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Long Live Squirrels
(just maybe not where you live)
by Constance Young
As Published in (Summer 05) issue of AboutTown magazine

As I sit at my breakfast counter watching out the window as squirrels try to outwit my latest "squirrel proof" birdfeeder I think, "This is just as much fun as bird watching, or maybe even whale watching." That's not far fetched, because squirrels and whales have a lot in common. Most squirrels and whales are gray, both can swim, both make clicking and grunting noises, and both can leap majestically into the air. I mention this largely to counter some misconceptions many people have about squirrels. While people generally consider whales majestic and wonderful creatures, they write off squirrels as nuisances--as "bushy-tailed rats."

What squirrels are and what they are not

Squirrels are not bushy-tailed rats (although I have nothing against rats personally, unless they are in my house or barn). Members of the squirrel family differ from other small rodents in a number of ways.

First, unlike most other rodents, they are active during the day, and consequently their sense of sight is more developed. You might have noticed also that a squirrel's eyes are much larger than those of many other animals, and they do not face forward. This means that squirrels don't have binocular vision. Therefore, they might mistake your finger for a peanut should you try to feed them nuts by putting the nuts right in front of their faces. As do human ears, squirrel ears face to the sides (mouse and rat's ears face forward).

There are over 365 different species of squirrel-like mammals throughout the world. In our area, we are most familiar with tree squirrels, rather than the so-called ground squirrels or "flying" squirrels. There are ten species of tree squirrels, but we see mostly the Eastern gray or the smaller red varieties. These squirrels do their high wire antics in the trees much like small primates (lemurs), and they build their nests high in the trees from twigs and leaves, lining the interior with fur, feathers or other soft materials. Squirrels usually live in hardwood or mixed hardwood and pine forests and favor oaks, hazel and beech trees.

The average life span of a squirrel is about six years, although they are known to live 20 years in captivity (squirrels don't make good pets). Unfortunately most squirrels in urban areas do not reach their first birthday because they are run over by cars.

The female squirrel will give birth to a litter of three or four babies in the early spring and possibly again in the fall. Baby squirrels are furless, blind, and weigh only one or two ounces. Young squirrels mature rather slowly for a rodent, and are on their own in about two and a half months.

Animals that get high off the ground are safer from predators and can therefore be noisier than ground-hugging animals. The extreme forms of this phenomenon are birds and their elaborate songs. Squirrels don't sing, but they certainly do chatter.

The squirrel's bushy tale serves several purposes. Its primary function is for balance, enabling the squirrel to maneuver quickly without falling. The tail is also used as a blanket in the winter, to communicate with other squirrels, and as a parachute in the case of a fall.

Interesting fact: Believe it or not, the largest concentration of squirrels in the U.S. are in Washington, D.C.--specifically, in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Some people call the park the Squirrel Capital of the world. Squirrels roam freely there and are well-fed by the thousands of government employees and visitors who tour the park daily.

Food sources

Squirrels are vegetarian and usually eat nuts, seeds and berries, but when desperate they may resort to birds' eggs and insects. They especially like hazelnuts in shells, brazil nuts, sweet chestnuts and acorns. Summertime is the hungriest time of year for squirrels, and although the landscape may appear to be green and lush, since they cannot eat grass and leaves as other grazing animals do, squirrels must scrounge for whatever they can find. A squirrel's territory usually runs from about one to seven acres in size.

Squirrels are generally tidy when they bury their nuts. When they become accustomed to eating from a bird feeder and that feeder is empty, they will resort to their buried stores and for some reason are not as tidy when digging up their hidden nuts. They usually leave an empty hole and a mess behind.

Outwitting squirrels

Hundreds of people have tried to build squirrel-proof birdfeeders. Some feeders work better and longer than others, but eventually most squirrels will figure out how to break in. Perhaps the best approach is to build a better birdfeeder yourself.

A common principle involved in squirrel-proof birdfeeders is using a domed top over the feeder. Alas, squirrels soon learn that although the baffle may dump them onto the ground, some seeds usually fall out too, which provides a small meal. Squirrels able to figure this out can often also compute the spillage angle so completely that they simply launch themselves at the dome, bounce off and harvest the spillage on the ground. Soon there's nothing left in the feeder.

More expensive, sophisticated feeders employ a mechanical principle of counterbalanced baffles that close over access ports when an animal as heavy as a squirrel comes to feed. An ingenious and inexpensive homemade solution may not be as pretty, but it does the job equally, perhaps more, efficiently. Try this: Suspend a feeder from a horizontal wire equipped with rotating baffles that prevent squirrels from scampering across as they do when they move along a telephone wire. The simple design I'm suggesting involves stringing the line through three or four empty one-liter (or larger) soda pop bottles on each side of the feeder. Rotating freely along the line, these bottles dump any squirrel rash enough to try to challenge them.

Join them

As the saying goes, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." If squirrels have outwitted your most sophisticated bird feeders, try giving the squirrels their own feeder. As I am sure you have already learned, squirrels like sunflower seeds and peanuts. However peanuts, which are not even nuts, but beans, are not native to North America, and are not natural squirrel food. Moreover, their flimsy shells don't make for good hoarding. Raw peanuts are even dangerous, so if you must, give the squirrels only roasted peanuts; better yet, serve them real nuts and acorns. They can also eat mushrooms and plants and bulbs that may be poisonous to humans (for some reason, their short digestive tracts can handle these compounds).

Resources

If you have found an orphaned squirrel or a squirrel has gotten into your attic and you want to know how to remove the animal, call Wildlife Watch at 845-256-1400 for advice. Another source is www.squirrel-rehab.org .

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