Sunday, December 16, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel

The thirteen-lined ground squirrel is probably the second most common native squirrel in the area of west Texas where we live. It is a small ground squirrel, measuring about ten inches in length including its three inch tail, and weighing only about six ounces on average. Its size and appearance is somewhat similar to a chipmunk, with tan or light brown sides, face, and belly. What sets this squirrel apart is the striking set of thirteen stripes, alternating light and dark, that run from the forehead down the back to the base of the tail. Five of the light-colored stripes are broken into a series of dots.

The range of the thirteen-lined ground squirrel includes most of the plains and prairie regions of southern Canada and the United States, extending as far south as west and central Texas. It is less social than many ground squirrels, adults living alone or in small colonies. Like most ground squirrels, it digs burrows for shelter. The burrow is complex, with several entrances and the main passage extending twenty feet or more in length. The entrances are inconspicuous, often covered with grass or other vegetation. This squirrel only ventures outside in full daylight, does not stray far from its burrow, and frequently stands up to survey its surroundings for danger.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels hibernate through the winter. Depending on the region, they may begin hibernation as early as late July or as late as October, emerging anywhere from March to May depending on the region.

The diet of the thirteen-lined ground squirrel includes both plants and animals. Plant foods include seeds, grasses, herbs, flower heads, and grains. Meat makes up a substantial portion of the diet, including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, worms, mice, and even small birds. These squirrels are known to viciously attack and devour cicadas when available. Dried seeds are stored in the burrows to carry them through the period in early spring when they awake from hibernation.

I took this photo of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel
in Lubbock, TX in May 2012
Mating takes place about two weeks after the end of hibernation, and results in anywhere from two to thirteen offspring. The young are blind and hairless at birth and weigh only 3-4 grams (1/10 of an ounce). They are weaned about six weeks after birth and after that are fully independent from their mother.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Olney White Squirrel Population Dips

The town of Olney, Illinois has for decades been noted for its large population of white squirrels. There are competing stories of the origin of the squirrels, but the community has adopted them as a source of pride and a local tourist attraction. The city has set up squirrel crossing signs and has even  passed laws to protect the rodents by prohibiting cat owners from allowing their pets to roam free, and forbidding anyone from taking a white squirrel out of the city.

Unfortunately, over the years the white squirrel population has dropped steadily from a high of over 800 in 1941. And it seems that this decline may now be accelerating. Every year a local college conducts a white squirrel count, and this year's count, in October, found only 80 white squirrels in the town, a drop of about 25 percent from the previous year. While it is not clear that any single cause is entirely to blame, a city official has suggested that the extreme hot and dry weather of the past year could be a major factor.

Residents of the city are being encouraged to put out food and water for the squirrels, plant fruit and nut trees, put up squirrel houses, and to avoid cutting down existing trees during the season when baby squirrels are in their nests. Residents are also asked to obey squirrel crossing zones and laws prohibiting free-roaming cats and dogs.

Please help us!

Olney is one of a few places in North America that has a population of white squirrels. The News For Squirrels hopes that the residents of the town will do whatever it takes to protect this treasure.

(Just a note: both of the articles linked in this post mistakenly identify these squirrels as albino. These white squirrels are not true albinos, as you can see from the dark eyes in the photo above)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ground Squirrels Give a Hand to Burrowing Owls

The San Diego Zoo is reporting on the initial success of a project to help restore populations of burrowing owls in San Diego county by introducing California ground squirrels to their territory.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

The small owls, along with other species, have declined in number largely due to the introduction of non-native grasses by ranchers. These grasses provide a thicker ground cover than the owls are adapted to. According to researcher Ron Swaisgood of the San Diego Zoo, it would be impossible to restore this habitat to its previous state. However, introducing California ground squirrels might help to recreate a similar habitat as the squirrels dig their burrows and open up the vegetation.

Hey, where am I?

This project is, of course, not without its challenges and setbacks. Many of the ground squirrels apparently don't like their new home and take off for surroundings more to their liking. Others become prey for hawks and coyotes. But the researchers do what they can to ease the squirrels into their new hood. They move groups of squirrels that already know each other together (the squirrels are taken from private land where they are not wanted); the squirrels spend the first week in an "acclimation chamber" getting used to the new area; then they are fed tasty treats for several months as incentive to stick around.

So far the program has had some success. At least some of the squirrels are digging burrows and setting up households. And the owls seem to be benefiting, as some have already moved into abandoned squirrel burrows. The research team is closely monitoring the squirrels after release, and hoping to learn how to better insure greater success in the future!

Prairie Dog Reminder

Just a note to anyone who stumbles across this blog: on the right-hand side of this page you will see a widget where you can click to sign my petition on Care2, asking the EPA to ban two cruel, horrible poisons that ranchers and land developers routinely use for the mass slaughter of black-tailed prairie dogs. I am asking that you sign this petition. There are more humane ways to deal with prairie dogs if they absolutely must be removed from ones property. You can read more about why I care deeply about this issue here on my previous post. I and the prairie dogs thank you for your help.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Squirrel Facts: Squirrels of the Desert

When most Americans think of squirrels, we think of the eastern gray, the familiar bushy-tailed tree squirrel of parks and suburban yards. But there are many different kinds of squirrels--over 300 species worldwide, and they live in almost every different kind of environment that we can imagine, from the tropics to the arctic. There are even squirrels that live in some of the harshest, most hot and arid deserts in the world.

Mohave Ground Squirrel, Mohave Desert, Southwestern US

Ground squirrels can be found living and thriving in two of the hottest, driest deserts of the world: the Mohave Desert of southwestern North America; and the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. In both of these regions, daytime summer air temperatures can reach up to 114 degrees F, with surface soil temperatures as high as a blistering 140 degrees. Needless to say, animals that live in these places must evolve strategies to cope with such extreme conditions. The squirrels of these deserts have indeed developed some ingenious ways to survive.

Cape Ground Squirrels, Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa

One way that desert squirrels survive the heat is through a sort of reverse hibernation called aestivation. Just as ground squirrels and other mammals of cold arctic regions go into hibernation, some ground squirrels of the deserts will put on body fat, go into a burrow, and lower their heart, respiration, and metabolic rate, basically sleeping through some of the hottest months of the year. The Mohave ground squirrel, a rarely-seen ground squirrel of California, will aestivate from mid-summer through the fall, emerging in January or February. During the spring following a drought season, these ground squirrels might even skip mating and reproducing that year, and begin their aestivation as early as April.

Young Mohave Ground Squirrels

Squirrels of the desert also cope with the extreme heat by adjusting the times that they spend looking for food. Cape ground squirrels of the Kalahari desert will usually forage for food during the daytime during the cooler winter months. But in the summer, they will stay underground in their burrows during the hottest parts of the day, emerging to search for food only in the early morning and the late evening. These squirrels also store food in their burrows, so that they will have something to eat during those hottest periods.

When desert squirrels must forage for food in the heat of the midday sun, they can find ways to minimize their discomfort. Round-tailed ground squirrels, another species of the southwestern US, climb into bushes to forage, taking advantage of the shade and minimizing their contact with the hot sand. And the Cape ground squirrels, when they must go out into the daytime sun, use their bushy tails as "umbrellas" to give themselves some shade.

Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel, Southwestern US

It is not surprising that most or all of the squirrels of the deserts are ground squirrels, which live in burrows under the ground surface. Burrows are an extremely important part of the desert squirrels' survival strategy. For example, when measured over a period of a week, the daytime temperature outside reached over 100 degrees F and nighttime temperatures dropped as low as 23 F, but the temperature inside the burrow of the round-tailed ground squirrel stayed between 68-77 degrees F. Often when returning to the burrow after foraging in the hot sun, a squirrel will lie flat on its belly on the cool earth, or like the Mohave ground squirrel, will even dig into the ground, pushing its body through the cool soil, to help dissipate body heat and cool off.

Antelope Squirrel, Southwestern US

Desert ground squirrels have evolved several physical adaptations to cope with the hot and dry conditions in which they live. Some, like the antelope squirrel, are able to withstand higher body temperatures than most animals, even up to 110 degrees F; or, like the Townsend's ground squirrel, have a lower base body temperature, so that it can remain outside in the heat for a longer time before reaching a dangerously high temperature. Many desert ground squirrels have light-colored fur, reflecting the sun's rays, but dark skin pigmentation, which protects them from absorbing excess ultraviolet radiation.

Cape Ground Squirrel

Finally, desert-dwelling squirrels have evolved physical strategies to reduce their need for water. These adaptations include extremely efficient kidneys, reducing water loss through urination; and fewer mucus-producing cells in their lungs, reducing the amount of water lost through respiration. Because of these adaptations, many desert ground squirrels, like the antelope squirrel, can obtain most of the water that they need not through drinking but through the food that they eat.

Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel

Much of the information for this post came from the book Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide, by Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell. This book is an excellent source of information and a highly entertaining read for anyone interested in squirrels. If you are interested in this book, you can get a copy by clicking the link below.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Climate Change and the North American Red Squirrel

The American red squirrel, also known as the pine squirrel and the chickaree, is a medium-sized tree squirrel that inhabits much of the northern and eastern regions of North America, including most of Canada and the northeastern United States. Its diet consists largely of the seeds of conifer cones, although they also enjoy many other foods including conifer buds and needles, mushrooms, flowers, berries, and sometimes birds' eggs. Unlike the scatter-hoarding gray squirrel, the red squirrel stores food, primarily conifer cones, in a central location to provide food for the winter. The accumulated uneaten scraps from these food stores left behind by a red squirrel create a "midden" or trash pile that can measure as much as a meter in diameter.

Compared to the eastern gray squirrel, the American red squirrel is smaller but more aggressive in defending its territory. It is less likely to be seen in suburban yards and city parks, preferring wilderness areas more isolated from human activity. Also in contrast to the gray squirrel, the red squirrel will sometimes nest underground during the winter, although like other tree squirrels the red squirrel does not hibernate.

A recent study has examined the effects of global climate change on the feeding and mating habits of red squirrels over a period of several generations.

The authors of the study tagged and monitored the females of a population of approximately 325 red squirrels in the Yukon territory of Canada, from 1989-2001. During that period, the researchers kept track of the weather in the area, and monitored the feeding and reproductive habits of the squirrels. During the time of the study the mean spring temperature increased by 2 degrees Celsius. The production of the spruce cones that provide the squirrels' most important food source increased by 35 percent during the same period. And at the same time, the squirrels' breeding took place 18 days earlier by the end of the study period, advancing by about 6 days each generation.

The findings of this study seem on the surface to suggest that global warming has been beneficial to this population of squirrels. However, it is impossible to know what the long-term effects could be, both to the red squirrels and to other plant and animal species, and to the ecosystem as a whole. What seems to me most important about this research is the demonstration that climate change is having very real and demonstrable effects on the environment that has repercussions for the behavior of species. Much more long-term research is needed in this area.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Black Tailed Prairie Dog Needs Help

I have written about the black-tailed prairie dog before on this blog. Yesterday I created a petition on the website to try to help this species by banning the use of two horrible poisons. Although I understand that the chances of success are slim, I want to do my part to raise awareness of the cruelties that are being inflicted on these animals. I am asking that you sign the petition and help spread the word.

This large ground squirrel of the grassy prairie and plains regions of North America lives in large colonies that can number in the hundreds or even thousands. Within their "towns" prairie dogs live in extended family groups or "coteries" consisting of several related females, their first-year young, and one or two males. Members of the coterie engage in mutual grooming, greet each other with "kisses" and hugs, and cooperate in activities such as caring for young and watching for and alerting others of potential danger.

Black-tailed prairie dogs live in burrows which can be amazingly complex. Each burrow may have multiple entrances, increasing the chance for escape from predators. The tunnels, marked by entrances ringed with a mound of dirt to help keep out water, may be up to five meters deep and 30 meters long. A burrow will usually be used by several generations of prairie dogs, and when abandoned may be taken over by other animals.

Unfortunately, the black-tailed prairie dog has been unfairly demonized by cattle ranchers and land developers. Ranchers believed, incorrectly, that the prairie dogs were taking food that was needed by their herds of cattle. This belief, which persists to this day, has let to the mass extermination of prairie dogs from their range. Today, after more than a century of slaughter by shooting and poisoning, the black-tailed prairie dog occupies less than two percent of its former range. Now, in addition to ranchers, new enemies including suburban land developers and even many city and town governments are carrying out a war of extermination against this sociable, intelligent ground squirrel.

The ranchers' war against the black-tailed prairie dog is based on a myth. The fact is, prairie dogs coexisted on the plains and prairies with massive herds of bison for thousands of years before cattle ranching took over the region. Bison and cattle require a very similar diet, and the prairie dog actually provides a benefit to the growth of the grasses that they eat. Their tunneling activity churns and mixes the soil and organic matter, and helps with water retention in the soil. Overgrazing by cattle does considerably more damage to the land than the presence of prairie dogs, and the activity of the prairie dogs may actually help to repair some of the damage done by the cattle.

Prairie dogs are also a vital component of the natural plains and prairie ecosystems. Ecologists refer to the black-tailed prairie dog as a "keystone" species. This is because a large number of other species are dependent on the prairie dog. They provide food for many predators including the American badger, bobcat, coyote, snakes, weasels, bald and golden eagles, hawks, and the critically endangered black-footed ferret, which has been driven to the brink of extinction by the extermination of the black-tailed prairie dog from its range. Many other animals, including snakes and burrowing owls, use abandoned prairie dog burrows for their homes. In all, at least 140 other species benefit from the presence of prairie dogs in their ranges.

Among the most lethal weapons in the arsenal of the enemies of the prairie dog are two poisons, Rozol (chlorophacinone) and Kaput-D (diphacinone). These two products have been approved by the EPA for use in ten states, in spite of the utter cruelty that they inflict on their victims and the widespread harm that they do to the environment.

These chemicals are blood thinners. When a prairie dog or other animal eats the poison, it experiences a slow, painful decline and death by internal bleeding that may take several weeks. During that time the prairie dog becomes weak and disoriented, making it easier prey for carnivores. After death the poison will remain in the carcass. Any animals that eats the meat will also consume the poison.

Several years ago the Environmental Protection Agency considered and rejected listing the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. It has also given approval to the use of these two cruel, dangerous poisons. I believe that the EPA is negligent in carrying out its intended mission. I hope that you will help by signing the petition and take a stand for the prairie dogs.

If you would like more information on black-tailed prairie dogs and the threats that they are facing, you can read more here for general black-tailed prairie dog info, and here for more on the effects of Rozol and Kaput-D.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Please Help Prairie Dogs

I have just created a petition on the Care2 web site asking the EPA to ban the use of two deadly poisons, Rozol and Kaput-D, for killing prairie dogs. Currently these two loathsome products are approved for use in ten states. I plan to write a longer post on the plight of the black-tailed prairie dog tomorrow, when I am less tired. For now, I'm asking that you click on the link and sign this petition to help these awesome, intelligent and sociable ground squirrels.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bill and Lou the Oxen Need Help!

I usually try to stay on topic with squirrel-related news and information on this blog, but this story caught my eye and I would like to help spread the word.

Green Mountain College is a small liberal arts school in Vermont, with a focus on environmental education. The college runs a farm where students can learn organic, sustainable agricultural practices. Bill and Lou the oxen have worked on this farm for more than ten years. They are loved by the student community, and have become mascots of the school.

Recently Lou sustained an injury to his left rear hock, which has not been able to heal sufficiently to let him work. As a result, the college has decided to replace the oxen team and have both Bill and Lou sent to the slaughterhouse to be "processed" for meat.

That's right. They will be killed.

The saddest thing is, there is an animal sanctuary, the VINE Sanctuary nearby in Vermont, that has offered to take the oxen and allow them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. But the school officials still think it would make more economic sense to have them put to death. This is hard to understand given the years of service that Bill and Lou have provided, especially for a school that professes values such as sustainability, tolerance, equality, and concern for animal welfare.

Understandably, many are protesting Green Mountain College's callous decision, and hope to change the fate of Bill and Lou. There is a petition on the Care2 website that I hope you will take the time to sign. Hopefully we can save Bill and Lou from becoming dinner, and let these gentle, hard-working animals live out their lives in peace and comfort.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Alpine Marmot

The Alpine Marmot is a ground squirrel that lives in high grasslands of the Alps and other European mountain ranges. Their range includes parts of Alpine France, Switzerland, and Italy, Austria, southern Germany, and Yugoslavia. It is one of the largest squirrels, measuring about 18-21 inches in length not including the short tail, which is slightly more than an inch long. The coat is thick, reddish-brown or gray.

Like many ground squirrels, the Alpine marmot is highly social, living in colonies of four to around 50 members. The colonies consist of a dominant pair along with their offspring from several years. Typically the male offspring will leave the colony after their first or second winter, as will some of the females, but other females will stay with the group. When the dominant female dies, one of the female offspring will inherit the dominant position.

Members of the colony live in a system of interconnected burrows. They spend the spring and summer months gaining the weight that they will need to survive their long winter hibernation, which lasts more than half of the year. They feed on seeds, grasses, flowers, and bulbs, but will also eat insects and sometimes birds' eggs. In the spring, just after hibernation, an adult Alpine marmot may weigh only around seven pounds, but by the beginning of the next hibernation in the fall its weight will increase to as much as 18 pounds.

Mating takes place immediately after the end of hibernation, and usually three, but sometimes up to seven, young are born in the spring. At the beginning of the winter hibernation, usually in October, the marmots in a colony will retire to their burrow network. Adult Alpine marmots huddle with the young to keep them warm. The last marmot to enter the burrow will plug the entrance with grass, dirt, and feces to keep the cold air and predators out.

Alpine marmots are extremely powerful diggers. Using their fore and hind feet they can penetrate earth that even a pickax would have trouble breaking. Burrows are continually expanded over several generations and can become quite complex, with large "living areas" and other dead end tunnels that are used as "toilets."

Alpine marmots are usually very shy and wary of intruders. One member of the colony will usually stand watching for signs of danger, and if a predator or intruder is seen, will give a series whistles, sending the entire colony running to the burrow for cover.

Remarkably, one human, a young boy named Matteo Walch, seems to have gained the trust of a colony of Alpine marmots in Austria. As reported by the Daily Mail of the UK, this eight year old boy befriended the colony during a family vacation four years ago, and ever since has been welcomed by the marmots during his family's annual two-week summer holidays.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Senator Coburn Scapegoats Robo-Squirrel

Last spring I introduced readers to Robo-Squirrel, a biorobotic squirrel designed and built by researches at the University of California San Diego to study interactions between California ground squirrels and their biggest predator, the rattlesnake. Robo-Squirrel has helped research scientists and students at the university gain valuable insights into how the squirrels ward off attacks by the snakes using tail flagging and thermoregulation, or heating of the tail by adjusting blood flow.


Now Robo-Squirrel is under attack! US Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahomo) is using the robotic squirrel as an example of wasted federal tax money. The project that Robo-Squirrel was a part of was funded with a grand of $325,000 from the National Science Foundation, which is a federally funded agency. Apparently Senator Coburn thinks of any federal money spent on scientific research for anything other than new weapons for the military as being a waste.

Of course, I'm sure that the Senator was aware that the words "robotic squirrel" would get the attention of the press when he was looking for a project to scapegoat. I'm sure that nowhere in his press release did he mention the benefits of what this research has added to our knowledge of predator-prey interactions, of how species evolve adaptations to help them avoid becoming another species' dinner (but of course I'm sure the Senator, being a Republican, doesn't believe in evolution anyway).

And I'm also sure that Senator Coburn didn't mention that most of the grant money didn't go directly to the building of the robotic squirrel, but was instead used to fund the inclusion of both undergraduate and graduate students in the project. But then again, developing future scientists isn't something that the anti-science Republican party would be concerned with.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Variegated Squirrel

The variegated squirrel is a tree squirrel that makes its home in southern Mexico and Central America, from the Chiapas region in the north to Panama in the south. It can be found in both wet and dry tropical forests, but prefers drier deciduous or mixed forests, scrubland, and even agricultural land.

This is one of the most beautiful, colorful squirrels of the Americas. There are fourteen different subspecies of the variegated squirrels, which display a wide variety of color patterns. The back ranges from black to reddish brown or gray, and the underside from white to cinnamon buff. A fairly large tree squirrel, the head and body length is up to around 13 inches, with the long bushy tail measuring more than 12 inches. The variegated squirrel can weigh up to around two pounds.

Like most tree squirrels, variegated squirrels are diurnal and arboreal, and live alone except for the female when she is raising young. Mating usually takes place in April or May, and the average litter size is 6-8 young, which become independent of the mother at around 15 weeks old.

The primary foods of the variegated squirrel include a variety of nuts and fruits. They especially like soft, juicy fruits. This species also feeds on vegetation including vines, flowers, and mushrooms. In some areas they may eat buds and twigs of bamboo plants.

Photo from

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Some Random Squirrel Trivia For Squirrel Awareness Month

Since we're in the middle of Squirrel Awareness Month, and since I've been having a hard time coming up with new lines for the SAM carol (see my previous posts), I thought I'd offer up some interesting squirrel facts.

There are 278 species of squirrels in the world. They are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Squirrel species are grouped into three broad categories: ground squirrels (including chipmunks, marmots, and groundhogs); tree squirrels; and flying squirrels.

Gray squirrels have a bite force of around 7,000 pounds per square inch (psi). For comparison, most humans have a bite force around 500 psi.

Like other rodents, squirrels' incisors grow constantly throughout their lives. They must keep them worn down by gnawing to avoid having the teeth become impacted.

Squirrels cannot vomit.

Flying squirrels are able to glide between trees for distances of 150 yards or more. They do so using a flap of skin, called the patagium, that extends on each side of the body between the forearm and leg.

The word "squirrel" comes from two Greek words: skia meaning shade or shadow, and oura meaning tail.

The earliest squirrel known from the fossil record was protosciurus, which lived in North America around 37 million years ago.

Many ground squirrels hibernate during the cold winter months. However, tree squirrels do not hibernate. This is a common misconception.

Most adult tree squirrels, including the eastern gray squirrel, nest alone. However, in cold weather several squirrels will temporarily nest together to share body heat.

Squirrels can control the flow of blood to their tails. This helps the squirrel to regulate its body heat by altering the blood flow. It also helps ground squirrels defend against predators such as snakes that hunt by detecting heat, by allowing the squirrel to make itself look bigger and more threatening.

Squirrels' sweat glands are in the pads of their feet. On a hot day a squirrel may leave tiny wet footprints on a sidewalk.

Squirrels are diurnal, or awake and active during the day. Tree squirrels are most active early in the morning and late in the evening.

Gray squirrels often build more than one nest, or drey, especially when raising young. This way, if one nest is damaged or threatened by a predator, they will have a backup nest to move to.

Squirrels love pumpkins, and are adept at carving jack-o-lanterns.

Phew, that was hard work!

Before burying a nut, a gray squirrel will lick the nut to apply its scent to it. This helps the squirrel locate the nut later.

A gray squirrel weighing about a pound needs to eat its weight in nuts, seeds, and other food every week.

During hibernation, the body temperature of the arctic ground squirrel can drop to below freezing, as low as 27 degrees F. This is the lowest naturally occurring body temperature of any mammal.

Eastern gray squirrels, which are about 15 inches long, can jump up to six feet vertically and eight feet horizontally.

Prairie dogs live in "towns" that may contain dozens of family groups, and can cover hundreds of acres.

Rabies is virtually unknown in squirrels. There is no record of a human ever being infected with rabies through a squirrel bite.

Tree squirrels can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees at the ankles. This helps them to quickly and easily descend tree trunks head first.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Catching Up With Squirrel Awareness Month

After a busy few days, it's time to catch up on our Squirrel Awareness Month carol. So without any further ado,

On the tenth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Ten nut butter sandwiches,
Eight fuzzy stuffed squirrels,
Seven smelly snakeskins,
Six comfy dreys,
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

Squirrels are known for their love of peanuts. Even though this isn't a food that they would encounter often in the wild, humans have found that a few peanuts (or a few handfuls of peanuts) are always appreciated by their local park squirrels. And as the squirrel in this video will tell you, a jar peanut butter is a treat worth going to some extra effort for!

An Oregon company has been gaining a following lately with some products that any squirrel would love. Wild Squirrel Nut Butter, started by a pair of University of Oregon students, offers a variety of almond and peanut butters with flavorings such as chocolate, cinnamon, and coconut. You can order online or find their nut butters in many stores if you are lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest.

I'm hoping that this product will make it into some of the stores here in Texas. In the meantime, maybe my mention here in The News For Squirrels will be rewarded with a free sample (hint hint).

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Brilliant Disguise: The Seventh Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the seventh day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Seven smelly snakeskins,
Six comfy dreys,
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

California ground squirrels have an ingenious trick to fool one of their predators, the rattlesnake. When a ground squirrel comes across a shed snakeskin, it will rub the skin over its fur, coating itself with the snake's scent. This confuses any rattlesnake that threatens the squirrel and its young.

If a rattlesnake wanders into the area of a California ground squirrel colony, the squirrels will not wait for it to attack. They will go on the offensive against the snake, confronting it, kicking dirt at it, and waving their tails. These squirrels are even able to shunt extra blood to the veins in the tail, heating it up. Since the snake detects heat more effectively than it sees, this makes the squirrels appear larger and more threatening to the rattler.

Here is a video that demonstrates how effectively these little ground squirrels deal with a threatening rattlesnake:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Drey: The Sixth Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the sixth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Six comfy dreys,
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

The drey, the familiar tree squirrel nest made of sticks and leaves, may look like a precariously constructed home. But squirrels are master builders, and the typical drey is not only secure but quite comfortable as well. A gray squirrel in her drey will be dry during rainy weather and well protected from the wind and cold. Here is what it looks like inside a typical drey:

Most squirrels, especially females with young, build multiple dreys within their territories. This way, if one drey is damaged, becomes infested with insects, or is threatened by a nearby predator, there is always at least one backup. A mother squirrel can move an entire litter of young from one drey to another within a few minutes. This is why you will often see more dreys than squirrels in a given area.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Fifth Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the fifth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

Tree squirrels, especially eastern grays, have been noted for the wide variety of foods that they enthusiastically accept. There is even a whole web site devoted to investigating what they will eat and what (if anything) they will turn up their noses at. Although mostly vegetarian, gray squirrels will happily scarf down many of the foods that humans offer them or simply leave behind, from french fries to pizza to (as noted here a few days ago) ice cream. I'm sure any squirrel would be happy to dig into one of these novelty peanut treats!

New Squirrel Blog

This is Will the White Squirrel.

He likes to travel, and he and his friend Danielle have a new blog where they post lots of original squirrel photos, as well as squirrel news and pop culture trivia. They've been blogging for about a month now, and it is definitely worth a look, so go check it out!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fox Squirrel Caching Behavior

An interesting article from the UC Berkeley News Center discusses the strategies that fox squirrels use when caching nuts.

A group of students at the University of California, under the direction of psychology graduate student Mikel Delgado, have been tracking 70 campus fox squirrels, mapping their territories, and studying the strategies that the squirrels use to find, hide, and retrieve different kinds of nuts. The students hope to determine how the squirrels determine the quality of each nut, and decide what amount of investment to put into that nut, whether to discard, eat immediately, or to cache the nut.

Like the video in my previous post, this article confirms that tree squirrels rely on much more than just their sense of smell to locate hidden nuts. According to Delgado, the squirrels use a combination of landmarks and spatial memory to narrow down the location to a specific area, while probably relying on smell only for the "final bit of searching."

The article includes a cute video of some of the UC campus fox squirrels hiding nuts:

This looks like some extremely interesting research that promises to shed some light on the intelligence of our squirrely friends!

The Fourth Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the fourth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
and an acorn in an oak tree!

Today's squirrel video demonstrates how tree squirrels use spatial memory to locate hidden nuts. The poster of the YouTube video experimented with three different squirrels, hiding nuts under one of four cups in a squirrely shell game. The squirrels always returned to the cup in the same position where they had previously found the nuts, even when the nuts were moved to a different cup, and even after a different colored cup had been substituted for the original.

The poster of the video makes one error in the description, saying that squirrels do not smell nuts but only locate them based on memory. Squirrels have an excellent sense of smell and most certainly can smell nuts. However, this video may demonstrate that squirrels rely more heavily on spatial memory when searching for recently-cached nuts or for food that they have recently found in a specific location.

I hope that after the experiment was ended, the squirrels were rewarded with all four cups filled with nuts!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Classic Squirrel Video, and the Third Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the third day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

This classic video shows a squirrel negotiating an obstacle course that was set up in Great Britain. I believe it may have originally aired as part of a BBC program several years ago. The obstacle course segment is impressive, as the narrator describes how quickly the squirrels figured out the moves needed to reach the treat at the end.

The best part of the clip, for me, is at the end, when a city squirrel climbs into a vending machine, steals a Baby Ruth candy bar, and carries it off to a corner of a parking lot to enjoy the peanutty, caramelly, chocolatty goodness. I suppose it might have enjoyed an Almond Joy bar even more had any been available, because sometimes you feel like a nut!