grandfather used to slowly slide open the window, aim his
gray pellet gun and shoot at them. He was in his late 80s
at the time and lived in housing for the elderly in Albany.
He tended the gardens around the place, and few things disturbed
him more than squirrels digging up his flowers. His lifelong
battle against the rodents had escalated to the point where
he’d squeeze off a few shots when he found them digging away
outside his window. I learned about all this when his gun
jammed and he sent it over to me for repairs. While I thought
such activities might be good for maintaining my grandfather’s
eye-hand coordination, popping off pellets in the middle of
the city seemed mighty risky to me. I told him the gun wasn’t
repairable (and made sure of that), and his sniper shots from
the window ceased.
The target of my grandfather’s wrath was the Eastern gray
squirrel, a tree-dwelling rodent that we frequently find scurrying
about with speed and bold acrobatics in the tree canopy above
us. The squirrels run up and down tree trunks, spring across
open spans between limbs, chase one another at high speed
along branches, pilfer bird feeders, and frenetically dig
to bury or retrieve nuts. Where one finds an abundance of
nuts, one is also likely to find squirrels. Interestingly,
one of the largest known concentrations of these fuzzy-tailed
rodents can be found in Washington, D.C.—next to the White
The defining characteristic of a squirrel is its tail. The
bushy tail helps the squirrel keep its balance and communicate
with other squirrels, serves as a portable sleeping bag to
curl up with to get warm, and may also serve as a sun shade.
Our words for this animal are tied to its tail: The squirrel’s
formal taxonomic species name is Sciurus Carolinensis. “Sciurus”
is a Latinized form of the Greek “skiouros,” which means “he
who sits in the shadow of his tail.” It was later transformed
into “esquirel” in French before eventually being modified
and absorbed into our English vocabulary.
The fossil record indicates that the gray squirrel’s evolutionary
roots in North America may stretch back 50 million years,
long before humans were around. When humans moved into North
America, the gray squirrel became an important game animal,
and remains so in some areas of the continent.
Gray squirrels eat primarily tree food in the form of seeds,
buds, flowers, nuts and fruits. They are particularly content
in urban environments where maple, oak, chestnut, ginkgo,
pine, spruce and other favorite trees provide rich food sources.
They have also developed a taste for pizza, bagels, donuts,
stale bread and other bits of human garbage cast their way.
Squirrel nests are called dreys. They appear as somewhat rough
assemblages of twigs and leaves high up in the tree canopy.
Inside is a lining of leaves, fur, bark, feathers and other
available insulating materials. Squirrels may also set up
dens in tree trunk cavities when such opportunities exist.
Urban living has taken its toll on squirrels. A gray squirrel
in the wilderness might live five or six years if it can avoid
such predators as red-tailed hawks and foxes. Life is much
shorter in the city. Urban squirrels have car traffic to contend
with, and are lucky to make it through their first year of
life without suffering the crushing press of a tire. Each
fall, adolescent squirrels leave their birth nests in search
of their own ranges. They pursue their new independence with
very little street smarts, and many become roadkill. This
high mortality rate is offset by the animal’s fertility, short
gestation period and ability to give birth to two litters
There is a huge oak tree in my neighbor’s backyard that must
be well over 100 years old. During the course of living next
to this tree for 20-plus years, I couldn’t recall it dropping
many acorns. That changed last fall. For some reason, the
tree put out a record number. This bumper crop drew the immediate
attention of squirrels passing through the area. They began
to congregate in the tree, chomping on acorns and dropping
them on unsuspecting targets below. I found myself under attack
a couple of times, but I didn’t retaliate. But then things
When a squirrel encounters an acorn on the ground, a simple
instinctual response is triggered that tells it to dig a hole
and bury the food so it can be dug up and eaten at a later
time. In the wild this behavior helps the forest rejuvenate
itself, since many of the buried seeds will remain unclaimed
and have a chance to germinate and grow. Research indicates
that squirrels cannot remember where they bury their food,
but use their sharp sense of smell to locate the right places
to dig and retrieve their buried treasure.
This urge to bury acorns soon overtook the growing gathering
of squirrels hanging out in my yard. They found my garden
soil particularly choice for such activity. My raised beds
began to look like miniature minefields. My fall salad crop
was suffering serious collateral damage. Something had to
be done. I developed a squirrel relocation program.
I purchased a Havahart trap (about $30) and baited it with
peanut butter, which squirrels cannot resist. I soon had my
first catch. I put the trap and its occupant in the trunk
of my car and drove about five miles away to the edge of a
housing development that has vast undeveloped lots and a stream
running through a mixed forest. When I opened the trap door,
my captive bounded out and ran up the nearest tree, tail flicking.
As of this writing, I have taxied 14 squirrels to this new
location, and my garden has returned to calm. Hopefully this
squad of gray squirrels is busily preparing to plant forests
in their new habitat as acorns begin to germinate in my backyard.