Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Red vs. Grey in Britain: A Tragic Conflict

For years Great Britain has been the scene of a tragic conflict between two related but incompatible species: the North American eastern gray squirrel (or simply the grey squirrel, as it is known in England); and the red squirrel of Europe. The gray squirrel was introduced to England about a century ago, and in the years since has spread throughout all of England and Wales and into Scotland.

And wherever the gray squirrel has proliferated, the red has been the victim. The gray squirrel is bigger than the red, eats more, and apparently out-competes the red squirrel for available resources. To make matters worse, the gray squirrel carries a virus called squirrel parapox (or just squirrel pox) that does it no harm at all, but is deadly to Eurasian red squirrels. As a result, England has lost almost its entire population of red squirrels. Scotland, where reds are still plentiful in some areas, is now waging a war to drive back the spread of the gray squirrels.

Unfortunately, this war involves some tactics that, however well intentioned, are to say the least unpleasant to anyone who cares about animals. For the past three years, the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels (SSRS) project has been conducting a cull of gray squirrels, funded by government grants and carried out by a team of "control officers" aided by sympathetic landowners. The cull involves trapping gray squirrels, and then dispatching them with either a gunshot or a blow to the head. So far the group has killed 7,483 gray squirrels, at a cost of a little more than 460 thousand pounds (that's more than 700 thousand dollars). Just today, SSRS announced that funding for the project has been renewed for at least two more years.

According to SSRS, the project has been a success, having stabilized and in some areas increased the number of red squirrels, while reducing the gray squirrel population. However, even proponents of the project say that the cull must continue indefinitely or the gains will be reversed, which means unending carnage inflicted on gray squirrels who share none of the blame for their presence in the British Isles.

Which leads to a point that bothers me as much as anything involved in this issue. If you take a look at how the English media covers this subject, there is an unsettling tendency to demonize the gray squirrel, as if the species had somehow made a deliberate decision to come to England and wage war on their red cousins.

For example, a headline on the website of The Telegraph declared today, "Grey squirrels blamed for decline in woodland birds." The story quotes an official with a conservation group as saying that the gray squirrels have a "case to answer" for causing population declines among some songbirds by eating the birds' eggs and nestlings. Really? A case to answer? Are the gray squirrels being put on trial? Predictably, the group that funded the research cited in this article is calling for culling of gray squirrels, despite the fact that the findings are far from conclusive and, as the article makes clear, many other factors are involved in the bird population decline.

What has happened to the red squirrel in Great Britain is an ecological tragedy and one of the best lessons on the unforeseen consequences that can result from introducing an invasive species to a new area. It is very easy for me to understand the feelings of those who, having witnessed the decline and disappearance of the red squirrels that they grew up with, want to rid the British Isles of the gray squirrel. But at the same time, the thought of slaughtering thousands upon thousands of unwitting gray squirrels, that are many generations removed from the squirrels that were brought to England years ago, with no end to the carnage in sight, makes me feel sick inside.

As an American, I'm not trying to advocate for a position on this complicated issue, which has to be resolved by the citizens of the UK. My honest personal opinion is that the culling of gray squirrels should be halted, that the process of natural selection should be allowed to run its course, and hopefully the red squirrels will over time develop a natural resistance to squirrel pox and eventually make a comeback.

Whatever approach is taken, I do wish that the British media would make it more clear to readers that this situation was caused not by squirrels, but by humans who deliberately brought gray squirrels to England because they found them "cute" and "charming."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Squirrel Facts: Mating and Birth

Spring is almost here, and soon our squirrel friends will be hearing the pitter-patter of tiny squirrel paws. Mating season for eastern gray squirrels actually takes place twice a year, from December-February, then again from June-August (or a little later for northern regions). So many of the female gray squirrels that you see are already carrying little ones!

The mating habits of eastern gray and other tree squirrels are anything but romantic. Squirrels most definitely do not mate for life. When a female squirrel becomes receptive, which lasts less than one day, her scent will attract males from as far away as 500 meters. The males will compete for the chance to mate with her, with the most dominant male copulating with her first. Other males may get to mate with her after he is finished. Once the act is completed, the males depart and have nothing more to do with the female or the young.

The gestation period for the eastern gray squirrel is about 45 days. Other tree squirrels have a similar gestation period, or slightly shorter for smaller species. The babies are born in a drey or, if one is available, in a cavity nest in a hollow tree. The litter will usually number from two to four babies but sometimes as many as eight, about one inch long and weighing around an ounce. The young are born naked except for whiskers, blind and deaf and completely helpless.

Newborn Baby Squirrels
The young are cared for in the nest by the mother until they are fully independent. Weaning takes place gradually from about seven to ten weeks of age. After the young are able to leave the nest, they will remain with the mother for several more weeks as they learn the skills that they will need in adulthood.

Beebz at about five weeks

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bald Squirrel Stumps English Vets

This is Smoothie the bald squirrel:

Smoothie was found in a town in England called Amersham back in July 2008. He was completely bald except for a few tufts of hair on his tail. Veterinarians at St. Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital tried to determine why the squirrel was bald, despite his having no discernible physical illness or condition such as mange. While running their tests and trying to encourage his coat to grow, they have kept him warm and fed him on a diet of pecans, which doesn't sound like a bad life for a bald squirrel.

And by the way, yes, the name of that wildlife hospital really is St. Tiggywinkles. Despite the almost disturbingly silly name, it is the largest and busiest wildlife hospital in the world. It looks like they do wonderful work, and if you have the means and want to help them out, you can do so at their website.

Video: Squirrel Mom Carrying Babies

A few days ago I posted a photo of a mother squirrel carrying one of her babies at a full run. Here is an excellent video that I found on YouTube that shows a squirrel retrieving two of her babies after they got separated from her:

Near the end of the video, the videographer stops the motion a couple of times so that you can see how the mother positions the baby. What is most impressive is that these baby squirrels, far from newborns, look like they are almost as big as the mother and yet she runs leaping across the yard and up the tree trunk effortlessly with each of them.

For a good comparison, imagine picking up your ten year old child, running with him in your arms across a large parking lot and then up the stairs to your tenth-floor apartment, and then going back to do the same with his twin sister!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Squirrels of Texas: The Rock Squirrel

As we get ready for our move to Texas this summer, here is another of the squirrels that we might see in the Lone Star State.

The rock squirrel is a large ground squirrel, about 17-21 inches in length, with a moderately bushy tail, mottled brown upper parts and a buffy white underside. It lives in central and far-western Texas, and also in much of the southwestern United States including New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.

I wanna rock!
As its name suggests, the rock squirrel is most at home in rocky environments: cliffs, canyon walls, piles of boulders, even rock fills along highways. They usually make their dens in burrows at the base of the rocks or cliff, although they will sometimes make nests in the hollows of nearby trees. Rock squirrels live in colonies. Females will often have two litters in a year, the first in April-June and the second in July-September, with each litter consisting of 2-5 babies. The young appear outside of the nest at about 6-8 weeks of age.

Although they are classified as ground squirrels, rock squirrels have amazing climbing ability. They are perfectly at home in the steepest, craggiest terrain. In canyon regions such as along the Pecos River in west Texas, they can be seen quickly and skillfully scaling what appear to be smooth, vertical canyon walls, using the tiniest of cracks and fissures for footholds.

They are also adept at climbing trees. They will climb juniper and mesquite trees to collect the fruits and seeds, and often will scale the 15-20 foot tall stalks of agave plants to feed on the flowers and buds. This squirrel has a varied diet that includes nuts such as acorns, walnuts and pine nuts, mesquite seeds, cactus, juniper berries, saltbush, wild gourd, sumac, various cultivated fruits and vegetables, and insects, especially grasshoppers and crickets. Rock squirrels will also eat carrion and even will catch and eat birds.

Friday, February 17, 2012

GOP Candidates' Positions on Squirrel Issues

Newt Gingrich: Concerned that free handouts of nuts and acorns is creating a "culture of dependence" among the bushy-tailed rodents, Newt Gingrich has advocated putting young squirrels to work cleaning and making repairs on the houses, yards and patios of the wealthy.

...and make sure you don't miss a spot!

Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor's campaign has been plagued by scandal after reports surfaced that Romney hired immigrant landscapers at minimum wage to trap all of the squirrels on his estate, and then drove them to the Canadian border strapped to the top of his car, where the squirrels were sold to pharmaceutical companies for drug testing. Romney has stated that the squirrels were not mistreated, that they were making an official visit to Canada to study the country's public health care system, and that they actually enjoyed the ride.

Rick Santorum: Has gone on record as opposing the legal recognition of "alternative squirrel lifestyles," stating that the rise of such perversion is responsible for the drastic decline in "traditional" mating for life between one male and one female squirrel.

What we do in our own tree, is our own business!

Ron Paul: Enjoys catching squirrels with his bare hands and eating them raw.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

Today is Charles Darwin's 203rd birthday. As most people know, Darwin revolutionized they way that we view life on earth. He was the first person to describe in detail the way that species evolve, or change over time and generations, through natural selection. Darwin's ideas and writings on evolution, introduced in the book On the Origin of Species published in 1859, were based largely on research that he conducted during a voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831-1836, visiting sites from the coast of South America to the South Pacific including, most famously, the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
In the 150 years since their publication, Darwin's ideas on evolution through natural selection have been proven correct, with some modifications, through mountains of painstaking and thorough research by countless scientists. And yet the very concept of evolution is still controversial, evoking doubt in some circles and outright scorn and contempt in others. It is safe to say that few ideas in history have been more divisive. This is because the concept of evolution strikes at the heart of what were the long-held assumptions of Christian doctrine, that God created the earth and all of its species, including humans, and that those species have remained unchanged since creation. More than a century and a half later, enough Christians cling to a "literal" interpretation of Biblical creation, and refuse to accept the reality of evolution, that controversies still arise in the United States over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes.

Charles Darwin himself experienced inwardly the conflicts that his research created in western culture. At the beginning of his voyage on the Beagle, he still believed in the theology taught by the Church of England and often quoted Biblical passages to the sailors on board the ship. By the time the voyage ended, however, he had already begun to question his orthodox views and had come to view the Old Testament story of creation as allegory. This change came not only because of his research on the natural world, but because during his travels he had witnessed cruelties such as slavery in South America and the misery that European colonization had inflicted on so many native populations. Darwin found that he had to question whether an all-powerful God would allow such suffering in the world. On returning to England, he continued to attend church until the crushing blow of the death of his daughter Annie at age ten in 1851. After that time, he habitually took a long walk while his wife Emma and their other children attended church.

Nevertheless, Darwin did not completely abandon belief in God. Even late in life he insisted that he was not an atheist but a self-described agnostic. He still believed in an intelligent "first cause," but believed that the nature of God was beyond the scope of human knowledge. In his personal life, Darwin exemplified many of the qualities that, ideally, Christianity and other religions promote: he was a devoted, dependable, and loving husband and father, respected and admired by friends, colleagues, and members of his community, an outspoken opponent of slavery and supporter of the extension of voting rights.

For more information on Charles Darwin's life and his contributions to science, I recommend the website Click on the links on the left side of the home page to explore his fascinating life.

In honor of Darwin's birthday, I would like to present one of Beebz's ancestors, the earliest known member of Squirrel Nation, Protosciurus:

This species lived in the northwestern part of North America around 25 million years ago, and is believed to be the ancestor of all modern squirrels. Without the ideas proposed by Charles Darwin, of course, we would not know this.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cape Ground Squirrels Humiliate Cobra

I have posted this video before, but it is one of my favorites and I just wanted to show it again. These badass little South African ground squirrels have absolutely no fear of the Cape cobra. They go right up to the snake and wave their bushy tails in its face, then jump out of the way when it tries to strike, taunting it until it finally slithers away defeated.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Being Prepared

When a mother squirrel gives birth, she will usually have one or more extra nests prepared in addition to her birth nest. This way, if the birth nest becomes damaged or infested, or if a predator comes too close, she can quickly move her young to a new, safer location. The extra nests will be close enough for her to quickly make the move, but at a great enough distance to offer a safe refuge from a predator.

How she accomplishes this is amazing. The mother squirrel will grasp each baby firmly but gently in her mouth, one at a time, by the abdomen. Instinctively, the baby will curl up and hold on to the mother's neck with its paws. The mother then carries the pup at a full run, up and down tree trunks and jumping from branch to branch, to the new nest. She can move an entire litter this way in less than ten minutes if necessary.

Benjamin Franklin, Squirrel Lover

Benjamin Franklin has to be considered one of the greatest figures in American history. He was a publisher, inventor, diplomat, advocate for religious freedom, abolitionist... and a squirrel lover!

On one of his diplomatic journeys from the colonies to Great Britain, Franklin brought with him a gray squirrel, which he gave as a gift to Georgiana Shipley, the young daughter of one of his friends. The squirrel, named Mungo, became a beloved pet and companion of the girl and her family.

A few years later, Mungo got out of the house and was killed by a shepherd's dog. When Ben Franklin heard of the loss, he wrote a letter of condolence to Ms. Shipley in which he lamented the untimely death of Mungo, noting that "few squirrels were better accomplished; for he had a good education, had traveled far, and seen much of the world." Franklin also included in this letter an epitaph to the squirrel. The epitaph is not only a moving tribute to Mungo, but also a thoughtful meditation on the dangers and costs facing those who desire greater freedom.

On the Loss of an American Squirrel, Who, Escaping From His Cage, Was Killed by a Shepherd's Dog (1772)

Alas: poor Mungo!
Happy wert thou, hadst thou known
Thy own felicity.
Remote from the fierce bald eagle,
Tyrant of thy native woods,
Thou hadst nought to fear from his piercing talons,
Nor from the murdering gun
of the thoughtless sportsman.
Safe in thy wired castle,
Grimalkin never could annoy thee.
Daily wert thou fed with the choicest viands,
By the fair hand of an indulgent mistress;
But, discontented,
Thou wouldst have more freedom.
Too soon, alas! didst thou obtain it;
And wandering,
Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger!

Learn hence,
Ye who blindly seek more liberty,
Whether subject, son, squirrels or daughters,
That apparent restraint may be real protection,
Yielding peace and plenty
With security.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Squirrels of Texas: The Mexican Ground Squirrel

In a few months we will be moving to Texas--specifically, my hometown of Lubbock--where the job opportunities look better than here in North Carolina. So I thought I would take some time to look at the squirrels that make the Lone Star State their home.

The Mexican ground squirrel is a small ground squirrel, 11-15 inches in length, that lives in brushy and grassy areas throughout much of western and southern Texas. It has a brown back and sides, with nine rows of squarish white spots running down the length of its back. The underparts are whitish or buff. Its ears are short, and its medium-bushy tail is about two-fifths the length of its body.

"Mexican ground squirrel" sounds like the name of
a spicy ethnic dish, but don't even think about it!

Although Mexican ground squirrels live in burrow systems, unlike many ground squirrels this species is not social. Individuals, preferring privacy, do not allow intruders close to their burrows except during breeding season. One squirrel may dig several burrows, one for its residence and the others for temporary refuge from predators. The burrow has two entrances, and the deepest part of the residence tunnel is used for giving birth and caring for young. The birth chamber is lined with mesquite and grass, and houses a litter that averages about five--but sometimes as many as ten--babies.

Their food is mostly green vegetation, including mesquite leaves and beans, agarita leaves and berries, johnson grass, clover, various roots and bulbs, nuts, and cultivated grains when available. These squirrels will also eat insects, especially in the summer when they may make up half their diet, and sometimes mice and birds' eggs. They will often store seeds and grains in their cheek pouches so that the food can be eaten later in the burrow.

Get off my property!