I knew there was going to be trouble last autumn when the acorn, black walnut, beechnut and hickory crops failed. Our mountain then supported the largest population of eastern gray squirrels in the 26 years we have lived here. Every acre of forest contained leafy squirrel nests tucked high in the tallest deciduous trees. And by December I was spending a couple hours every day defending my bird feeders from a horde of the furry creatures. Sometime in the middle of the month I reached a high of 15 gray squirrels. But by mid-March their numbers had dwindled to five.
Woodland gray squirrels are shy creatures that prefer to eat wild foods when they are available. Their favorites are hickory nuts followed by hazelnuts and white oak acorns, although pecans in the south and black walnuts in the north are also popular. Nut-bearing trees have irregular fruiting periods to prevent nut-eating creatures from building up huge populations capable of eating every nut a tree produces. After a particularly good nut-bearing year, the trees’ exhaust their supply of stored carbohydrates, which are needed to produce a nut crop so they skip a year.
But the nut predators, such as gray squirrels, have increased because of the previous abundance of food. When the nut crop crashes, so too does the squirrel population. Since most mature deciduous forests have a wide variety of nut-bearing trees, it is rare that they all fail at once. Here on our mountain it has happened five times in 26 years. At such times squirrel die-off can be severe.
One of the worse die-offs occurred between 1953 and 1954 when 95 per cent of the squirrels perished in suburban Maryland because of an acorn shortage. In those days bird-feeding was not the popular hobby it is today, so there was no artificial food to help the critters out.
Malnutrition is the greatest killer of squirrels. Either they die outright from starvation or their weakened condition leads to diseases such as sarcoptic mange. Caused by scabies mites, underfed squirrels lose their fur, a deadly condition in winter when squirrels depend on an outer layer of fur, an underfur for more insulation and skin protection, and a layer of fat to keep warm.
Another strategy males and immature females use to conserve body heat in winter is to sleep together in a drey (nest). The winter dreys are constructed to last. Both sexes build them using twigs on the outside and moss, lichen, fur, feathers and leaves on the inside. They are waterproof and strong enough to survive heavy winds. But tree cavities are preferred den sites especially in colder climates.
In both dreys and tree dens squirrels sleep much of the winter, especially during severe weather when they don’t come out at all. But on reasonably good days they invaded my feeders early in the morning and late in the afternoon, the usual foraging hours for wild squirrels.
Ideally each gray squirrel eats one and a half pounds of nuts every week or an average of three ounces at each feeding. Unlike red squirrels, gray squirrels do not defend territories or their buried nut supply. Their one to seven-acre ranges are shared so that whatever one squirrel buries is fair game for its fellow range inhabitants to sniff out, dig up and eat. However, researcher Michael Steele of Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre has watched gray squirrels pretend to bury nuts at several places before finally doing so, a strategy they may be using to confuse other cache robbers such as chipmunks and blue jays.
At bird feeders, gray squirrels prefer black oil sunflower seeds. But while they eat enormous amounts during famine years, they ignore our feeders in feast years. This would not be the case with city and suburban squirrels. They have no preference for wild nuts and will eat whatever humans offer them including a wide variety of junk food. Some have even learned how to steal candy and nuts from vending machines.
“In Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park…” writes Eugene Kinkead in his hugely entertaining and informative Squirrel Book, one [gray squirrel] was seen regularly to reach a forepaw up into the back of an outdoor vending machine, pull out a candy bar, and run away and eat it.” However, he did show his squirrel inheritance by preferring bars with nuts.
Park and suburban squirrels are active all day long and, unlike their wild relatives, have few predators except for feral cats and cars. Consequently, they are bold and fearless toward humans. Because most parks and suburban areas don’t have enough habitat to support squirrels, especially through the long winter months, people who feed birds spend a good bit of time, energy and money attempting to thwart squirrels.
Reading about the exploits of such squirrels, I am almost ashamed of our wild squirrels. They obligingly run when I chase them and don’t even try to tear apart my square tube feeder encased in heavy wire mesh. Called the “squirrel’s dilemma” feeder by Bill Adler, Jr., author of the bestseller Outwitting Squirrels, Adler claims that even with a baffle attached (which mine doesn’t have), it takes savvy city squirrels 90 seconds to figure out how to feed from it by hanging upside down at the openings. Not only have my squirrels ignored this feeder, but they are easily chased from my wooden, barn-shaped, hanging feeder with the sides removed. This feeder Adler dismisses as a “squirrel attractor.”
One feeder that is safe from squirrels is a thistle feeder. But that’s only because squirrels don’t like thistles. Sunflower seeds, on the other hand, “bring in squirrels like an insider stock tip brings in stock brokers,” Adler says.
Furthermore, I was pleased to learn that “birdfeeding and squirrel yelling are common practices.” Of the “101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriations of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels” (the somewhat cumbersome subtitle of Adler’s book), Number 30–“Run outside yelling and waving your arms every time a squirrel appears”–is one of the few that is practical. As Adler says, “Not only will you scare squirrels away, but you’ll get terrific exercise.” During long, sedentary winter days my husband Bruce and I take this advice to heart. Bruce has even perfected a terrifying call that scatters the squirrels in all directions.
Most people have either a love or hate relationship with squirrels. Dick E. Bird of Dick E. Bird News claims that, “there isn’t anything that’s going to keep squirrels away. My philosophy is to feed squirrels and birds and enjoy.” He has a separate feeder for squirrels that holds acorns and other wild nuts that he’s gathered. According to Bird, the squirrels go crazy over the food he provides.
A correspondent in Wild Bird News also defended squirrels at feeders. “The only reason they get in the bird feeders is that they are hungry,” she wrote. “In the fall of 1987 there were not many acorns. We have cut down so many trees that squirrels depend on us for food.”
One man was so worried about the fate of urbanized squirrels and birds that he left his entire $90,000 estate for an endowment to feed birds and squirrels in Fargo-Moorhead, North Dakota. And Gregg Bassett of Elmhurst, Illinois started The Squirrel Lover’s Club in August of 1995. Less than three years later it had 600 members from 37 states and six foreign countries.
In 1984 Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. held more squirrels (120 in an eight-acre park) than any place on earth because tourists and residents fed them every day. One resident spent between sixty and ninety dollars a week on nuts for squirrels.
Washington also has the dubious honor of having had seven squirrel-caused power outages in one day because squirrels frequently use electrical transformers at the top of power poles to bury their nuts and are zapped.
Furthermore, D.C. squirrels are unusually smart. A spring-loaded door on a metal feeder designed to foil squirrels was quickly opened by a pair of D.C. squirrels that “suspended themselves spread eagle across the top of the feeder with one paw free to reach down, exert pressure, and help themselves to feed,” Adler says.
Not even the fearsome numbers of Lafayette Park squirrels match the historical record of abundant squirrels. In 1749 the colony of Pennsylvania put a three pence bounty on each squirrel scalp. That year 640,000 squirrels were killed. In those days squirrels used to migrate in hordes as feared as a flight of locusts. John Bachman, naturalist, minister and good friend of John James Audubon, reported from Charleston, South Carolina about one such migration. “Onward they come, devouring on the way everything that is suited to their taste, laying waste the corn and wheatfields of the farmer . . . “
In 1842 a migration left Wisconsin and headed southwest. Lasting four weeks, it was 130 miles wide and 150 miles long. Observers estimated that it contained half a billion squirrels.
The last large migration occurred in 1968 when approximately 20 million squirrels were on the move from Vermont to Georgia. Biologists believe such migrations are a way for squirrels to disperse their population since they always happen in the fall, particularly September, when numbers are high.
Of course such bounty, while cursed by farmers, was appreciated by hunters and settlers who relished squirrel meat. But no matter how many were killed, more filled in the ranks almost immediately. Squirrel hunters, armed with long-barreled Kentucky squirrel rifles, were excellent marksmen and feared opponents during the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. In fact, during the Civil War, the Confederates decided not to attack Ohio when they learned that 50,000 squirrel hunters had volunteered to defend the state.
Many historical figures were squirrel lovers, even Ben Franklin who went to a great deal of effort to send one as a pet to a little girl in England. When it was accidentally killed by a dog, the little girl wrote to Franklin and asked him to compose an epitaph for her squirrel, or “skugg,” as the British called them. He wrote two. One was properly long and dignified. The other was short and gave us an expression that we still use.
As a bug
In a rug.”
Whenever any magazine dares to have a squirrel article in it, squirrel lovers and haters line up to be counted. Eugene Kinkead first started his squirrel research when writing an article for The New Yorker back in the seventies. He received so much correspondence about it that he wrote a second article that provoked even more letters, not only from most states but from Canada, Europe and Asia.
“Memories of the eastern gray squirrel thus seem indelible, even in far-off places,” he concludes. Most of his readers admired the gray squirrel and sent in wondrous accounts of their exploits which he used in his Squirrel Book. However, a substantial minority of readers were not amused. They were grumpy, even acrimonious, toward squirrels.
Last January National Wildlife magazine bravely published “Crazy Over Squirrels.” They, too, received letters. Three of them supported squirrels including Barbara Allen of Pittsburgh who says that squirrels have stolen her heart. On the other hand, J.D. Jones of Milwaukee sums up the squirrel hater’s feelings. “I hate squirrels. They get into my yard, dig up my plants, eat my birdseed and cause all kinds of trouble. I hate them.”
Love them or hate them, yet no one can deny that they provide hours of entertainment in the depths of winter as they raid bird feeders, prompting bird lovers to dream up all kinds of ways to foil them. But as Kinkead warns, “it seems fair to say this to all owners of squirrel-proof bird feeders: they may work for a time. But don’t become too confident. Tomorrow that may change. Tomorrow may arrive the conqueror, the furry Einstein of the out-of-doors.”
A note to my squirrel-loving book readers: Beg, borrow, or buy a copy of the now out-of-print Squirrel Book by Eugene Kinkead, published by E.P. Dutton of New York in 1980. I found my hard-cover, profusely-illustrated copy at a used bookstore for $5.00 and spent happy winter hours reading it.