Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In Praise of Squirrels. Really.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis)
Melanistic subgroup ("Black Squirrel")
Last week Monday I came home to what is, for me, a very upsetting situation: An animal in distress. A little black squirrel was in my back yard, moving lethargically and erratically, obviously disoriented and possibly seriously injured. As I approached it, carefully, it darted a short distance until it got tangled in some Clematis vines.

The squirrel was so beautiful - black fur soft and thick as the feathers of night, a dense, bushy tail; I was able to reach out and gently touch its haunch, so disoriented was it. It was obviously suffering from a recent injury or other affliction - other than its behavior, it was the picture of squirrel health. I called my vet, described the situation to the receptionist, who conveyed the details to the veterinarian on duty. I was told that, if I could capture the squirrel and bring it in, they could perform a humane euthanasia. Not being certain as to whether the little guy was simply injured or suffering from some neuropathic toxin, I opted to see if I could manage to get a hold of it and bring it in.

You know something is wrong when a middle-aged woman can actually catch a squirrel. It did bite me, through my gardening glove, but I managed to gently smother it in a large burlap sack and place it in a cardboard box. The little guy was quiet for the brief drive - I wondered if he'd had a seizure due to our encounter. I got him to the vet's office, where they took him back for evaluation. I later learned that he was so severely injured - probably due to a fall resulting in a closed-head injury, which is not uncommon this time of year - that the vet did elect to euthanize him.

Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)
I know, from informal surveys of some of the groups for whom I've spoken, that there are a lot of folks out there who don't particularly care for squirrels and would like them to just sort of "go away". I also know there are even people out there who think squirrels are so undeserving that killing them is actually a good idea, whether through the means of a firearm or a motorized vehicle or even poison. I have a slightly (actually, radically) different perspective on the situation.

It has been said that, before the "European Invasion" instigated by Christopher Columbus's landing in Hispanola in October of 1492, a squirrel could have traveled from the eastern bank of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard without ever touching the ground. The vast majority of the eastern half (this is a geographic/biological, not an arithmetic, term) of the United States consisted of diverse hardwood forest - maples, walnuts, beeches, oaks, hickories and chestnuts. Lots of chestnuts. In fact, 25 percent of all the trees in the eastern half of the United States were... American Chestnuts (Castenea dentata). Now, some tree seeds - including maples and elms, for example - can successfully germinate just sitting on the surface, sending out a small root to burrow into the ground and then sending up its first seed leaves. Other trees - including oaks, hickories and chestnuts - cannot successfully germinate unless their fruit is buried; their hard shells just aren't going to let that little rootlet get a start. And nuts and acorns can't bury themselves - they need someone to do that for them. That's where the squirrel - and some of its relatives - come into the picture.

Eastern Gray Squirrel
(Sciurus caroliniensis)
Here in Michigan we generally deal with three squirrel species. Sciurus niger, or the Fox Squirrel, is our largest squirrel, although a threatened subspecies (Sciurus niger cinereus, or the Delmarva Squirrel) native to the Delaware/Maryland/Virginia penninsula is larger still. The common name may be derived from their reddish coats, like those of red foxes. Next in size is Sciurus caroliniensis, or the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Usually mostly gray with some brown and a light underbelly, a melanistic subgroup is almost entirely black and found in certain geographic areas, including southeastern Canada. Finally, last but not least (except in size), is Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, the Red Squirrel, which is basically the Chickadee of Squirrels: Small package with lots of personality and not too shy about expressing itself. These guys are much smaller than our other native squirrels and are extremely territorial, easily intimidating their larger cousins.

A healthy forest is made up of lots of different plants that flower and fruit sequentially. From a squirrel's point of view, soft-bodied fruits (berries and such, which start bearing in June well into the fall) and soft-shelled seeds (think maple or elm here - the various species of which also fruit throughout the season) make great meals in the moment but they aren't very good for long-term storage. Squirrels bury hard-shelled nuts - which take much of the season to develop fully - in fall as their winter-time larder.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus (American Red Squirrel)
Now, I realize that a lot of folks out there don't think squirrels are very smart. But they're plenty smart enough to get themselves through the winter, relying simply on what Mother Nature has provided. If you're depending on food you've stored to survive an otherwise very lean season, you're going to make sure you're putting up the very best quality food. In a squirrel's world, this means the very best nuts and acorns, healthy, undamaged fruit with the absolutely highest quality nutrition and caloric value. So, squirrels only bury the very best nuts. An aborted or borer-damaged fruit is not a good investment - too much work to find, bury and find again, for something that, in the long run, may not even really be that good for you. Squirrels can just "tell" an aborted acorn from a fully-ripe acorn or a borer-damaged walnut from a Grade AA walnut. How can they tell they're the best? I don't know. I do know that, if I want to tell a good acorn from a bad one, I have to get a bucket of water and see if they float or not (the good ones sink).

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis)
Anyone who has ever taken even a moment to observe squirrel behavior in the Fall also knows that the little guys never bury a nut where they find it. Some innate, inborn compass directs them to some unknown spot under a small pile of windblown leaves to bury that acorn or nut someplace else. Although there are large nut-bearing trees that are wind pollinated (including members of the Oak, or Quercus, genus), their fruit is obviously too heavy to be dispersed by anything significantly weaker than your average squirrel. Who carries the fruit away from the parent tree, further dispersing the plant's genetic material.

If you are only burying the very best nuts, and burying those nuts across a squirrel-wide territory, and you bury a lot more nuts than you're actually going to need and the nuts you don't need end up germinating, guess what kind of trees you're going to get? You're going to get the very best trees. And that is what we had here in the eastern half of the United States in 1492. All because of little rodents too many of us seem to despise.

It's true. Squirrels are not the edgiest of thinkers. They are very reactive, depending, in many instances, on the most primitive part of the brain - the amygdala (I call it The Squirrel Brain), where our fight versus flight responses are stored. But those little four-legged, fluffy-tailed squirrel brains have been able to figure out that the cars driving by under that oak tree are going to run over those acorns, and those acorns are going to make great meals today, saving energy that would usually be employed in getting those acorns open for burying even more nuts for wintertime; and they get mighty peeved if you just park your car there - minimizing their opportunities for fast food.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus (American Red Squirrel)
So, the next time you find yourself grumbling about squirrel damage, consider the damage we've done to the squirrel's world in the last 500 years or so. Consider the fact that, although less than five percent of the entire eastern half of the United States hasn't been developed into cities and highways and farmland and golf courses, these little creatures have not only found a way to survive but to thrive. And maybe plant a nice oak or hickory so they'll focus on those nuts instead of your tulip bulbs. And plant those tulip bulbs with some hardware cloth over and around them to deter those digging squirrels. And slow down and let that little fluff ball figure out which side of the road he really wants to be on without you putting your trip to the grocery store ahead of his life.

Give a little respect.

All photos Deb Hall copyright.

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