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Bushy Administration

My 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 House.

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 a year.

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 changed.

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.

—Tom Nattell


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