The yin and yang of squirrels

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Eastern Grey Squirrel

After school recently, my son Leif and I came across an Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) racing up the side of a horse chestnut tree. It was a classic, frantic squirrel run—full of jumps, stares, and bounces as the squirrel seemed to be “freaked” by our presence. Almost as if it had never seen a human on this sidewalk that has been next to that particular tree for several decades at least. Squirrels just love to freak.

We stopped in time to see a second squirrel sticking its head out of a cavity opening lower in the tree and realized this was a housing unit for squirrels. Leif expressed his adoration for the fluffy rodents at this point, as I was thinking, “I, for one, care less for them.” There may be no other animal group that manages to be as under-appreciated and completely overrated at the same time as the squirrels (Corvids may be a close second!). Squirrels—rodents that please as they annoy.

Leif is his own person, of course, and while it was tempting to whip out the old “No son of mine is going to be a squirrel-hugger!!!” attitude, he is free to appreciate whatever rodent he chooses to. We did chat about “what exactly” he liked about the critters, and beyond aesthetic and intrinsic appreciation—which is more than enough to “like” a squirrel on Instagram—we realized we didn’t really know too much about them. It was time to look some scat up!

When we got home Leif started the Grey Squirrel research and quickly found some interesting facts about the species. Members of the order Rodentia, and more specifically the family Sciuridae—Eastern Grey Squirrels are native to eastern North America—from Florida and Texas through southern Manitoba and New Brunswick. Grey Squirrel bodies can be up to a foot long, the bushy tail can add almost another foot in length, and in the wild—away from bird feeders—they average about a pound in weight. Typically grey in color, populations in urban areas where predation is low will often have dark individuals of a “melanistic form.” These black squirrels are loaded with “melanin” and show a higher tolerance for cold temps when compared to the common grey form. We had seen the melanistic form of the Western Grey Squirrel in California last summer, so the thought of seeing a black Eastern Grey Squirrel was pretty exciting.

Leif was surprised to find that people still hunt Grey Squirrels for food, even though “Eleven” cooked one up to eat, only to use it as a weapon, in season two of “Stranger Things.” The info on eating squirrels came with a warning—“Do not eat Grey Squirrel brains.” Apparently Grey Squirrels can transmit Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal degenerative brain disorder for humans. And while we would never wish this disease onto anyone, we found the fact that a dead squirrel can seek revenge with its brain pretty cool. Another reason not to eat squirrel brains.

Leif continued to read about Grey Squirrels caching acorns each winter and how many of these stashed nuts are never retrieved. The whole “forests being planted by forgetful squirrels” was being alluded to, which is a fun perspective on the forests in general.

And while Eastern Grey Squirrels can be beneficial for woods in these parts, this species has been introduced around the globe—from South Africa to Italy to the Hawaiian islands—and is considered an “invasive” pest at several of these landing spots. Eastern Greys were brought to Britain in the 1870s as fashionable additions to estates. That’s right, in 1870s Britain increasing rodent numbers on your property was seen as an upgrade and something to be proud of. The squirrels spread rapidly from these estates and across England and into Wales and Scotland, almost entirely displacing native Red Squirrel populations.

Leif points out a squirrel housing unit

In my experience, it’s New Englanders with bird-feeding systems who are more likely to hold a grudge against Grey Squirrels than anyone else (squirrels stealing bird food, how rude!). I developed my dislike of squirrels through interactions with the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Many a serene moment has been dislodged and re-directionalized by a Red Squirrel screaming alarm at my presence. I never find their bones in pellets or their remains below a nest of a predator, so I can’t even write off their annoying traits with a “they-are-an-important-part-of-the-food-chain” talk. The best I can come up with, and I have tried, is that they tidy up the woods a little. Each fall local Red Squirrels have made piles of spruce cones in the woods. The cones will soon be cached in between tree roots and under logs for future meals. When the best thing you can say about an animal is that once a year it “cleans” the forest, you know they take up little space in your heart. Sorry Red Squirrels, but not sorry.

I try hard to let Leif make up his own mind about what he likes be it movies, music, nature or whatever. Although they are correct, I keep my negative judgments to myself when he shows interest in something I am not a particular a fan of. Our talk about squirrels was one of the hardest tests of this “perspective control,” but in the end he is, of course, free to like them if he wants. Maybe our views aren’t complimentary enough to be yin and yang, but it’s always great to see how his mind works. I think that means I may be appreciating squirrels in a way. Darn.

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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