Squirrel BusinessI’m primarily a plant person, because I’m slow on the uptake and not very observant. Someone says “Look at that bird!” and by the time I’m looking even close to the right direction, let alone focusing in on what a bird is, said bird has flown far, far away. Trees, wildflowers, landscapes-easy to see, and prone to stay in one place. Since starting at Middlebury, though, I’ve become enamored of our extensive squirrel population.
Aristotle named the squirrel ‘skiouros’, combining two Greek words, ‘skia’ for shade, and ‘oura’ for tail, or, in some ancient Greek slang, ‘he who sits in the shadow of his tail’. The French created the word ‘esquirel’, from whence came the English ‘squirrel’.
Our breed of squirrel on campus is the Eastern Gray Squirrel, native to the east coast from Manitoba to Florida and eastern Texas. Squirrel fossils date back to 40 million years ago, and know number over 365 species in seven families, including ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and flying squirrels. Clearly, our Middlebury squirrels are tree squirrels. This time of year their nests, or dreys, are seen high in some of our trees, or in the several hollow trees we have scattered about.
We seem to have some squirrel ‘families’, or at least some serious inbreeding going on, although it does not seem to be as notable this year as in past years. While all white or black squirrels can often be seen in urban populations with little to no predation, up by Mead Chapel for the last several years we had a group of gray squirrel with thin, wiry red tails, more like a red squirrel. The difference in the squirrels between Mead Chapel and the library quad was quite striking. Now the Mead squirrels have fluffy tails, but they are still red.
Squirrels are ‘scatter hoarders’, making many small caches of food in various locations. They are known for their spacial memory, remembering where up to 1000 of these sites are. Food types are generally tree seeds, including many nuts, although they’ve been known to feast on fungi and tree bark as well. When food is scarce they will even turn carnivorous, eating insects, frogs, small birds, even other squirrels (!).
They are most well-known for feasting on nuts, however. In fact, their love of seeds started this post. While preparing to remove the lightning struck spruce, we noticed a large cache of spruce cones underneath the tree. Given a sudden abundance of a food source, a squirrel will make a temporary pile to await better burial and hiding later. Spruces were prosperous this year in cones, and if you’re a squirrel you can’t let a good thing go to waste. The seed of the spruce sits at the base of a seed scale, and each cone can have many scales. Squirrels seem to process the cones, flaking away the bracts to reach the seed, and then later burying the seeds for retrieval later.
If I were a squirrel, though, I’d be waiting for acorns. A good source of protein, their size is probably a meal unto itself. While humans don’t like the bitter tannins found in many acorns, the squirrel doesn’t seem to mind.
I remember my first fall here at Middlebury, and thinking our Red oaks had a terrible disease. The ends of the branches, the new growth, would lie scattered about the base of the tree. Dan Celik, custodial supervisor extraordinaire, has noticed the same thing, and took pictures for the blog. Squirrels, even though they have a brain the size of a small walnut, aren’t too dumb. They go to the end of an oak branch, and gnaw with their teeth until the end falls to the ground, where they can easily and quickly harvest the bundle of acorns attached.