Sunday, April 29, 2012

RoboSquirrel Update

Back in March I introduced Robo Squirrel, a robotic California ground squirrel developed by researchers at the University of California Davis and UC San Diego. The robot was designed to help researchers learn about the predator-prey interactions between rattlesnakes and ground squirrels.

Robo Squirrel in the lab

The specific questions that the scientists hope to address involve two actions that squirrels take when they are confronted by a rattlesnake: tail flagging, or waving of the tail while facing the snake; and heating up of the tail, which is done by increasing the blood flow. By facing down a rattler while simultaneously performing these two actions, a ground squirrel is somehow able to confuse or frustrate a threatening snake and cause the predator to back off. The researchers want to know if either of these actions is more important, or if it is a combination of the two that is effective in fending off a snake attack.

A real California ground squirrel
The researchers place Robo Squirrel in a spot where they have observed rattlesnakes nearby. When it is threatened by a rattler, they can make it wave its tail, heat up its tail, or do both. What they have found so far it that it seems to be the heating of the tail that is most important. The snakes can "see" the infrared energy emitted by the heating of the tail, and in most cases this seems to frustrate them into backing off. The tail flagging is an additional step that the squirrels take to emphasize an aggressive stance toward the snake.

The squirrels will only use these actions if there are baby or juvenile squirrels nearby. The snakes will most often attack baby or juvenile squirrels rather than adults. The adult squirrels have resistance to snake venom, can usually survive a bite, and may hurt or even kill a rattlesnake in a fight. The tail heating and flagging is a signal to the snake that it has been seen, the squirrel knows it is there, and most often the snake would rather back off and find food somewhere else rather than fight.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How The Indian Palm Squirrel Got Its Stripes

I referred to this beautiful Hindu story in a post a few months ago, but I thought it would be worth giving a more complete telling. It is an account of how the Indian palm squirrel, or the three-striped palm squirrel, got the distinctive white stripes that run down the length of its back. You can read a more complete version of this story, and other Hindu and Indian religious and cultural texts, here.

At a time when Lord Rama had been banished from his princely capital at Ayodhya, his wife Sita was captured by a demon, or Rakshasa, named Ravana, who carried her off in a flying chariot to his kingdom across the sea. When Rama and his brother Lakshmana discovered that Sita was missing, they searched everywhere for her, but had no luck until the eagle king Jatayu, who had been mortally wounded by Ravana and was dying, told them what had happened. As Rama and Lakshmana continued searching, the monkey king Sugreev confirmed Jatayu's account, and offered to help Rama recover his wife.

The monkey king, a devoted friend to Rama, gathered together a huge army of thousands of monkeys and bears to begin construction of a stone bridge that would span the ocean and allow Rama access to Ravana's kingdom. The monkeys and bears spread out through the forests and mountains, uprooted trees and carried huge boulders down to the sea to build the bridge.

As work progressed, a small brown squirrel saw what was happening, and, desiring to serve Lord Rama, ran to join the laborers. She ran back and forth as fast as she could, carrying pebbles to add to the growing bridge across the sea. Working tirelessly, she placed one pebble onto the pile, then darted back for another.

When some of the monkeys saw the squirrel scurrying back and forth with her pebbles, they began to mock her, ridiculing her small size and making light of her contribution to the bridge. Soon the bears joined in, teasing and chasing the small squirrel.

Humiliated and in tears, the squirrel ran to Lord Rama, who heard the cries of the tiny squirrel over the rush of the sea and the noise of the workers. When he saw the tears in her eyes, he was moved by her dedication and the hard work that she had freely given to him. He picked her up gently in his cupped hands to comfort her, telling her that the pebbles she had contributed would make the bridge stronger. He also decreed that from that time forward, no creature would ever make fun of the squirrel. As a sign of his decree, he stroked the fur of her back, and when he lifted his hand, the impressions of his fingers left the three stripes that the squirrel displays proudly to this day.

Lord Rama comforts the squirrel

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Craigslist Founder Teams Up With Squirrels To Raise Money For Wildlife

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark announced yesterday that he will donate one dollar to the National Wildlife Federation for every tweet on Twitter that includes the hashtag #Squirrels4Good, up to a total of $5000. Newmark is teaming up with the popular Twitter squirrel @common_squirrel to publicize the campaign.

Mr. Newmark has grown fond of squirrels working in a home office that overlooks a wooded area where squirrels are common. He is using this campaign as an experiment to evaluate the use of social media in raising funds for causes.

I was a little bit uneasy about this campaign when I was told that the National Wildlife Federation has had a marketing partnership with the Scotts Miracle-Gro company, the marketer of lawn and garden chemicals, distributor of consumer Roundup weed killers, and poisoner of birds and other backyard wildlife. However, the NWF canceled the partnership in late January, after news came out about the court case pending over the poisoned bird seed. I still think that the partnership was ill-advised and violated the basic principles that the NWF promotes, but hopefully this will be a lesson learned for the environmental organization.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Eastern Chipmunk

The chipmunks are small, striped ground squirrels. Of the 24 species of chipmunk, all but one, the Siberian chipmunk, are native to North America. While most species of chipmunks are found in western North America, the eastern chipmunk inhabits deciduous forests and parkland throughout most of the eastern United States and southern Canada, ranging as far west as North Dakota and eastern Oklahoma and Texas.

The eastern chipmunk has a body about 5-7 inches in length, and a 3-4 inch tail. It is reddish-brown on the back and sides, with a white belly. The most noticeable feature is the black and white stripes--a white stripe bordered by black stripes on each side, and a black stripe down the middle of the back, and a white stripe above and below each eye.

Although the eastern chipmunk climbs trees with ease, it is classified as a ground squirrel. It nests underground, building extensive tunnel systems, often with multiple entrances. It prefers wooded areas with rocks and bushes to provide shelter from predators. Except when mating and raising young, eastern chipmunks are solitary and territorial, defending their burrows from intruders. Females usually have one litter per year, with 3-5 young, although in more southern areas they may have two litters per year. The young stay underground until they are about six weeks old.

Eastern chipmunks are active primarily during the day. They eat a mostly herbivorous diet that includes nuts, seeds, bulbs, acorns, mushrooms, fruit and berries, and corn if available. They may also eat snails, insects, birds' eggs, and even small mammals such as young mice. Chipmunks have cheek pouches that they use to transport food to their burrows for storage. Eastern chipmunks do not hibernate, but they may spend a lot of time sleeping during the winter, seldom venturing out of the nest and living on food stored underground.

There are different theories about where the word "chipmunk" came from. One theory is that it refers to the "chip" sound that these tiny squirrels make. Another is that it is derived from an Ottawa word "ajidamoonh", which literally translates "one who descends trees headfirst."

Monday, April 16, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel

The Delmarva fox squirrel is an endangered subspecies of the fox squirrel of North America. Historically, this large tree squirrel inhabited southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, southern New Jersey, Maryland, and the Virginia portion of the Delmarva peninsula (Delmarva refers to the states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia). Due to habitat loss resulting from logging, agriculture, and urban development, its range has been reduced to parts of the eastern shore of Maryland, one county in Delaware, and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

The Delmarva fox squirrel is similar in color and appearance to the eastern gray squirrel, but is larger and heavier. It is approximately 30 inches long, including its 15 inch tail, and weighs around three pounds. Its body and tail are a frosty silver-gray, with a white belly. Its most noticeable feature is its unusually full, fluffy tail.

Compared to the eastern gray squirrel, the Delmarva fox squirrel is quiet and shy, and somewhat less active than its smaller cousin. These squirrels inhabit mixed forests of conifer and broadleaf trees with open understory, feeding on nuts from oak, hickory, walnut, sweetgum, and loblolly pine trees. In the summer and early fall they like to eat pine cones, and in the spring, tree buds and flowers, fungi, insects, fruit, and seeds.

Like other tree squirrels, Delmarva fox squirrels make their nests either in cavities in trees, or construct a drey from twigs and leaves in the tree branches.

In 1967, the Delmarva fox squirrel was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, it inhabited only 10 percent of its former range. Since then, there has been some success made in restoring habitat, and some squirrels have been relocated to parts of the former range. However, the species is still under serious threat from continuing development of its habitat. Global warming presents an additional threat, as some parts of the coastal territory are predicted to be inundated by rising sea levels within the next fifty years.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rally Squirrel Featured On Cardinals' World Series Rings

This weekend the members of last years champion St. Louis Cardinals team received their World Series rings. Featured on the rings is an important unofficial member of that team, the Rally Squirrel. If you look between the St. Louis logo and the home plate superimposed on the two crossed bats, you can see the squirrel:

And here is the Rally Squirrel in action last fall:

If you are a baseball fan, you will remember that the squirrel, which had been first seen in the stadium by many fans in he previous day's game, ran across the field and briefly disrupted play during a Skip Schumaker at bat in game 4 of the Cardinals' National League Division Series against Philadelphia. At the time, St. Louis trailed the Phillies two games to one in the best-of-five series. When the Cards came back and won the division series, and then went on to take the World Series, the squirrel was credited by many as a good luck charm.

In addition to its place on the World Series ring, the squirrel is also featured on Cardinals outfielder Schumaker's 2012 Topps baseball card.

The Rally Squirrel was later trapped and taken to a refuge in the St. Louis area, where he or she is hopefully enjoying a comfortable retirement.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Rats Protest Squirrel Week

I have to admit, I sympathize with the rat in this cute cartoon by Connie Sun:

After all, I happen to like rats too. They are cute, sociable, highly intelligent, very friendly when raised in captivity, and yet are despised by a much higher percentage of the population than are squirrels. Indeed, when people want to insult squirrels, they often compare them to rats, as in "tree rats" or, in the regretably immortal words of Sarah Jessica Parker, just "a rat with a cuter outfit."

I think it would be perfectly appropriate to honor our cousins with a special Rat Week. And if the Washington Post ever decides to devote a series of articles to the rats, I hope they will spare them a horror like yesterday's Squirrel Week story, which was devoted to eating squirrels.

Yes, I know people eat squirrels, and have done so for centuries. But an article on cooking and eating squirrels as part of Squirrel Week? That would be sort of like celebrating Arbor Day like this.

So my advice to our frustrated rat friend is, be careful what you wish for. Sometimes it's better to just stay out of sight up in the high branches, or, if you prefer, in a cozy nest in the basement, behind the water heater.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Have You Found A Baby Squirrel?

Spring is the time when a young squirrel's thoughts turn to making more squirrels. If you have found a baby squirrel that has fallen out of its nest or appears to be orphaned or injured, I would like to direct you to a page with links to some very helpful web sites. I have also put this link at the top of the column at the right-hand side of this blog, with the words "I found a baby squirrel."

I would like to thank my friend Winkelhimer Smith, the amazing painting squirrel, for bringing my attention to this helpful page.

Squirrel Facts: The Red-Tailed Squirrel

The red-tailed squirrel (not to be confused with the red squirrels of North America or Eurasia) is found in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago. It is a tree squirrel with a rusty reddish tail, found mostly in dense forests at high altitudes. The body color of this squirrel varies by region, but typically is reddish on the belly and gray or olive-brown on the back. The red-tailed squirrel is a bit smaller than the eastern gray squirrel, with adults weighing a little less than a pound.

Like most tree squirrels, red-tailed squirrels nest alone except when the females are caring for young. Females are territorial, although the males are reported to be non-territorial. They eat nuts, fruit, and seeds, leaves, flowers, tree frog eggs, and insects, and, like the one pictured above, are especially fond of apples. These little squirrels are abundant in and around the town of San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica, which is the site of extensive apple, peach, and plum orchards.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Squirrel Video: Determined Squirrels Score Big!

I want to share two videos I found on YouTube of squirrels hitting the jackpot.

In the first clip, a squirrel in a park steals a can of planters nuts and hauls it up into a tree:

Next up, an even more determined squirrel carries a jar of peanut butter up a tree:

It just goes to show the lengths that a squirrel will go to to get what it wants!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Squirrel Week Updates

Today in the Washington Post's Squirrel Week coverage is a fascinating article on Tommy Tucker, DC's most famous squirrel. Tommy was rescued as an orphaned infant by a couple and became a national celebrity (and famous cross-dresser) during the World War II era.

Tomorrow at 11am eastern time, John Kelly will be hosting an online question and answer session session with squirrel vocalization expert Robert Lishak. You can submit your questions about squirrel talk on the Post's web site.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's Squirrel Week!

In addition to being Easter, there is an extra reason to celebrate today: the beginning of Squirrel Week.

The Washington Post columnist John Kelly created the observance last year after an article he wrote on squirrels received an unusually large number of responses. This year, today through April 14, Squirrel Week will feature daily columns on squirrels, reader-submitted squirrel photos, and a gallery featuring the reasons why people love (or hate) the bushy-tailed rodents.

The first column of the week is about white squirrels, and features the squirrels of Olney, IL and Brevard, NC, the latter of which I have written about in this blog.

One of the famous white squirrels
of Brevard, NC

Cheers to John Kelly and the Washington Post for devoting a well-deserved special week to the squirrels! Squirrel Nation will be following closely this week.

More On The British War On Grey Squirrels

Returning to the tragic war against the gray (or grey) squirrel in the UK, I want to bring attention to an interesting and informative web site, We're As Native As You, created by Professor Acorn, a grey squirrel who lives in Great Britain.

Professor Acorn
Professor Acorn's site presents a number of arguments against the culling of grey squirrels, and more broadly, argues that the view that greys are responsible for the decline in numbers of red squirrels in the UK. He also challenges the very concept of "nativeness" that has been used to justify killing grey squirrels to save the reds.  I'm not going to attempt to rehash the entire case that is made, so I strongly encourage anyone interested in this issue to visit the site--it is extremely well-organized and presented and, in my opinion, makes a sound and compelling case against the culling of grey squirrels.

There are a couple of highlights that I do want to mention. First, conservationists who demonize the grey squirrel for causing the decline of red squirrels in England tend to ignore the role of habitat alteration and loss in their decline. Grey and red squirrels typically inhabit somewhat different environments: greys favor deciduous forests, while red squirrels prefer conifer forests. Over a period of centuries, due to both climate change and agricultural and urban development, conifer forests have largely disappeared from all but the northern reaches of England and Scotland. The remaining deciduous and mixed forests and park lands are more favorable to the grey squirrels. Thus it is not surprising that the remaining strongholds of the red squirrel are in the north, primarily in Scotland.

Second, Professor Acorn's site makes a compelling argument against the assumption that the grey squirrel is responsible for the spread of squirrel pox virus, and points to evidence that the disease was present in the early part of the twentieth century among red squirrels in areas where they had no contact with greys. He also argues that grey squirrels have developed immunity to the virus over time. Red squirrels could do the same, he argues, but have been unable to do so because in England they are weakened due to living in a marginal environment for them, one that has been made even more marginal due to alteration by humans.

Again, this is a fascinating site that counters many of the arguments of the "conservationists" in the UK who advocate the killing of grey squirrels. Please give it a look.

Friday, April 6, 2012

On Beebz' Bookshelf: Norbert and the Elusive Acorns by Peter Martz

Norbert and the Elusive Acorns is a children's ebook for ages 3-5 by author, musician, and illustrator Peter Martz. It is the delightfully illustrated tale of Norbert, a squirrel who loves his acorns. Finding his supply depleted, Norbert embarks on a journey in search of a new acorn supply. Along the way, he encounters frustrations and setbacks. But ever determined, positive, clever, and resourceful, the little squirrel stays focused, overcomes obstacles, and remains committed to his goal.

Everything about this book is appealing. The pictures are cute and colorful. The main character is thoroughly likable, and his intelligence, resourcefulness, and determination shows that the author understands and appreciates the nature and personality of real squirrels. I believe this is a real benefit because children who read this book will easily be able to identify Norbert with the wild squirrels that they see in their own backyards and neighborhood parks.

The story is told in rhyming verse, and again, I think this is perfectly executed. The vocabulary and concepts are simple enough to be easily understood by children in the 3-7 year age group, with vivid descriptions accompanying the pictures, and an interesting plot that moves along quickly.

This is just the kind of book that I would have loved to get for my son when he was a child. I highly recommend that you follow the link below to get this ebook on Kindle from Amazon. You can also visit the author's website at, where you can find coloring and activity pages, sign up for a newsletter, and read the author's blog.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Endangered Black-Footed Ferret

The black footed ferret is a member of the mustelid, or weasel, family. Although it is obviously not a squirrel, its survival depends on the survival of a ground squirrel, specifically the prairie dog. Up to 90 percent of this ferret's diet consists of prairie dogs. As farmers and ranchers exterminated the prairie dog from most of its native range during the twentieth century, the black-footed ferret was driven to the brink of extinction. With conservation efforts now underway, it is only just beginning to show signs of recovery.

Historically, the black-footed ferret could be found from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, south to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, a range that correlated closely with that of the black-tailed, white-tailed, and Gunnison's prairie dogs. The ferrets are 18-24 inches long, including the six-inch tail, and weigh about two and a half pounds. They are territorial, and solitary except when mating and raising young. They are nocturnal, hunting at night for sleeping prairie dogs which they take from the burrows. In addition to eating prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets are one of several species that make their homes and raise their young in abandoned prairie dog burrows.

The nationwide effort to eradicate prairie dogs from farm and ranch land, which started in the early 1900s, was devastating not only to the prairie dog but also to the black-footed ferret. By the 1970s, the ferret was widely believed to be extinct. In 1981 a wild population was discovered on a private ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming, and a subsequent search for survivors by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found around 100 ferrets. When an outbreak of disease reduced this population to only 18 individuals, the remaining ferrets were trapped for captive breeding.

Since then, breeding and reintroduction efforts have had some success. As of 2007 there were estimated to be around 650 black-footed ferrets living in the wild. Populations have been introduced in several states, including Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, as well as Saskatchewan in Canada and Chihuahua, Mexico.

However, in order for the black-footed ferret to survive in the long term, it is vital that the populations of prairie dogs on which they depend also be protected. One way that you can help is by signing this petition asking the state of South Dakota not to poison prairie dogs. The practice of poisoning prairie dogs is especially destructive because when ferrets eat the poisoned animals, they are, of course, eating the powerful poison as well.

The relationship between the black-footed ferret and the prairie dog is just one powerful example of how the removal of one species can affect others, and how easily an ecosystem like the plains/prairie system can be damaged by short-sighted actions like waging war against a species.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Baby Squirrels Resued in Boston

Maintenance personnel were changing window air conditioning on a building in Boston, MA on Monday when they discovered that a mother squirrel was caring for two babies in a nest on top of one of the units. The nest was inside a plastic wedge that someone had placed on top of one  of the air conditioners, apparently to keep birds off of the unit.

One of the baby squirrels
The building maintenance personnel called a local animal rescue service, which sent technicians out to move the squirrels. Mike Brammer, one of the animal rescuers, moved the wedge to the base of a nearby tree, and got the attention of the highly agitated mother squirrels by picking up one of the babies. The mother squirrel took it from there, racing over and carrying the babies to a new nest in an undisclosed location.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel

Today I am featuring another endangered squirrel. The Mount Graham red squirrel is a subspecies of the North American red squirrel. It lives only in the Pinaleno Mountains of southeastern Arizona, where it has been isolated from other red squirrels since the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. It was believed in the 1950s that this squirrel had become extinct, but it was rediscovered in the 1970s, and was given endangered status under the Endangered Species Act in 1987.

Physically, the Mount Graham red squirrel is smaller than most North American red squirrels. It weighs only 8 ounces, and measures 8 inches in length, with a tail 6 inches long. It's tail lacks the white fringe that is displayed by most red squirrels. It inhabits cool, moist spruce-fir and mixed conifer forests at the higher elevations in the Pinaleno Mountains, where it eats mostly seeds, conifer cones, and fungi.

The Mount Graham red squirrel has been devastated by habitat loss, drought, and forest fires. It has been estimated that from 2001-2009 the population dropped from around 350 to around 250 individuals.

This species has been involved in controversy due to the construction of the University of Arizona's Mount Graham International Observatory within its range. The observatory was built in the early 1990s, and with additional construction projects planned, continues to come under fire from conservation groups for its impact on the squirrels' habitat.

The Mount Graham red squirrel also made the news in 2010 when the Arizona Department of Transportation announced plans to spend $1.25 million on conservation measures to reduce mortality of the squirrels due to cars. Unfortunately the plan, which included the construction of rope bridges across two highways that pass through the squirrels' range as well as additional monitoring of the squirrels' numbers, was met with loud protests from right-wing politicians and pundits and was subsequently canceled.

This tiny but unique squirrel clearly faces an uphill battle for survival. Fortunately, the Mount Graham Red Squirrel does have some friends. There is a group, the Mount Graham Coalition, that is dedicated to preserving the area's ecosystem and species, including the red squirrels.

New York Town Celebrates Art... and Squirrels!

The city of Olean, in southwestern New York, has an unusual public art installation. Throughout the city, four foot tall fiberglass squirrels painted by various, mostly local, artists adorn the sidewalks and other public spaces. Each squirrel has been sponsored by a local business, organization, or individual, for the purpose of promoting the arts and raising funds for a children's learning museum.

Blue Poplar
Sir Pennywise

Some of the squirrels reflect their settings or the businesses that sponsored them, such as "Sir Pennywise" (above), "Cutter" (below) and the unfortunately included "Ronald McSquirrel" (not pictured). Others, such as "Blue Poplar" and "Starry Night" (below) are more artistically adorned.

Starry Night


The newest, and apparently final, squirrel, unveiled yesterday, honors the city's emergency medical response teams. He is named "inVINCEable" after Vince Houghtaling, a nine year old boy whose life was saved by emergency personnel.

inVINCEable and Vince

Nutty Ol' St. Nick

Life's Images