SQUIRRELS! DECEMBER NATURALIST BY NUMBERS TOPIC
Common animals are not ordinary and they certainly are not boring. I recently started a bird behavior lecture on a nearby university campus with the American Robin in the opening remarks. I quickly received smirks from the class until they started to realize it is true…we have a lot to learn, even from the familiar in nature. The robin teaches the ardent birder; there is so much mystery with the animals who share our neighborhoods. Naturalists can always learn from regular encountered flora and fauna, it just takes willingness to learn.
I selected our three arboreal squirrel species to feature for December’s Naturalist by Numbers for that very reason. We may think we know these mammals well, but how much do we really know? I do know we are intrigued. It is the most common “critter conversation” I have on the work phone or in person at county fairs. It is either adored or disliked, and I hear the passion in the people’s stories; the animal is welcomed or discouraged with sometimes immense effort. Many people describe their backyard squirrel’s antics as remarkable and often the person can’t envision their squirrel’s account as commonplace.
Before examining their life histories, and their place in the ecological community and food web, think about your own familiar observations. We have seen them plunge their noses among the leaf litter mimicking beagles with parallel vigor. The rodent’s body seems to tremor while on the scent of sought hickory nuts and acorns. Their dark eyes center on us when we watch them with binoculars or the naked eye. Human eye to squirrel eye contact can trigger a frozen stance in the rodent. To the untrained eye they seem to play tag, freeze, “keep away” and hide & seek, but all those actions have meaning.
The closely related fox squirrel and eastern gray squirrel are commonly viewed in our area. However, most people don’t differentiate them or realize their separate niches in habitat, lifestyle and behavior. The fox squirrel’s coat is usually a yellowish red-brown, but the fur varies greatly with black patterns and highlights. While gray squirrels stay true to their name, we do have populations of white and even rarer black fur types in our region. Fox squirrels are also larger in body mass and have blockier facial features.
Both inhabit mixed hardwoods; grays tend to dominate in thicker forest and lush bottom lands. The fox squirrel thrives in open farmlands with hedgerows and scattered trees with little underbrush. They are likely to be found on the drier ridges and upland savannas and woodlands. It would be easy to surmise that fox squirrels would occupy residential neighborhoods with the well-spaced shade trees. However, the smaller sized grays are more aggressive and repeatedly out-compete their rival for urban yards and bird feeders.
The third squirrel to research and explore its habits and behaviors is the southern flying squirrel. These mammals are far more common than most people realize, but their nocturnal lifestyle conceals them well. The easiest way to assess their presence is to learn their nighttime vocalizations or perhaps shine a flashlight on your bird feeder after dark.
Flying squirrels are easy to recognize; they are smaller than the other “tree squirrels” and have a gliding membrane (loose fold of skin) on the side of their body from their wrists to their ankles. Their eyes by flashlight are ruby red, otherwise dark, large eyes help label these mammals as extremely CUTE!
There are volumes to be filled on the life histories of ordinary animals. Squirrels and robins are just a few of the familiar. Let’s take notice of them all.
Lastly, I guess I tell squirrel stories too. I described our night walk at the MMN Fall Retreat to a group of students at Wheaton and received this illustration of my tale. It’s as charming as that night stroll was thrilling! Nothing ordinary about these guys - Jeff
Photos by Becky Wylie and Ann Butts, and art by students at Wheaton School