Saturday, December 28, 2013

Squirrel Postage Stamps From Around the World

Squirrel Appreciation Day is January 21, less than a month away! To begin our observance of this important occasion, I would like to share some postage stamps from countries around the world that clearly appreciate their squirrels.

Starting in Asia, we have stamps from Japan, Korea (?), Laos, and Singapore. It's not at all surprising that the Japanese stamp depicts the ultra-cute momonga, or Japanese dwarf flying squirrel. I'm honestly not sure about the second stamp, but I am guessing South Korea. Maybe some reader will confirm or correct me on this. Singapore's entry shows the cream-colored giant squirrel, which, sadly, can no longer be seen in Singapore.





The next group is from Europe. Not surprisingly, most of them show Eurasian red squirrels, the most common variety on the continent. Finland, however, has on its stamp a flying squirrel.






United Kingdom
From the United States, we have a stamp featuring our most common squirrel, the eastern gray.

United States

And, finally, I am not sure which country this stamp, featuring a flying squirrel, is from. I'm guessing maybe Estonia, but again maybe someone will help me out here.

Of course, I have only scratched the surface. There are many more squirrel postage stamps, and maybe soon I will feature more. And hopefully one day the countries of the world will do more to help their wildlife, beyond honoring them on postage stamps.

Monday, December 16, 2013

New Animated Squirrel Film Coming In January

The Nut Job, starring the voices of Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Stephen Lang, Sarah Gadon, and Jeff Dunham, is due to be released on January 17. The animated film tells of the exploits of Surly, a city squirrel who along with his friends plans a heist of a nut store. Although I am not usually a big fan of animated films, the trailer below promises a hilarious, action-packed slapstick adventure. I'm looking forward to seeing it!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Delmarva Fox Squirrel Threatened By Climate Change

The Delmarva fox squirrel is an endangered subspecies of the fox squirrel that lives in parts of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Its numbers have been greatly reduced over the past century by habitat loss due to agriculture, logging, and urban development. In recent years, conservation efforts have led to a rebound in the population of this rare squirrel, creating hope that it might be saved from extinction.

Unfortunately, a new report from the Center for Biological Diversity contains troubling news for the Delmarva fox squirrel. The report lists the squirrel among the five animal species most at risk from rising seas due to global climate change.

According to the report, if sea levels rise by six feet by the end of this century, half of the squirrel's habitat would be underwater. The Delmarva fox squirrel requires old growth pine and hardwood forest, which has already been greatly reduced over much of its historical range. If the sea level rises at the rate that many climate scientists predict, this will leave few places for this squirrel to find refuge.

Even a more modest sea level rise would seriously reduce the already modest available habitat for the Delmarva fox squirrel. If governments, corporations, and citizens don't take steps immediately to reduce carbon emissions, this and many other species could soon live only in our memories.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Squirrel Facts: The Cream-Colored Giant Squirrel

The cream-colored giant squirrel is a member of the genus Ratufa, or Oriental giant squirrel, which also includes the Indian giant squirrel. The cream-colored giant squirrel, also called the pale giant squirrel, lives in southeast Asia, in parts of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It is the only species of giant squirrel on the island of Borneo. Unfortunately, it is believed extinct in Singapore and Vietnam, where it used to be common.

In Singapore it remains only on this postage stamp

Despite the name, the cream-colored giant squirrel has several species which vary widely in appearance, some of them being quite dark in color. The coloring on the back ranges from dark-brown to gray, while the belly may be dark yellow or creamy white. The ears are short and round.

This squirrel is quite large. The body length is about 13-14 inches, and the strikingly long tail is 14-17 inches. Total body weight can be up to almost 3 1/2 pounds. In spite of its large size, the cream-colored giant squirrel moves about easily in the upper branches of trees, coming to the ground only occasionally to cross gaps in the forest canopy.

Like most tree squirrels, the cream-colored giant squirrel is diurnal, or active during the day. It usually forages for food during the early morning and evening hours, and rests during the middle part of the day. Favored foods include seeds, leaves, and bark, supplemented with nuts, fruits, insects, and bird's eggs.

Nests are often made in cavities in trees. During the breeding season, the female will construct a large drey, or nest, high in the trees. The drey is made of twigs and is globular in shape, similar to the familiar nests built by North American gray squirrels, but much larger, about the size of an eagle's nest. She gives birth to and cares for her young in this nest.

The cream-colored giant squirrel has an unusual eating habit. Most squirrels will sit upright with their tails arched over their backs while feeding. This species, by contrast, likes to balance itself on a tree branch, with its body extended outward on one side of the branch, and its tail draped off the other side as a counterweight.

Although not considered endangered, the cream-colored giant squirrel is, as noted before, already extinct in parts of its former range. With deforestation and habitat loss continuing unchecked in much of southeast Asia, it is more important than ever that beautiful species like this, the resources that they need to survive, and the environments in which they live, are protected.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Squirrel Facts: The African Pygmy Squirrel

The African pygmy squirrel claims the distinction of being the world's smallest squirrel. This tiny tree squirrel, which is not much larger than a mouse, measures about 2.5-3 inches long with a tail about 2 inches long, and weighs around half an ounce. It is also one of the lesser-studied squirrels in the world. It inhabits forests of western central Africa, in the countries of Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and northwestern Congo, although the range may actually be larger than this area.

African pygmy squirrels live comfortably in a variety of different kinds of forest habitat within their range. Whatever the forest type, they are most often found in the lower levels from the floor to about 5 meters. When not active, they spend their time in nests made of leaves. The coloring is buff on the back, and olive-white on the belly.

Like most tree squirrels, African pygmy squirrels are diurnal, or active during the day. They live alone, but are not fiercely territorial. When they sense danger, they make a faint peeping noise to warn nearby squirrels of the threat.

Days are spent foraging for food on tree trunks. Individuals run up and down in trees, pulling off pieces of bark. They are omnivorous, feeding on bark fragments, fungus, oil droplets, termites, ants, and pieces of fruit. Unlike most tree squirrels, African pygmy squirrels do not store food in caches.

Very little is known about the mating habits of African pygmy squirrels. It is thought that usually one or two young are born, and as with most tree squirrels, the females provide all of the care and feeding for the young.

Unfortunately, the African pygmy squirrel is classified as vulnerable. Although not much is known about its total numbers or even its range, this tiny squirrel is threatened by habitat loss through deforestation.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

More Good News For the Mount Graham Red Squirrel

The Mount Graham red squirrel is in the news again, with some encouraging results of a recent census. The survey conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service found an estimated population of the endangered squirrel at 272, a substantial increase from the 213 squirrels found in last year's survey.

This isolated subspecies of the North American red squirrel lives only at high elevations in a mountainous area of southeastern Arizona. Its numbers have dwindled in recent decades due to habitat loss, forest fire, and drought. It was once believed to be extinct, before being rediscovered in the 1970s. The recent increase in numbers may be the result of a healthy growing year for the pinecones that make up much of this squirrel's diet. However, overall numbers are still low enough to make this species vulnerable to any event, such as a forest fire, that could devastate the population in one fell swoop.

Efforts to restore the population of the Mount Graham red squirrel have had mixed results. Habitat conservation is the most important step. An effort a few years to build a series of rope bridges across a highway that traverses the squirrels' territory was, unfortunately, defeated due to state budget cuts. A captive breeding program being considered at the Phoenix Zoo may also help supplement this squirrel's numbers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Squirrel Facts: A Uinta Ground Squirrel Returns Home

The Uinta ground squirrel is a squirrel of the western United States. It lives in colonies of between twenty and thirty individuals, in grasslands, meadows, and cultivated fields in parts of Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Looking a bit like a prairie dog that has lost weight, the Uinta ground squirrel has a brown back, slightly paler on the sides, and buff belly fur. The tail is black and brown, and the face and ears are cinnamon color. These squirrels measure about 11-12 inches in length, and the tail is about 3 inches long. They eat mostly seeds and green plants, but supplement this diet with insects and some small animals.

Uinta ground squirrels are active throughout the day, but only for about 3 1/2 months out of the year. From early fall until spring these squirrels hibernate in their underground burrows. The summer months are busy. In addition to gathering sufficient food to last through the long winter, females give birth to and raise litters of 4 to 8 young. The young typically leave the burrow and begin foraging about 24 days after being born.

One Uinta ground squirrel has recently made the news for its wide-ranging, if involuntary, travels. This squirrel (pictured below) was trapped by a truck driver at a highway rest stop near the Utah-Wyoming border. The unidentified trucker took the squirrel home to Wisconsin where he gave it as a gift to a family in the Madison area. After about two months, the family realized that the wild ground squirrel would never make a good pet, and they turned it over to the Four Lakes Wildlife Center, which is a division of the local Humane Society.

The species is not native to Wisconsin, so the most like course of action was, sadly, euthanasia. Fortunately, the wildlife center has been able to find a volunteer to transport the Uinta ground squirrel back to Utah. If all goes well, the squirrel will soon be back in its familiar habitat.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Squirrel Gardens of Japan

Amazingly, this is a real thing. According to a recent post on the gaming website, Japan has a number of squirrel gardens, or risu-en. These gardens are just what the name suggests: parks or zoos where people can go to be surrounded by squirrels. The most famous of these, Machida risu-en, is located in Tokyo. But there are several others in various locations throughout Japan.

 Different squirrel parks apparently specialize in different breeds of squirrels, with some featuring multiple species. Also, the parks differ in whether or not feeding and handling of the squirrels is encouraged. Some of the parks also have other small animals, but the squirrels are clearly the main attraction.

I'm guessing this is from one of the parks that doesn't
encourage feeding

Below are a few more photos from the story. The official website for the Machida risu-en squirrel park can be seen here. For some reason, I feel a sudden urge to plan a visit to Japan!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Squirrel Facts: The Barbary Ground Squirrel

The Barbary ground squirrel is a squirrel of northwestern Africa, where it inhabits dry scrubland, grassland, and rocky areas up to an altitude of about 13,000 feet. The only squirrel in Africa north of the Sahara desert, it is native to Morocco and Algeria, and has also been introduced to the Canary Islands. Its body measures about 6-9 inches in length, with a bushy tail that is about as long as the body.

This squirrel is grayish brown or reddish brown in color. Its most recognizable feature is a white stripe running down each side of the body, and sometimes a stripe running down the middle of the back. The belly is a pale gray, and the tail has gray and brown bars. It prefers to live in rocky environments, where it may burrow in the ground or make nests within the crevices of large rocks. Like most ground squirrels, Barbary ground squirrels live in colonies made up of multiple families.

This squirrels are sociable, and can frequently be seen foraging food in the morning and evening hours. In areas frequented by humans, they show little fear and will often eat from people's hands. They are primarily herbivores, and their favorite food is the olive-like fruit and seeds of the argan tree. While plentiful in any areas where the source of this food is secure, if there is a food shortage these squirrels will migrate to another area. Barbary ground squirrels may breed twice a year, with up to four young in a litter.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Squirrel Quiz for Squirrel Awareness Month

October is Squirrel Awareness Month, and in honor of this special occasion I would like to offer this quiz to test your knowledge of squirrel facts and trivia. You will find a link at the end of the quiz to where you can check your answers.

1. Approximately how many squirrel species are there in the world?

        a. 150          b. 280         c. 80          d. 500

2. The word "squirrel" comes from two ancient Greek words, "skia" and "oura", which combined mean ________

          a. shadow tail                   b. bushy tail
          c. razor tooth                   d. nut eater

3. Which of these animals is NOT a kind of squirrel?

          a. groundhog                    b. prairie dog
          c. pika                             d. marmot

4. Squirrels are native to every continent except Antarctica and __________

          a. South America            b. Australia
          c. Africa                         d. Europe

5. All squirrels hibernate in winter.

         a. True                            b. False

6. In what country can you find the world's largest tree squirrel?

          a. Indonesia                   b. South Africa
          c. India                          d. The United States

7. Which of the following is NOT a function of the squirrel's tail?

          a. helps to  maintain balance while running and leaping in trees.
          b. maintains body temperature by increasing or decreasing blood flow in the tail.
          c. intimidates predators by waving the tail aggressively.
          d. uses the tail to grasp onto tree branches, to avoid falling.

8. The squirrel species that is most often seen in city parks and suburban yards of North America is the __________

          a. eastern gray squirrel
          b. red squirrel
          c. 13-lined ground squirrel
          d. Malabar giant squirrel

9. The flap of skin on each side that allows flying squirrels to glide is called the __________

          a. sciuridae                 b. patagium
          c. wing                       d. palladium

10. Which of these squirrel species is primarily nocturnal?

          a. Arctic ground squirrel
          b. Eurasian red squirrel
          c. black-tailed prairie dog
          d. northern flying squirrel

Click here to see the answers. Good luck!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Squirrel Facts: The Grizzled Giant Squirrel

A threatened species, the grizzled giant squirrel or Ratufa macroura is native to highland riparian forests of Sri Lanka and the Kerala and Tamil Nadu states of southern India. There are three distinct subspecies. All three of the subspecies are found in Sri Lanka, while only one is found in India.

This is the smallest member of the family of giant squirrels that are found in south Asia, with a body length of 10-18 inches, and a tail that measures approximately the same, for a total length of 20-35 inches. Depending on the region and subspecies, this squirrel may be gray, brown, red or black. The underside is always lighter in color than the back. An agile climber like other giant squirrels, the grizzled giant squirrel uses its extremely long tail to maintain balance while moving through trees.

The ears of this squirrel are small and round, and sometimes tufted. It usually gives birth to one or two young, that are cared for for several months in a large drey placed high in a tree. Females may give birth twice in a year. The grizzled giant squirrel is very territorial, greeting intruders with loud vocalizations. If frightened, it is capable of leaping up to 18 feet between trees.

The grizzled tree squirrel is an omnivore. Its diet includes nuts, insects, birds' eggs, and tree bark.

This squirrel species is threatened or endangered over its entire range. The population in Sri Lanka is much higher and more stable than the population in India, where it is in decline with probably fewer than 1000 individuals. The most serious threats to the grizzled giant squirrel include habitat loss to farming and logging, competition from non-native species, and hunting for food.

In 1988 a preserve dedicated to the protection of this species, Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary, was established in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The preserve, also known as Srivilliputhur Wildlife Sanctuary, covers an area of 485 square kilometers. In addition to the grizzled giant squirrel, the sanctuary provides a home for macaques, barking and spotted deer, elephants, flying squirrels, leopards, palm civets, lorrises, tree shrews, sloth bears, and numerous other species. An initiative is currently being undertaken among local communities to introduce eco-tourism to this refuge. Let's hope that this is undertaken in a manner that benefits the local communities, and promotes the well-being of these beautiful squirrels and the other species of this area.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Squirrel Facts: The European Ground Squirrel

The European ground squirrel, also called the European souslik, is one of only two species of ground squirrels that inhabit Europe. Its range covers parts of eastern and southeastern Europe, including Poland, southern Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

Like most ground squirrel species, European ground squirrels are diurnal (active during the day), and live in colonies made up of individual burrows. Their favored habitat is short-grass steppe, pastures, lawns, or park land. This squirrel is gray or yellow-gray in color, with a body about 8 inches long and the tail slightly over 2 inches.

This species eats a primarily herbivorous diet made up of grasses, roots, and seeds, along with some insects, which they carry in their cheeks to eat in the safety of the den. During foraging, some individuals act as sentinels, alerting the colony to danger with a whistling call. They hibernate from autumn until March, with the exact length of the hibernation varying by location depending on the severity of the winter.

Unfortunately, the European ground squirrel is threatened and has declined or disappeared over much of its range. It was declared extinct in Germany around 1985, and had also completely disappeared in Poland although it has since been reintroduced in that country. The primary reason for its disappearance has been the conversion of its meadow and grassland habitat into cultivated farmland. However, in some areas of Bulgaria and Romania, populations have stabilized or increased since the 1980s as agricultural intensity has reduced with the fall of former communist governments.

The European ground squirrel has been in the news recently in Vienna, Austria, where a colony of the threatened squirrels is delaying the construction of a new apartment complex. Officials in the city are trying to lure the animals away from the site by designing and constructing a new park nearby. The fifteen acre park will include "a wide range of flowers and herbs" that designers hope will induce at least half of the ground squirrels to move voluntarily, after which the remaining squirrels will be persuaded through the use of "light pressure" (what this would involve is not explained).

Of course, one might think that a more obvious solution would be to build the apartments on the site of the planned park, and let the ground squirrels stay where they are.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Why Did The Flying Squirrel Cross The Road?

In 2002, concerned scientists noticed that northern flying squirrels were unable to cross a stretch of scenic highway in the Unicoi Mountains of western North Carolina. This was a problem because the flying squirrels, which are declining in numbers, were unable to access foraging sites and get to others of their species for mating.

The Carolina northern flying squirrel is an endangered species that inhabits mountain forests of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The nocturnal squirrels glide by launching themselves from a tall tree, and can typically cover distances of up to about 80 feet. But the highway, along with an adjacent treeless area on both shoulders, created a space 125 feet wide, too much distance for the squirrels to cover.

Northern Flying Squirrel Gliding

Fortunately, biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission and North Carolina State University came up with a creative solution to this problem, and it seems to be working. The scientists have installed three pairs of wooden poles about 46 feet high, with launching platforms at the top of each pole. The poles in each pair are situated about 49 feet apart, on each side of the road. This gives the squirrels the means to launch themselves across the highway to find food, den sites, and mates.

A Northern Flying Squirrel at a Bird Feeder

To test whether the flying squirrels were using the platforms, the research team set up cameras at the poles for a 15 month period in 2009 and 2010. During this time, they captured 14 instances of the squirrels using the poles. Here is a video showing one of these instances:

It would be nice if the success of this project could lead to similar efforts in other locations. I have written about the squirrel bridges in the town of Longview, Washington, a very successful example of helping squirrels to avoid the dangers of road crossings. Unfortunately, not every effort has been so successful. In 2010, a proposal to erect rope bridges across two highways in Arizona to help the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel was defeated by that state's legislature, due to protests from right-wing politicians who objected to the cost. Hopefully Arizona's politicians will have a change of heart before it's too late for that threatened species.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Is Climate Change Creating A New Squirrel Species?

Is it possible that global warming could be causing the creation of new species of squirrels and other animals? According to a story on the Mother Nature Network website, climate change may be the cause for increasing numbers of hybrid flying squirrels being found in Canada.

These squirrels are hybrids of two species, the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel. As the names suggest, the northern flying squirrel is native to northern regions of the United States into Canada, while the southern flying squirrel is found further south in the United States. The northern flying squirrel is larger, and has a gray and white belly, while the smaller southern flying squirrel has an all-white belly. Hybrids between the two are the size of the southern flying squirrel, with mottled gray and white belly fur.

A northern flying squirrel visiting a
bird feeder

Recently, scientists in Ontario, Canada have discovered an increasing number of hybrids of the two species. Ontario is within the range of the northern flying squirrel, but is well to the north of the usual range for the southern flying squirrel. Researchers including Jeff Bowman theorize that warming temperatures are driving some species, including the southern flying squirrel, farther to the north, so that the ranges of these two species now overlap more than they did in the past. A recent survey found that around four percent of flying squirrels in Ontario are now hybrids.

A southern flying squirrel

This is certainly not the first example of hybridization between species. The story cites the example of cross-breeding between grizzly bears and polar bears, which may also increase with the effects of global warming. But Bowman and other scientists believe that the flying squirrels are the first documented case of a hybrid species specifically caused by human-generated climate change. It is not clear what the long-term impact of hybridization might be for the flying squirrels or other species. Might a new flying squirrel species created by cross-breeding be better adapted to deal with a warmer climate? It's too soon to tell.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Holley Squirrel Slaughter Update

Today, in Albany, New York, wildlife rehabilitator Carrie Leo is presenting almost 15,000 petition signatures at a news conference with NY state senator Tony Avella. The petition asks the village of Holley, NY and the Holley Fire Department to cancel its annual "Squirrel Slam," the fundraising event at which "hunters" will compete to kill squirrels. Prizes will be given in adult and youth categories to those who kill the heaviest squirrels, and in a separate drawing after the hunt, firearms will be awarded as prizes.

With less than a week to go before the bloodbath, the town seems to have dug in its heels and resisted the massive public call to stop the event. There has even been an effort to raise money for the fire department to replace the funds that it would lose if it did cancel the hunt.

Photo by Morgan Jamie Dunbar

What I am afraid that many of the supporters of the Squirrel Slam do not understand (or refuse to acknowledge) is that the protest is not about taking away their right to hunt or to own a gun. While I am sure that many of the protesters, myself included, do support common sense gun control measures, that is a separate issue. This protest is not about banning hunting, where a reasonable number of animals are taken for food. It is about holding a contest to kill as many squirrels as possible, for no purpose other than to win prizes. It is about encouraging children to think of pointless, purposeless killing as a fun way to spend an afternoon. It is about a culture that cheapens and trivializes life and death.

I still hold out hope that the town of Holley will  listen to the voices of all who are speaking out and decide to cancel the Squirrel Slam. If this year's event does go on, I hope that the powers that be in the town will quietly reconsider and find a more humane fundraising event for next year and future years going forward. And I hope that other communities that hold similar cruel and callous killing contests will look at the outcry over the Squirrel Slam and know that they too will risk the same negative spotlight of attention if they continue holding these events.

Update: Here is an account of Senator Avella's press conference that was held this afternoon.

Here is another account of the press conference, with video.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Help For the Mount Graham Red Squirrel?

The Mount Graham red squirrel has been listed as an endangered species since 1987, after having previously been thought extinct. It lives a precarious existence in a small area of Arizona, where it numbers only slightly above 200 individuals. Now it appears that a long-planned captive breeding program at the Phoenix Zoo may finally be nearing approval from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

This small subspecies of the North American red squirrel lives in high-elevations conifer forests in the Pinaleno Mountains of Arizona, where it has been isolated from other red squirrels for over ten thousand years. Its numbers have declined due to habitat loss, drought and forest fires. In the 1990s this squirrel became controversial when conservation groups objected to the construction of a University of Arizona observatory in its territory, and since the construction the numbers of squirrels have been closely monitored.

The Phoenix Zoo captured four of the squirrels, two males and two females, in 2011 when it feared that wildfires that summer might devastate the remaining population. The two females died, but the males remain in captivity at the zoo. Zoo researchers have been learning everything that they can about these squirrels in the hopes of starting a captive breeding program to replenish the numbers, which are currently so low that the species could be exterminated by a single ecological disaster such as a forest fire or severe drought.

One of the captive male Mount Graham red squirrels

There are difficulties with any effort to breed Mount Graham red squirrels in captivity. The squirrels are extremely territorial, and will not tolerate the presence of other squirrels in their vicinity except for mating. The females of the species go into heat for only one day a year, so the timing has to be perfect. The zoo researchers are developing a guide for keeping the squirrels in captivity, which is being updated as they learn more.

The proposed pilot program calls for capturing a maximum of sixteen Mount Graham red squirrels over a period of ten years for captive breeding. After that ten years, a decision would be made based on results, on whether to launch a full breeding program. The Fish and Wildlife Service may approve the pilot program as early as this spring, although further delays are also possible.

The real question, of course, is whether the species can survive long enough to see the implementation of the program.