By Barbara Julian
The jaunty plume-y tail is perhaps the Eastern grey squirrel’s most appealing feature, but the swivelling foot joints that allow it to race head-first down tree trunks while clinging on with reversed claws is pretty impressive too.
Who can watch the antics of the backyard squirrel without smiling, as he swings trapeze-style from branch to branch, seemingly for the pure fun of it?
He’s so hyper-active, he buries acorns without even bothering to remember where he put half of them, which is a good thing for spreading the range of the Garry Oak.
The other thing Sciurus carolinensis forgets to do is look before crossing the road, which is a squirrel death zone. Squirrels might live in nature about six years, but in urban places many die in traffic before they’re a year old, and as they don’t produce young in their first year there is automatic birth-control at work here.
Female squirrels do remember though where they grew up, and they inherit their drays (nest sites) from their mothers, one generation after another — a fascinating example of the interplay between learning and instinct.
Who knows what goes on inside those furry heads, what they’re thinking when they manipulate objects with delicate fingers, jerkily eyeing us sideways as we in turn watch them?
We just have to make sure the moms and daughters don’t establish the family mansion in our attics.
We do know that this grey squirrel, native to the eastern U.S., has adapted brilliantly to our eco-region.
It began elbowing out the smaller red squirrel after three grey individuals escaped from a game farm outside Victoria in 1966.
The grey squirrel is an example of successful “ecological fitting.” Species rise and fall, and locally the red squirrel population has fallen. Some folks grieve over this but others see it as an example of nature evolving in her own way, irrespective of human dictates about what is “native.”
The grey squirrel’s successful adaptation prompts the question of how long something has to fit into an ecosystem before it’s considered naturalized.
The grey squirrel’s beautiful tail is thought to be an adaptive advantage, serving as a balancer, an expressive communicator, a blanket in winter and shade-giver in summer: good for all climates and tree-scapes.
Still, some locals hold his adaptive success against the grey squirrel.
The other crime he commits is his habit of chewing through electrical wires. One squirrel can deprive thousands of households of electricity for days.
Most people don’t realize how tameable Sciurus carolinensis is.
For a snack she will, over time, advance from backyard to porch to kitchen to a place on the back of the sofa from which she can comfortably survey her wider outdoor kingdom.
Overfamiliarity is not wise however, for squirrel bites can spread tenacious viruses and bacteria, and the birdseeds and peanuts some people offer them are harmful to squirrels’ digestive tracts. As with all wildlife, it’s best to enjoy their lively presence among us from a distance, while working to preserve the tree canopy and natural spaces they need for habitat and survival.
As seed-spreaders they are doing their part to extend the green world, even as we seem to do our best to pave it.