Squirrels are small rodents that belong to the family of Sciuridae, which has approximately 285 species – their relatives include chipmunks, prairie dogs, marmots, ground hogs, flying, tree and ground squirrels – squirrels that are tree dwellers typically tend to live independently, whereas ground dwellers are more sociable and tend to live in colonies – perhaps as this enhances protection.
The squirrel family is spread far and wide mainly over Europe, Africa and the Americas and they’ve snuck into Australia courtesy of human introduction. They’re not new on the scene and have been around for quite some time – up to 50 million years. The largest squirrel species is the Indian Giant, which can be as big as a metre (3 foot)! Whilst, the smallest is the African Pygmy, which is a mere 7cm (2.5 inches). They get their name from an old Anglo-Norman word, derived from an Ancient Greek term meaning shadow-tailed.
Speaking of those impressive tails, the squirrels find many uses for them – as you might expect, these include balance and jumping (helping them to get a move on through those trees!) However, more surprisingly, they also find other uses, such as waving a hello to others, keeping themselves cool (by diverting blood flow through the tail) and even acting as a handy umbrella! The squirrel with the longest tail is the Tufted Ground Squirrel, which has a tail 1.3 times the length of its body – hope it doesn’t trip over that!
Although their tails are clearly something to be proud of, they’re careful to tuck these useful appendages closely into their backs when sitting down to help disguise their shape to predators – these can include, foxes, snakes, wild cats, wild dogs, stoats, pine martens, owls and hawks – so they feature on lots of different menus!
In addition to those bushy tails, squirrels boast soft coats (did you know squirrel hairs are ideal for tying fishing flies?) Squirrels have slender bodies and large eyes affording them excellent vision (they always keep a close watch on what’s going on around them).
When it comes to scaling trees, squirrels have small front paws and larger hind legs with soft pads and strong claws – all of which makes them agile and accomplished climbers – they can even rotate their ankles 180 degrees, so they can perform a neat trick of descending a tree head first, with some being capable of leaping up to 10 times their own height – way to go!
We shouldn’t forget to mention their dental assets too, because these guys have strong teeth, including four front teeth that continue to grow throughout their lives and therefore need to be worn down by continual chewing – so those acorns don’t stand a chance!
As well as acorns, squirrels like to munch on seeds, tree buds, fruit, pine cones and even mushrooms – they can’t digest cellulose, so they need to go heavy on the carbs, fat and protein. Although typically herbivores, dependent on habitat and species, squirrels will also eat meat, such as small birds, lizards or insects.
Squirrels build nests for their young and typically mate once or twice a year, with a relatively short gestation period of up to 6 weeks and an equally speedy weaning period of about the same time; juvenile squirrels achieve maturity by the age of one. The typical lifespan of the average squirrel in the wild is up to 10 years, but this can double in captivity.
As you’ll no doubt know, squirrels are opportunists and this is especially true when it comes to living alongside us humans – they know that showing us their endearing side will often result in a reward of a treat or two! Indeed, squirrels thrive in urban environments, losing their fear of humans and taking advantage of us as a good source of food! (Although it is advised not to feed them!)
So, we turn to the question – are squirrels a friend or pest? Well, in the UK, grey squirrels can get a bad press – this is because their introduction in the late 1800s has resulted in their almost irradiation of the native British red squirrel (by outcompeting and introducing disease that is fatal to the reds); indeed, here grey squirrels are officially classed as vermin; although more recent research suggests that human intervention played a more significant part in their dominance. Efforts are being made to try to redress this by carefully nurturing and protecting the few red squirrel populations that remain.
As this example from the UK shows, unfortunately, squirrels and humans can come into conflict, with squirrels taking up invasive residence in our homes and gardens: their list of crimes include, causing damage to plants and crops, gnawing pipes and cables, carrying pests and diseases, stealing bird food, and taking birds’ eggs – they definitely earn themselves a place on the naughty step!
But let’s not be too hard on these critters – they aren’t all bad – they play a vital role in the natural food chain, helping in both sustaining and regenerating forest environments – their well-known habit of burying seeds in the ground as an over wintering food source, means that the seeds they forget about, have a great start at growing into trees – all of which helps shape our woodlands – no wonder they’re sometimes called nature’s gardeners.
When all’s said and done, they do raise a smile – after all, who can quite resist that cute nut twirling routine?