Sunday, December 14, 2014

British Landowner's Group Pushes For Cruel Poisoning of Grey Squirrels

The British war against grey squirrels is once again in the news. Earlier this year, Prince Charles engineered a "squirrel accord" that called for increased slaughter of greys squirrels in the English countryside, and later ordered a massacre of greys on his own personal estates. Now a prominent British landowner's organization is pressing for a reversal of the ban on a blood thinning drug for use as poison against the squirrels.

The County Land and Business Association (CLA) is asking the British government to license Warfarin for use as part of the "national action plan" against grey squirrels. Warfarin, a popular anticoagulant medication for humans, also has a history of use in "pest control," usually against rats and other rodents. Although often touted as a "humane" pesticide, in reality Warfarin kills its victims painfully, usually over a period of several days, of internal hemorrhage, an agonizing death that is anything but humane.

One of the proposed victims

In asking for permission to use this cruel drug, the CLA cites several of the arguments that have been used for years to justify the mass slaughter of grey squirrels in the UK, most prominently: that grey squirrels damage woodlands by stripping trees of their bark; and that grey squirrels are an invasive species that has caused a decline in the native red squirrel population, primarily by infecting red squirrels with the squirrel pox virus. Both of these arguments are flawed.

On the first argument, grey squirrels do sometimes strip bark off trees, particularly beech and sycamore, to access the sap beneath and to use the bark itself for nest lining. However, grey squirrel detractors tend to exaggerate the extent of the damage that this stripping does. The trees are rarely killed, and in fact the stripping can be beneficial to a forest ecosystem by encouraging the growth of fungi and invertebrates that provide food for birds and other animals.

Bark stripping by grey squirrels is seen as a problem mainly by timber harvesters who require "perfect" trees for the sawmill. However, the problem could be mitigated with improved land management practices. A greater mixture of broadleaf and conifer trees would reduce the damage from bark stripping and also provide a better environment for red squirrels who prefer conifer forests.

Regarding the argument that grey squirrels are responsible for the red squirrels' decline, this is a widespread but deeply flawed assumption. The truth is, Eurasian red squirrel numbers have declining in the UK for centuries, since well before the introduction of grey squirrels from North America in 1876. The primary reasons for the decline are habitat loss and deforestation, as well as disease. There is strong evidence that red squirrels were dying of squirrel pox in the early twentieth century, in areas where grey squirrels were not yet present. And up until the 1930s, red squirrels were widely regarded as pests and were slaughtered by the thousands, just as grey squirrels are today.

Also a victim

Proponents of grey squirrel "culls" (read "kills") claim to be conservationists acting in the interest of restoring the red squirrel. However, the true motive is twofold: the financial interests of the timber industry as represented by the CLA and other landowners; and a misguided nostalgia that sees the red squirrel as a symbol of past England that is fading from memory.

The fact is, most of the red squirrels in the UK today are descendants of squirrels introduced from the European mainland after previous local extinctions, so the current red squirrel population in England is no more native than the grey squirrel population. The idea that it is okay to slaughter one species in order to save another, or even worse, to maximize profits, is one that we need to lay to rest.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Do Squirrels Do In The Winter?

As cold weather sets in and we complain about the freezing temperatures during our morning drive to work, it's easy to forget that wild animals have to deal with the winter weather without the benefit of heated homes and cars. Squirrels, like all other animals that live in cooler climates, have evolved a variety of strategies to deal with the winter cold. Of course, the specific strategies depend on the kind of squirrel, and the area where the squirrel lives, so it's not surprising that squirrels have a variety of behaviors to help them survive the winter months.

One of the most widespread misconceptions about squirrel behavior is that all squirrels hibernate during the winter. The truth is that while many ground squirrels do hibernate, tree squirrels and flying squirrels do not. This detail was apparently missed by the producers of Sponge Bob Square Pants, who depicted Sandy Cheeks, the seafaring eastern gray squirrel from Texas, sound asleep for the winter.

Of course, everything else about this show
makes perfect sense.

For real-life tree squirrels, the most familiar behavior for coping with winter is caching food. The eastern gray squirrel of North America is famous for its habit of burying acorns and other nuts. Facing competition for scarce food supplies from nearby squirrels and other animals, the gray squirrel caches nuts over a wide area during the fall, a technique known as "scatter hoarding." It bites and licks each nut, leaving its scent before burying it. The squirrel retrieves the buried nuts throughout the winter using both memory and its keen sense of smell. It is said that a gray squirrel can locate a nut by scent even through a foot of snow.

Squirrels have refined their caching techniques to reduce the number of nuts stolen by other animals. They have been observed pretending to bury nuts when they detect another squirrel or other animal nearby, attempting to throw off any potential nut thieves.

Other tree squirrels have different strategies for winter food caching. The American red squirrel inhabits coniferous forests of the north, where it feeds largely on seeds from spruce cones throughout the winter. Rather than scatter hoarding like its gray cousins, the more fiercely territorial red squirrel gathers cones into a central location, or "midden," in its territory. The pile of discarded leaves from the spruce cones can sometimes measure a meter or more across.

American red squirrel

Although they do not hibernate, tree squirrels and flying squirrels will reduce their activity and spend more time in their nests during the winter months. In colder climates, squirrels will often alter the timing of their daily routines. Instead of going out to find food in the early morning and near dust, they will leave the nest in the mid-afternoon to retrieve buried nuts, and stay curled up in their nests the rest of the time. A small supply of nuts may be stored in the nest so that during a particularly cold stretch, a squirrel may be able to stay in the nest without leaving at all for a day or two.

Tree squirrels and flying squirrels are territorial, and adults normally nest alone. But when cold weather sets in, often several squirrels living near each other will gather in one nest, temporarily, to share their body warmth. When warmer weather returns, the squirrels will part ways and return to their own individual nests.

Unlike tree squirrels and flying squirrels, many ground squirrels (which includes chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots) do hibernate during the winter. Not surprisingly, the ground squirrels of colder climates are the most likely to hibernate, and the length and timing of hibernation varies by climate. Squirrels of higher elevations, such as the Alpine marmot of Europe or the Belding's ground squirrel of western North America, may have extended hibernation periods lasting as much as eight or nine months.

Squirrels inhabiting similar territories may employ sharply different hibernation behaviors. For example, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, a very small species whose territory extends from southern Canada south to central Texas, may enter hibernation anywhere from late July to October, and emerge between March and May, depending on the local conditions. By contrast, the black-tailed prairie dog, a larger ground squirrel which has a similar range to the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, does not hibernate at all, but may go into a light hibernation-like torpor in its burrows for short periods during particularly cold weather.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel in Lubbock, TX

The champion of hibernation among the ground squirrels may be the Arctic ground squirrel. Found in Alaska and northern Canada, these squirrels live in colonies that may number in the hundreds. They spend the short spring and summer eating and gathering food to store in their underground tunnels. They hibernate from September until April in burrows that are lined with lichen, leaves and muskox hair. During hibernation, the Arctic ground squirrel's body temperature drops to 27 degrees F (-3 C), the lowest naturally occuring body temperature recorded for any mammal. When they awaken in April, the squirrels feed on the stored leaves, seeds, and grasses that they stored in the burrows until spring plants start to grow outside.

An Arctic ground squirrel hibernating in a
laboratory at the University of Alaska

Squirrels are an amazingly adaptable and varied family of animals. They can be found in some of the harshest climates on earth. I have touched here on just a few of the strategies that squirrels employ to survive the winter months. Of course, our familiar city gray squirrels are always willing to accept a little help from their friends.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pathetic Squirrel Killers At The Grand Canyon

Most people go to national parks like the Grand Canyon to appreciate the majestic scenery and the wildlife that these beautiful places offer. For two cowardly, pathetic men, allegedly from France, the canyon was apparently the perfect place to act out their sadistic impulses on a helpless squirrel.

In a video that went viral on YouTube a few days ago, the two men are near the rim of the Grand Canyon dressed, for some reason in only hats and underwear. While one of the men appears to film, the other first places bits of bread on the ground to lure a squirrel to the canyon's edge. When the squirrel approaches the rim, the man puts on a shoe, then walks up to the squirrel and calmly kicks it, sending it flying over the edge of the cliff. With an average canyon depth of around a mile, there is little chance that the tiny creature could have survived the fall unless it was lucky enough to land on an outcropping close to the top.

The person who posted the video has reportedly stated that he does not know the two men but that he thinks they were French, and that he did not know what was going to happen. Nevertheless, he did not report the incident to park authorities, and he was more than happy to post the video, complete with backing music. Honestly, I have doubts that the men really were French, or that they were really unknown to the videographer.

I have decided not to show the video on this blog, or even include stills from it. These two pathetic cowards have no doubt been enjoying the publicity as the images have spread throughout the internet. I will show a photo of a rock squirrel, the species that was probably the victim. Rock squirrels are common along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and have become tame enough there that they often approach tourists for food handouts that are readily given. The poor squirrel in the video had absolutely no reason to think it should fear the two men.

Thankfully YouTube removed the original video due to its upsetting content. The national park service has begun an investigation into the incident in hopes of identifying the men, but so far there seems to be little progress. Also, a petition is circulating on calling for the identification and prosecution of the men. And just today, a reward of $15,000 has been offered by PETA for anyone who identifies the sadistic killers.

It's always tempting in cases like this to call for the proverbial eye-for-an-eye, to say that the men in the video should themselves be kicked of the edge of the canyon. It is unfortunate that the maximum sentence that they might receive is six months in jail and a fine of $5,000. I hope that these loathsome jerks can be identified and given whatever penalty is available, and more importantly that they can feel the contempt of the whole world for their cruel, sadistic excuse for "fun".

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who Is Your Favorite Animated Squirrel?

Although the most popular cartoon characters seem to be cats, mice, and birds, a few animated squirrels have entertained us through the years. I present here some of the most popular cartoon squirrels, starting with Chip and Dale in the 1940s through Sandy Cheeks. If you look on the sidebar to the right of this post, you will find a poll where you can vote on your favorite.

Because I am focusing on cartoon squirrels seen primarily on television, I am not including the popular prehistoric squirrel Scrat from the "Ice Age" films, which I have not seen. I am also not including any characters from last year's film "The Nut Job" which received poor reviews and was not a big box office success.

Chip and Dale
The two Disney chipmunks made their first appearance in the short film "Private Pluto" in 1943. Most of their early appearances were as antagonists to either Pluto or, more often, Donald Duck. Only three shorts were made featuring Chip and Dale as the principle characters, all of these in the early 1950s. In 1989 the pair were given their own series, "Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers."

At first nearly identical, eventually minor differences in appearance were added--Chip given a smaller black nose, smoother head fur, centered front teeth, and slightly darker color--so that viewers could more easily tell the two apart. One feature that both Chip and Dale lack is the facial stripes which are characteristic of all real chipmunks.

Rocket J. Squirrel
Arguably the iconic animated squirrel, and a favorite from my own childhood, Rocky the Flying Squirrel made his debut in 1959 on "Rocky and His Friends," which later became "The Bullwinkle Show" (today both shows are routinely referred to as "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show"). Rocky was the highly intelligent but somewhat naive and oddly effeminate "straight man" to his amiably goofy best friend Bullwinkle J. Moose. One of the most well-known routines involved Bullwinkle attempting to pull a rabbit out of a top hat, to which Rocky replied "that trick never works!" The pair also took part in adventures that pitted them against their foes Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.

Although billed as a "flying squirrel," Rocky bears little resemblance to the actual mammal, and does not appear to possess a patagium (the skin flap between the fore and hind legs that allow flying squirrels to glide). He does, however, have flying skills that any real flying squirrel would envy, darting through the air and even rocketing between cities.

Secret Squirrel
A spoof of the popular James Bond movie franchise, Secret Squirrel debuted in 1965 on the "Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show." He received his own show the following year, only to be reunited with Atom Ant for one more year in 1967. An updated version of Secret Squirrel ran on "2 Stupid Dogs" starting in 1993.

Secret Squirrel, also known as Agent 000, is a hat-and-trenchcoat-wearing spy who, along with his sidekick Morocco Mole, fights international agents of crime and intrigue using both his intelligence and a collection of guns and gadgets.

Slappy Squirrel
Slappy Squirrel and her nephew Skippy were recurring characters on Animaniacs, which ran from 1993-1998, first on Fox Kids and then on The WB. Reruns continue to appear on various networks to this day. Slappy is presented as an ex-Looney Tunes star whose career has faded. Now a grumpy, somewhat bitter middle-aged squirrel, she lives in a tree with her young nephew who idolizes her. She faces both old foes and everyday annoyances, usually relying on exagerrated and chaotic cartoon violence to solve any and all problems. Like most of the Animaniacs segments, Slappy Squirrel is a fond spoof of old cartoons and movies.

Sandy Cheeks
Sandy Cheeks, who has appeared on "Spongebob Squarepants" since its debut in 1999, is arguably one of the most improbably characters in the history of animation, which is really saying something. An eastern gray squirrel from Texas, she lives in the underwater community of Bikini Bottom with a variety of fish and other marine life, and one yellow household sponge. Sandy lives in a dome, and when moving about underwater she wears a dive suit with a helmet. The source of her oxygen is not clear. The reason for her residence in Bikini Bottom is apparently some sort of scientific research.

Generally Sandy is portrayed as friendly and good natured, but she can also be vindictive and even violent, especially if someone insults Texas. There is a tree inside her dome where she sleeps, and in one episode she is seen hibernating, which tree squirrels in nature do not do.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Squirrel Postcards From Russia

I just wanted to share these images of Russian squirrel postcards that I found online. I really don't know anything about them except that they date from the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviet Union couldn't have been ALL bad if they were turning out cards like these. Enjoy!

This one is my favorite.
I believe it says "Happy New Year"

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The Shrew-Faced Squirrel

The shrew-faced squirrel (rhinosciurus laticaudatus) is a ground squirrel that inhabits mature forests of Borneo, Singapore, Sumatra, and the peninsula of Malaysia, and possibly adjacent southern Thailand. Living on the forest floor, it is one of the few squirrels that is mainly insectivorous, foraging for earthworms and insects that include ants, termites, beetles, and grasshoppers, as well as bananas and other fruit.

As its name implies, the shrew-faced squirrel has a long, tapered snout that causes it to superficially resemble the common tree shrew. The long snout, along with reduced upper incisors and a long tongue, is an adaptation to help the squirrel catch and eat insects on the forest floor. The tree shrew, by comparison, has a wider gape than the shrew-faced squirrel, and a longer but less bushy tail. The resemblence between the two species is so close that the people of the region call them by the same name, tupai.

The shrew-faced squirrel is a medium-sized squirrel, about 7.5-9.5 inches in length for the head and body, with a tail about 4-5 inches long. The back fur can be reddish brown or olive brown, with white or yellowish white fur on the belly.

Although not considered a rare or threatened species, the shrew-faced squirrel is secretive and rarely seen. It nests primarily in hollow logs where females give birth to and raise one or two young which are born blind and hairless.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Prince Charles Is a Bloodthirsty Squirrel Killer

Prince Charles is showing his true colors as an environmental hypocrite. Recently the Prince held a meeting with government forestry officials and conservationists at Dumfries House, one of his many luxurious homes. At this meeting the attendees reached a "squirrel accord" which outlines steps to preserve and restore Eurasian red squirrel numbers in the UK. The centerpiece of this accord is, of course, the grisly "culling" (a more polite term for killing) of massive numbers of grey (gray in the US) squirrels. The motivation for the accord is a naive nostalgia for the days when the Eurasian red squirrel was the dominant squirrel species in the British Isles, a day which the Prince refuses to acknowlege is long past.

Grey Squirrel

Grey squirrels have become a popular environmental scapegoat in Great Britain over the past few decades. Introduced to England in 1876 by a wealthy banker who thought that they would liven up the grounds of his estate, the species has spread throughout the island and now outnumbers the red squirrel by a considerable margin. Greys have been blamed for the decline in numbers of the red squirrel, but the truth is much more complex than "conservationists" like Prince Charles would have us believe. The most often-cited cause of the red squirrels' decline is a virus called "squirrel pox" which is deadly to reds but harmless greys, who are blamed for spreading the disease.

But the red squirrel advocates conveniently overlook other causes of the decline, such as habitat loss and urban, suburban, and agricultural development, which have wiped out conifer and mixed forests that the red squirrel depends on. The unfortunate fact is that grey squirrels are much more suited to living in small patches of hardwood forest, yards, and parklands in close proximity to humans than are their red cousins. It is obviously much easier for public figures like Prince Charles to point to a supposed villain, the grey squirrel, than to address the real problems that would require much more time, effort, and (most importantly) money to fix.

Red Squirrel

So what will come of Prince Charles' "squirrel accord?" The same that has been happening now for years. Traps will be set. Terrified grey squirrels will be "humanely" killed by shooting, or by bludgeoning or drowning in burlap sacks. Small localized and temporary increases in red squirrel numbers will be hailed as victories. And in the long run, nothing will change at all. The truth that the Prince and his allies refuse to acknowledge is that the window of opportunity to eradicate the grey squirrel from Britain passed a century ago. Hopefully the red squirrel will adapt and manage to maintain its numbers in some areas, especially the north of England and Scotland where conifer forests remain. But no amount of nostalgia will make the red squirrel the dominant species in the UK as it once was. Those who like Prince Charles want to save this species in Britain need to focus their efforts on habitat restoration and developing a vaccine for squirrel pox virus. They need to ask themselves how long the grey squirrel needs to be established in England before it stops being an "invasive" species and is accepted as part of the environment.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Rally Squirrel Is Back, and It Hates the Phillies!

Back in 2011, the Major League Baseball world was captivated as a squirrel helped the St. Louis Cardinals to a win in the National League Divisional Series against the Philadelphis Phillies. After the Cardinals went on to win the World Series, the team even immortalized the Rally Squirrel on their championship rings,

and on outfielder Skip Schumaker'sTopps 2012 baseball card.

And now the Rally Squirrel is back! This time, the squirrel (or one of its cousins) showed up at Coors Field in Denver as the Colorado Rockies were playing the Phillies this past Saturday. The squirrel made its appearance during the third inning, wandering around behind home plate, checking out the Phillies' dugout, and running into the outfield, to the delight of fans and television commentators.

The squirrel stuck around into the fourth inning, and the home team Rockies went on to win the game. It seems that the Rally Squirrel has a grudge against Philadelphia. Or maybe it's trying to send the message that the Phillies should change their name to the Philadelphia Squirrels. After all, what the heck is a "Phillie" anyway?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Update on Endangered San Bernardino Flying Squirrel

Update April 3, 2014: Today the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for failing in its obligation to protect the San Bernardino flying squirrel under the Endangered Species Act. Here's wishing the Center for Biological Diversity good luck in this action, and hope that it brings help quickly before we lose this wonderful squirrel forever!

The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel. It lives in high conifer forests in the mountains of southern California. Like other flying squirrels, this small nocturnal squirrel uses a membrane that stretches between its wrists and ankles to glide up to 300 feet between trees in search of food.

Unfortunately, the San Bernardino flying squirrel has declined in numbers in recent decades and may be in danger of disappearing altogether. In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to list the squirrel as an endangered species threatened by global climate change.

It is believed that the species has already disappeared from part of its range, the San Jacinto Mountains, and is now restricted to the higher elevations of the San Bernardino Mountains. And even on those peaks, its territory is gradually shrinking due to the effects of global warming.

The San Bernardino flying squirrel depends on cool, wet old-growth forests with plenty of big trees, fallen logs and large tangles where it can find its primary food, truffle fungus. In recent decades, harmful forest management practices that call for removal of downed trees and snags, and the spread of suburban development, have encroached on this habitat. Now the remaining territory is shrinking as rising temperatures and drought drive the squirrel to higher elevations.

Fortunately, there may be some relief in sight. Earlier this year the Fish and Wildlife Service issued an initial positive decision to protect the San Bernardino flying squirrel under the Endangered Species Act. Although this is not a final decision, it brings the squirrel a step closer to protection. A positive final decision would prevent further development on remaining habitat and could help make a case for additional restrictions on carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Good News For Berkeley Ground Squirrels

A few weeks ago I shared the plan of Berkeley, California to exterminate the California ground squirrels living in Cesar Chavez Park due to concerns that the squirrels' burrowing might release buried toxic chemicals into the adjacent San Francisco Bay.

Happily, this plan has now been postponed while the city looks for other options. The city council voted to order the city manager to report back in two months with a new plan for dealing with the squirrels, and a response to questions that were raised by citizens and activist groups, including the local Golden Gate Audubon Society, who were upset with the impending slaughter.

While it's possible that the squirrels could still face extermination down the road, it looks like the city of Berkeley is now wanting to find another course of action toward reducing the park's ground squirrel population. The Audubon group, in a comment letter submitted to the council, has made suggestions that include modifying the vegetation in the park to reduce the squirrel population, encouraging the presence of natural predators, the use of squirrel contraceptives, and stricter enforcement of rules against feeding the squirrels.

Perhaps in the future cities might want to reconsider the wisdom of building parks on top of toxic landfills.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The Eurasian Red Squirrel

Just as the eastern gray is the most familiar squirrel in much of North America, the Eurasian red squirrel is the most common squirrel species throughout most of Europe and northern Asia. Its range extends literally from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including Spain, France and Italy in southern Europe to Scandanavia, to Siberia, parts of China, Japan and Korea. Geographically, it is almost certainly the most widespread of any squirrel species in the world.

And one of the cutest, as well!
Throughout this range, the Eurasian red squirrel can be found in both coniferous and temperate broadleaf forests and woodlands. The prefered habitat is coniferous or mixed forest, where mature trees provide nesting sites and a sufficient diet of seeds and acorns. Other foods favored by the red squirrel include fungus, tree bark, sap wood, and occasionally, if other food is in short supply, birds' eggs or even nestlings. Food is stored for the winter by burying or hiding in nooks or cavities in trees. However, the Eurasian red squirrel is not as proficient as the eastern gray at caching and retrieving the supplies, and much of the stored food goes unfound.

The Eurasian red squirrel exhibits an unusal degree of variability in its appearance both geographically and by season. In general, the head and body is 7.5-9 inches in length, with the tail adding an additional 6-9 inches--a bit smaller than the eastern gray squirrel. The coat can range from very light red, like the squirrel above, to almost black. Throughout much of its range red squirrels of many different shades can be found coexisting within a fairly small area. The underside is generally white or cream in color. The coat changes twice a year, with, predictably, a thinner coat in summer and a thicker coat in winter. Perhaps the most distinguishing physical feature of this squirrel is the ear tufts, which are generally larger in winter.

Like most tree squirrels, the Eurasion red squirrel may nest either in a tree cavity--often an abandoned woodpecker hole--or in a drey made of sticks and leaves and placed in a fork high in a tree. Mostly solitary except when raising young, several red squirrels will nevertheless share a drey during cold winter weather to better keep warm. Mating takes place in late winter, and often again in summer. Litters usually contain 3 or 4 young, which are cared for by the mother until about 8-10 weeks old.

The Eurasian red squirrel is not considered threatened over most of its range. However, in a few areas their numbers have dwindled. These areas include England, Ireland, and Italy, where eastern gray squirrels have been introduced. While the gray squirrel has been villified in these areas, especially in the British Isles where culls of gray squirrels have been carried out in many areas, it is clear that habitat loss has also played a large role in the decline of the red squirrels. I have discussed my opinions about this issue elsewhere on this blog.

In many areas red squirrels are
obviously still quite common!
The Eurasian red squirrel, common in the Scandanavian countries, figures prominently in Norse mythology. The squirrel Ratatoskr (translated "drill tooth") is found in written compilations dating to the 13th century, running up and down the world tree Yggdrasil, carrying messages and insults between the eagle at the top and the serpent below.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel

The San Joaquin antelope squirrel, also called the Nelson's Antelope squirrel, inhabits the San Joaquin valley of central California. It is a relatively small ground squirrel, about 8.5-9.5 inches in length, with small ears, short legs and a short tail. The upper part of the body is buff or tan, with a white stripe running down each side. Because of the small size and the stripes, this squirrel is often mistaken for a chipmunk, but unlike chipmunks the San Joaquin antelope squirrel lacks black and white stripes on the face and back.

San Joaquin antelope squirrels are omnivorous. Their prefered foods include vegetation, fungi, seeds, and insects, especially grasshoppers. Green vegetation makes up most of their diet from December through April, when this food is most abundant. During the remainder of the year insects may make up 90 percent of the squirrels' diet. Vegetation and insects are prefered over seeds, probably because they provide greater amounts of water, which is vital in an arid climate. They are diurnal, or active during the day, and usually forage for food in the early morning and the evening, especially in the summer when they will retreat to their burrows during the hottest part of the day. These squirrels are not tolerant of extreme heat, but do very well in colder weather and do not hibernate during the winter.

San Joaquin antelope squirrels live in small groups of about 6-8 individuals. They either dig their own burrows or, perhaps more often, use abandoned burrows of kangaroo rats. They breed once each year, with the births taking place in March or April. Young first leave the nest about 30 days after birth.

Sadly, the San Joaquin antelope squirrel is an endangered species. Its range has been reduced by about 80 percent by agriculture, petroleum development and urban sprawl. In addition, the use of pesticides in commercial agriculture may be reducing the supply of insects, one of the squirrels' most important foods. And some of their most important vegetable foods are being displaced by invasive plant species. Currently the species survives only in two areas of the San Joaquin valley. One of these areas, the Carrizo Natural Area, is protected public land. Nevertheless, this small ground squirrel faces a precarious future unless strong steps are taken to protect and expand its remaining habitat.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Petition to Help Save the Ground Squirrels and Gophers in Berkeley, CA

I am happy to say that there is now a petition that you can sign at the Care2 website to help save the California ground squirrels and gophers at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, California. I wrote yesterday about the impending extermination of these animals which local park officials say is necessary because their burrowing may release toxins into the bay. Please click below and take a look at the petition and consider signing to prevent this cruel, drastic, and extremely dubious measure.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Berkeley, California Planning Mass Execution of Squirrels

The city of Berkeley, California is known as a center of tolerance and compassion, but a recent proposal by the city government goes against that image. The city is planning the mass extermination of ground squirrels and gophers in Cesar Chavez park. The park, which overlooks the San Francisco Bay, is built over a reclaimed landfill, and city officials are concerned that the burrowing squirrels might release dangerous toxic chemicals that could spill into the bay. So the city has hired an extermination company to trap and kill many, though not all, of the squirrels and gophers that inhabit the park.

California ground squirrel

As described in this story about the impending slaughter, when the park was built, the landfill was enclosed by layers of clay underneath, on the sides, and on top. The top layer of clay was covered with a layer of topsoil, which is what the squirrels and gophers have been digging into. As of yet, there has not been a problem with the rodents penetrating the clay that protects the landfill. But apparently, as the population of squirrels has increased, city officials have grown concerned that they might burrow right through the clay. If this happens, chemicals that are no doubt contained in the landfull could spill into the nearby bay.

The potential problem has been exarcebated by human visitors to the park who ignore signs warning them not to feed the squirrels, further increasing the population of the animals. The squirrels and gophers cannot be relocated as this would violate state laws that prohibit the relocation of any wild animals. Berkeley officials say that they have tried less extreme measures such as luring birds of prey into the park by providing nesting boxes and perches, but this did not help. And poisoning is not an option because it would affect other species.

There can be no doubt that protecting the San Francisco Bay from pollution has to be a priority, but the articles that I have read about this issue raise a number of bothersome questions. Is it not possible to upgrade the barrier that surrounds the landfill, perhaps by increasing the thickness of the clay cap or adding another material to enclose it? Is the extermination of the squirrels and gophers to go on indefinitely, and at what cost? Surely park officials are aware that any individuals killed will be quickly replaced by others that move in from the surrounding area and by breeding.

There are several other waterfront parks in the area that are also built over landfills, that also have large populations of ground squirrels, but for some reason at the other parks the potential release of toxins is not considered a problem. What makes conditions at the other parks so different? It seems to me that the Berkeley city officials need to more fully explain why this drastic measure is necessary, and investigate more fully what other steps could be taken short of killing potentially thousands of animals.

If the problem here really is the result of humans feeding the squirrels, then maybe the land in question should be closed off and turned into a wildlife preserve instead of a public park.

Update: I've put a link below to a petition that has been created to stop this drastic and cruel measure. Please click below to view and consider signing the petition!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Amazing Novel About Squirrels

I just finished reading an outstanding novel about squirrels and other animals. Beasts of New York by Jon Evans is the story of Patch, a squirrel who lives in New York's Central Park. Patch wakes up one winter morning to discover that all of the food that he and the other park squirrels have stashed have vanished, leaving him, his family and tribe to starve. Patch's quest to uncovery the mystery behind the disappearance of the food suppy leads to an epic journey of discovery, the uncovering of dark, malevolent forces at work that threaten the peace, and the very survival of the park's squirrels and other animals. Along the way, Evans creates a unique, compelling, and sometimes troubling view of a familiar landscape as seen through the eyes of Patch and his fellow Central Park creatures.

I will be posting a full review of Beasts of New York in the next few days. In the meantime, you can click below to go to the page for this wonderful book.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Squirrel Appreciation Day is January 21

This Tuesday is a very special day for squirrels and anyone who loves them. Squirrel Appreciation Day was started in 2001 by Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator from Asheville, NC. There is no "official" program for the observance of this day, but it is an excellent excuse to learn more about squirrels. And since the day falls in the middle of winter, when squirrels' natural food is most scarce, it is a good time to supplement their diets by putting out some extra food. While peanuts are a very popular and easy choice, they are not necessarily the healthiest food for squirrels. Hard-shelled nuts like pecans are better, and some corn on the cob or sunflower seeds are also appreciated.

You may want to purchase or build a squirrel feeder to put out in your yard. If you Google "squirrel feeder plans" you will find plenty of sites offering instructions on making a feeder. Here is one site that offers links to plans for several different designs.  One of the advantages of having a squirrel feeder in your yard is that it can help divert the squirrels from your bird feeders or your vegetable garden. You can also easily find plans for nest boxes designed for squirrels.

You can also visit a local park or nature preserve and watch the squirrels, birds and other wildlife on display there. If there is a wildlife rehabilitation center in your town, you can inquire about donating money or supplies, or volunteering. Here is a national list of wildlife rehabbers in the United States.

Squirrel Appreciation Day is an excellent time to think about things that you can do to help preserve the environment and the habitats that are so important to squirrels and other animals, as well as humans. There is a wealth of information about ways to do this, only a Google search away. You might start here for some practical and relatively inexpensive steps you can take to help the planet.

Squirrel Appreciation Day is an important time to think about what we can do to help squirrels and all wildlife that we share this planet with. The most important thing, though, is not just to appreciate our bushy-tailed friends one day out of the year, but to make every day Squirrel Appreciation Day.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Squirrel Hell Holley, NY Is At It Again

I have been dreading having to write this. The squirrel-hating redneck hell of Holley, NY has scheduled its annual wanton squirrel slaughter, known as the "Squirrel Slam," for February 8. Cynically described as a fundraiser for the local fire department (mission: to protect life and property) this event gives the yokels a chance to go out and prove their manhood by taking the lives of hundreds of small furry herbivores.

If you want to read more about this disgusting event, and why I and most any civilized, compassionate people oppose it, you can read my blog entry from last year. On this post, you can read the letter that I sent to the mayor of Holley, John W. Kenney, Jr. You can email Mr. Kenney at You can also contact the Holley Fire Department, the sponsor of this event, at

I am going to leave it here for now. I will post more information as it becomes available, including any petitions that might be created.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Oberlin College Adopts Albino Squirrel As Its Mascot

Oberlin College is a small liberal arts school in Ohio known primarily for its progressive social values and for being the first college in the United States to admit black and female students. For several decades, the campus has also gained notoriety for its population of albino squirrels. In fact, the Huffington Post recently labeled Oberlin as number one among the colleges most obsessed with squirrels. Now the college has decided to give its white squirrels official status as the mascot of the college's athletic teams.

The sports teams have for years been known as the Yeomen and Yeowomen, and will keep these oddly awkward names going forward. But the athletic department logo will now feature the inspiring image of the fighting albino squirrel pictured above. A school spokesman has said that the new mascot is an attempt to better connect the school's athletic teams with the general college community. Apparently, the squirrels have been widely accepted as a sort of unofficial mascot for years, so the school just decided to make that role official.

I would like to applaud Oberlin College for its excellent decision. I have long wondered why so few sports teams have adopted a squirrel as their mascot. There are certainly few better athletes to be found in the animal world. To celebrate this move, I offer the short video below of one of Oberlin College's famous albino squirrels: