they are also nocturnal.
Unlike chipmunks, squirrels do not hibernate in the winter. They are most active around midday, perhaps to take advantage of the warmest temperatures. They leave distinctive tracks in the snow: the front feet leave round prints, while the hind feet leave prints which are triangular in shape and approximately three times as long as the front prints. When bounding across the snow, the hind feet leave prints slightly ahead of the front feet, which makes them look rather like two exclamation marks (!!).
You can’t discuss squirrels without mentioning their most distinctive physical feature: the large, bushy tail. Indeed, the Latin word for squirrel, sciurus, is derived from two Greek words: skia, meaning shadow, and oura, meaning tail. The combination of these two words describes a creature that sits in the shadow of its own tail.
Small, charming, intelligent, energetic and feisty, squirrels are hugely entertaining creatures. Take a moment to watch them today, and show your appreciation for this common and often misunderstood creature.