2004-11-26 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

by Stephen Yaeger

There are a number of wildlife critters living in our area. Besides birds we have possums, mice, rats, squirrels, and pussycats. The thing with street cats, however, is a bit different from the others.

They are feral animals, having escaped from being domesticated (=able to live with and/or used by humans). But it is the squirrel that most people consider as pests because they are the wild animals most often seen. They invade attics, dig up gardens, or chew telephone lines. Of course other people find them quiet cute.

There are different types of squirrels. Those that live in New York City are Eastern Gray Squirrels. They are the most common of true wild mammals living with humans in a city Squirrels are members of the Rodent family, making them closely related to rats and mice. Gray Squirrels have grayish-brown fur on their backs and sides. Their bellies are a pale gray or dull white. There are populations of black squirrels in and around the city. The black fur is due to a chemical change in fur color. Eastern Gray Squirrels can grow from 17 to 20 inches long. The tail, which is rat-like, has silver-tipped hairs covering it, making the tail bushy in appearance.

The tail is a very handy thing to have, especially for a squirrel. It uses it to shade itself from the sun, protect itself from rain, balance itself while running across an electric wire or up and down a tree trunk, or the tail is used as a rudder when swimming. When a squirrel feels threatened it will raise and flick its tail while calling out a warning sound.

Gray Squirrels are mostly arboreal (=living in trees) and rarely move away from trees except to look for food. They make their homes either in cavities (=holes) or they weave leaves together to make a nest where branches form a “V” shape in the tree.

During the summer squirrel nests are hard to see as they are made of green leaves. The nests, then, blend in with the rest of the tree foliage (=leaves). In winter the nests are easy to spot. The leaves making up the nest have turned brown and there are no more leaves on the tree’s branches. The cavities are often the work of woodpeckers and squirrels may even fight with woodpeckers for possession of these holes. Often the squirrel is the winner. Gray squirrels like a number of different trees to nest in, but they prefer Red Maple, American Elm, Sweetgum, and White Oak.

It is usually during the early morning and evening that squirrels are most active. It is at this time that they search for food. You can spot them crossing the street, running up and down trees, scurrying over someone’s lawn, or digging a hole in search of or burying a tasty nut. Their favorite food includes acorns, walnuts, beechnuts, apples, grapes, seeds, and some flower buds. All of this food is what everyone expects squirrels to like, but sometimes they prefer something a bit tastier. If they have a chance squirrels will dine on insects, baby birds, birds’ eggs, and small amphibians (=frogs, salamanders, etc.). They may, believe it or not, even have each other for lunch! Gray Squirrels will often visit bird feeders and they have an uncanny ability to find ways to get to the birdseed no matter where the bird feeder is located. Their search for food makes people angry, especially if they dig up bulbs and vegetables in one’s garden.

A well-fed squirrel will bury its food near the surface. You may see a squirrel rushing here and there with a nut (no, not the strange guy on your block) in its mouth looking for a good burial site. Once it finds a good place it will dig a shallow hole, drop its treasure in it, quickly bury the nut, and scurry away looking for more food to bury. This practice of burying food is insurance during the cold, winter months when food is not readily available. Squirrels have a very good sense of smell. They use this ability to find the nuts that they buried during the summer. Of course this does not mean that a squirrel will find the food that he himself put into the ground. He may find another squirrel’s treasure. In some cases squirrels may not find all of the food that was stashed underground. If seeds were buried, new plants will grow in the spring. Squirrels, then, contribute to the environment. They help keep insect populations down and they play a role in new plant growth.

A group of squirrels is known as a dray or scurry . You may see squirrels chasing each other up and down the trunk of a tree. This activity may be the result of a squirrel from one dray meeting a squirrel from another dray. It is a conflict for territorial rights. At other times it is a male, called a buck, chasing a female, called a doe. The chasing continues until they mate after which both will help build a suitable nest.

Eastern Gray Squirrels have two litters a year. The first litter is born in the spring and the second litter is born in late summer. This second litter remains with the mother for the winter. Each litter consists of two or three pups or kittens . Eastern Gray Squirrels live for about five years.

Second to birds, squirrels are the wild animals most likely to be fed by humans. This brings up the subject of rabies. People do not like when squirrels hang around their homes because they think that squirrels carry rabies. Contrary to this popular belief, squirrels are very rarely found infected with rabies. Research by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) supports this fact. As another matter of fact the NYC Department of Health has stated that there has not been a case of rabies in NYC for some fifty years. But this does not mean you should get close enough to a squirrel, or any wild animal, to allow it to bite you, especially if the animal is acting in a strange or unusual manner. Remember that any animal bite could get infected.

Questions, Comments or Suggestions for a topic? E-mail Steve: Drawingonscience@aol.com

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