Saturday, January 28, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Groundhog

This coming Thursday, February 2, is Groundhog Day, that annual celebration when we all find out whether to expect an early spring or an extended winter. What many people don't realize is that the groundhog, also known as woodchuck and--believe it or not--"whistle-pig," is really a large ground squirrel.

WTF, do I look like a pig to you?
The groundhog is native to most of eastern and central North America, from Alabama in the south to as far north as parts of Alaska. It is one of the largest ground squirrels, measuring 16-26 inches in length including the tail, and weighing about 5-9 pounds. In some areas where there are few predators and plentiful food some individuals can grow even larger. It has two coats of fur, a shorter dense gray undercoat, and a longer brown outer coat. The tail is quite short compared to many other species of squirrel.

Although groundhogs live mostly on and under the ground, and have a heavy appearance that makes them look somewhat awkward, they are good swimmers and excellent climbers. When cornered by an enemy, they defend themselves with their sharp teeth and claws. An individual will also defend territory aggressively against other invading groundhogs.

Groundhogs are mostly herbivorous, eating grasses, berries, some nuts, and agricultural plants. They also will eat some insects such as grasshoppers, and grubs and snails. They get most of their water from eating leafy plants, rather than from drinking.

Compared to many other ground squirrels, groundhogs are relatively solitary. They live in burrows, and while several individuals may occupy one burrow, they do not form large communities like prairie dogs and other burrowing squirrels. The burrows are large, with tunnels extending sometimes close to fifty feet, buried up to five feet underground, with up to five entrances. The burrows are used for sleeping, rearing young, and hibernation.

The groundhog is one of the few species of squirrel that hibernates. Sometimes a separate burrow, in a wooded or brushy area, is used for hibernation, which usually lasts from October until March or April.

Friday, January 27, 2012


by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel;
And the former called the latter "Little Prig."
Bun replied,
"You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it's no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ: all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut." 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hero Rats!

Once again, it's time to recognize Beebz' rodent cousins the rats.

APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende ProductOntwikkeling, Dutch for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development) is a non-profit organization that does something extraordinary: they train giant African pouch rats to detect land mines. In many parts of the world, particularly in areas of Africa and Asia, land mines have been left behind in the wake of armed conflicts and pose a serious danger to people living in those areas. Finding the mines and clearing them is difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous work--one mistake can cost the clearer his or her life or, at the very least, can result in the loss of a limb.

Don't worry, I'm here to help!
This is where the rats come in. The giant African pocket rat is a large, intelligent, and easily-trained rodent. The rats are trained to move along a line stretched between two handlers and, when it detects the smell of explosives, to scratch at the spot. Using this method, the rats are able to cover a field much more quickly than humans using minesweepers would be able to, and with much less danger of triggering any mines.

It should be emphasized that because of the rats' light weight, there is no danger of them triggering the mines--during the more than a decade since the program was started not a single rat has been killed or injured. Besides their light weight, rats have several other advantages for this work:
  • They are sociable, intelligent, and easy to train.
  • They have an excellent sense of smell.
  • They can identify mines to be cleared more quickly than human workers using minesweepers.
  • They offer a low-tech and inexpensive solution to a serious problem that afflicts many areas with few resources.
  • The African pouch rats have a long life span.
But clearing mines isn't all that these rats do. APOPO has also begun training rats to detect tuberculosis, a serious pulmonary disease that afflicts many impoverished areas. A single rat can screen forty sputum samples for TB in less than seven minutes, a job that would take a trained technician an entire day. The use of rats for TB detection is still in the development phase, but the initial results suggest that the rats have greater accuracy finding positive samples than the use of microscopy.

APOPO's training and breeding facility is in Tanzania. So far, the organization has done valuable work clearing land mines from areas in Mozambique and Thailand.

For anyone who is concerned about the treatment of rats used for what sounds like a dangerous task, a quick review of the FAQ page at APOPO's website should ease your mind. It only makes sense that animals being employed for important and sensitive work would be treated very well.

Squirrel Nation is proud to salute the brave Hero Rats of APOPO!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Family Pet Cat Killed As Political Intimidation

This is just about as ugly as it gets.

Ken Aden is running as a Democrat for Congress in Arkansas' third district. Recently his campaign manager, Jacob Burris, returned home from a short outing with his children to find their pet cat, a Siamese mix, dead on their front doorstep with the word "liberal" painted across its body. The cat's head was bashed in so severely that one eye was hanging out of the socket. Burris' five year old son was the first to find the cat. Here is what he saw:

This kind of action is, in Aden's words, "unconscionable... part of the worst of humanity." Aden's race with Republican incumbent Steve Womack has been "tense," although Aden said he does not think Womack's campaign is directly responsible for this horrific crime. But it is all too typical of the kind of political climate that we live in today, and especially the kind of threatening and sometimes violent rhetoric tossed around by the right, that can easily inspire despicable acts of terrorism and intimidation like this.

An innocent cat, a family pet that had nothing to do with a political campaign, lost its life, and Mr. Burris' children lost a beloved pet in the ugliest, most traumatizing way imaginable, because of some ignorant cowardly yahoo's desire to scare and intimidate a political opponent.

PETA is reportedly offering a $5000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever is responsible for this crime. The blog Blue Arkansas is speaking out against this terrorist act, on behalf of the Aden campaign and Mr. Burris and his family, and is asking for campaign donations for Aden's progressive congressional campaign.

Monday, January 23, 2012

An Open Letter to Elizabeth Hurley, Squirrel Hater

Recently British model, actress, whatever Elizabeth Hurley posted the following on Twitter:

Elizabeth Hurley 
I loathe grey squirrels.

On behalf of Squirrel Nation, Beebz would like to address the following open letter to Ms. Hurley:

Dear Elizabeth Hurley,

Bite Me!


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Japenese Dwarf Flying Squirrel: Cuteness Overload!

First, Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day! I wasn't sure how to commemorate this special day. Here are some ideas of things to appreciate about our bushy-tailed friends.

Browsing through a list of world squirrels, I happened upon this little anime character Pokemon flying squirrel.

The momonga, or Japanese dwarf flying squirrel, lives in sub-alpine forests of Japan. It is nocturnal, spending days curled in a red and white ball holes in trees, and at night comes out to eat seeds, fruit, leaves, buds, and bark. Like other flying squirrels, it glides from tree to tree using a membrane stretched between its forelegs and hind legs.

The body is 14-20 cm long, and the tail 10-14 cm long. Wikipedia notes that the Japanese dwarf flying squirrel is much smaller than the Japanese giant flying squirrel, and I thank them for this insight.

The Japanese dwarf flying squirrel is most notable for being scientifically proven to be the cutest thing in the universe. Here are a couple more photos to demonstrate this fact:

Look into my eyes. You are getting sleeeeeeepy. You are
now under my power.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Squirrel Poem

To A Squirrel At Kyle-na-gno

by W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

COME play with me; 
Why should you run 
Through the shaking tree 
As though I’d a gun 
To strike you dead?
When all I would do 
Is to scratch your head 
And let you go. 

Winkelhimer the Painting Squirrel

Artist Shyla Mouton rescued Winkelhimer the squirrel as a baby after she was attacked and injured by a cat. After watching her rescuer at work painting dolls and jewelry, Winkelhimer was inspired to take up painting herself. Now her short video has gone viral on YouTube.

Since she lost the use of her right hand in the attack, Winkelhimer holds the brush in her mouth and her other hand. Mouton sells the paintings on eBay, bringing in up to $40 for a painting, which she uses to care for Winkelhimer and her other rescue animals.

Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day to Winkelhimer and all of the other wonderful squirrels out there!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Squirrel Book Recommendation for Squirrel Appreciation Day

That's right, it's just two days away. If you need some inspiration on ways to make this a special day for you and your favorite rodent friends, here are some great ideas from the National Wildlife Federation.

One of their suggestions, which I definitely endorse, is to find a book on squirrels and learn more about them. In addition to the books that they recommend, I have recently been reading Squirrel Book by Eugene Kinkead. Mr. Kinkead wrote for the New Yorker magazine for several decades, where he specialized in stories related to wildlife and natural history. In the 1970s he wrote an article on the squirrels of Central Park, which proved so popular with squirrel lovers that he was inspired to write this book on the eastern gray squirrel, which was published in 1980. The book contains a wealth of factual information, but also reflects the author's own fondness for squirrels. Some of the most interesting sections are based on the author's correspondence with squirrel lovers who wrote to him after his original article was published, telling stories of their own encounters with squirrels.

You probably won't be able to find Squirrel Book at any of your local book stores, as it is no longer in print. You may be able to check out a copy at your local public library, which is where I found it. You can also order a used copy from Amazon at a very reasonable price.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ratatoskr, Squirrel From Norse Mythology

This is Ratatoskr:

His name translates, roughly, as "drill tooth." He is a red squirrel found in the earliest written compilations of Norse mythology, dating to approximately the thirteenth century and based on earlier oral traditions.

Ratatoskr's job, apparently, was to climb up and down on Yggdrasil, the world tree, and carry messages back and forth between the eagle perched at the top, to the wyrm, or serpent, Nidhogg who lived beneath one of the roots of the tree.

This is how Ratatoskr is described in one translation of the poetic Edda (Icelandic collection of Norse myths):

Ratatosk is the squirrel who there shall run
On the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
From above the words of the eagle he bears,
And tells them to Nithhogg beneath.

Another Icelandic collection known as the Prose Edda also describes Ratatoskr, but in this version he seems more a villain, or at least a bit mischevious:

There is much to be told. An eagle sits at the top of the ash, and it has knowledge of many things. Between its eyes sits the hawk called Vedrfolnir [...]. The squirrel called Ratatosk [...] runs up and down the ash. He tells slanderous gossip, provoking the eagle and Nidhogg.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Newt Gingrich Is A Coward And A Hypocrite

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University. She is among the vast majority of climate scientists who accept as fact the overwhelming evidence that the world is getting warmer due to human-created carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

She is also an evangelical Christian, and has devoted much of her career to engaging and educating the evangelical community on the subject of global warming.

Dr. Hayhoe was recently asked to contribute an introductory chapter on global warming to a book of essays on the environment by Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was one of the few prominent Republicans who publicly acknowledged the reality of global warming, until he decided to run for president and changed his position to pander to the radical conservative wing of the party.

When Rush Limbaugh found out in December that Hayhoe was contributing to Newt's upcoming book, and one of Limbaugh's acolytes questioned Newt about this at a campaign appearance, Newt suddenly disavowed Dr. Hayhoe's chapter, said that he "didn't know they were doing that," and had told the publisher to "kill it."

The funny thing is, Dr. Hayhoe didn't even know that her contribution had been "killed." She found out when a reporter contacted her asking for a comment. As she commented on Twitter, "Nice to hear that Gingrich is tossing my #climate chapter in the trash. 100+ unpaid hrs I cd've spent playing w my baby."

This is quite a contrast: Dr. Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, has devoted a major portion of her life to speaking out for what she believes, trying to convince other Christians to overcome their resistance to change, and to alter their views for the good of the planet. In doing so, she has left herself open to the wrath of Rush Limbaugh, the Koch Brothers, and others who are threatened by the truth.

Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, hypocritically changes his views at the drop of a hat to conform to what he believes will help him in his quest for greater wealth and power.

As a graduate of Texas Tech University, I am proud that Katharine Hayhoe is on the faculty. She is a credit to the university and to the Red Raider Nation.

Squirrel Appreciation Day

January 21 is a very special day. Squirrel Appreciation Day was started in 2001 by Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in Asheville, NC. Of course, squirrels should be appreciated every day of the year, but it is also good that there is a special day set aside for them!

There are many ways that you can celebrate Squirrel Appreciation Day. You can put some extra food out for your squirrel neighbors. Any kind of nuts or seeds will be appreciated. Sunflower seeds are very yummy and nutritious, and can be shared by the birds too! Too many people who like to feed birds think of squirrels as the enemy, because of their expertise at raiding bird feeders. But the squirrels are only doing the same as the birds, looking for a meal! If you have bird feeders, you can also put some seeds, corn, and nuts on the ground for the squirrels, or invest in a squirrel feeder or two. Or you can do as we do, and just put food out on your window sill where it can be enjoyed by both birds and squirrels.

Another way to celebrate the day is to learn more about squirrels. On the right hand side of this page you will see a list of "Squirrel Links" to squirrel-related websites. One of these that contains a lot of educational squirrel information is A Squirrel's Place.

Finally, if the weather is nice, spend some time outdoors visiting a local park or wildlife preserve, or even your own yard, where you can watch and enjoy the squirrels as they run, jump, and frolic.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Shopping Center Heron

I saw this great blue heron at a shopping center in Charlotte today. It was sitting on a rail on a foot bridge and didn't seem to mind at all as people walked within just a few feet of it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Saying "NO" To Hatred

The following is the text of an online petition that I created, asking the NC Family Policy Council to apologize for and renounce its hateful and violent imagery targeting gays and lesbians. Please read the petition, and if you agree, follow this link to sign. Thank you.

To: The North Carolina Family Policy Council

We the undersigned are disturbed and angry at the violent and hateful image that you have included in the Winter 2012 issue of your organization's magazine, Family North Carolina. The photograph--which depicts a bride and groom, standing in a field, with the crosshairs of a rifle superimposed over them, as if a sniper is taking aim at the couple--accompanies an article arguing in favor of an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that would define marriage as being between and man and a woman, and outlaw same-sex marriage. The implication is that proponents of marriage equality, and specifically gay and lesbian couples, have the intention of harming heterosexual married couples. The intent is clearly to incite fear and hatred of gays and lesbians.

We believe that civil, respectful discourse and argument are a healthy and necessary part of living in a democratic society. However, regardless of which side of this issue you are on, discourse that incites hatred, fear, and violence is unhealthy and destructive, and should be avoided.

We are asking that your organization apologize for the violent imagery in your magazine, and disavow the use of imagery or language that is designed to incite hatred and fear in future publications and statements.

Thank you for your time and attention.

This is the photograph that I mentioned in the petition:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Squirrels In History: White House Squirrels

This is a new feature for this blog. Occasionally I will post a note about squirrels of the past taken from old newspaper or magazine accounts. It's amazing the kind of stuff you can find on Google.

The first item is from a November 7, 1912 article in the Rock Hill (SC) Herald. The headline is "Squirrels At White House Are Quite Tame." It describes the squirrels that lived on the White House grounds, which were in fact so tame that visitors
are expecting to see them do most anything that any well domesticated animal might do. They run across the President's front porch whenever they feel like it, paying no attention to the policemen there, burrow around the President's geraniums, play with each other about the drives, feed out of the hands of well-disposed persons, and on the whole seem to enjoy life much more than any living thing in the vicinity.
I'm not sure what was going on in the lives of the other living things in the vicinity, but it sounds like life was good for those White House squirrels!

Yes, life IS good!

By the way, although it is not mentioned in the article, the president at the time was William Howard Taft.

I like squirrels so much that I'm hiding one
in each nostril!

The article goes on to describe the squirrels' latest "stunt," climbing up the iron light poles and sitting on top of the glass globes. Scanning to the top of the newspaper page, we see that this article was a special interest story related to the top news of the day, Woodrow Wilson's landslide victory over Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election. So Taft's days in the White House were obviously numbered. Hopefully the election results didn't lead to any major changes in squirrel policy when Wilson moved in the following January.

New Years Morning Visitor

We had a visitor to our kitchen window this morning. She came to snack on some sunflower seeds and nuts that we put out on the window sill, and took a moment to look in and say hi!