January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day, an unofficial holiday to recognize the part that squirrels play in the natural world. Although it is said to have originated as a way to encourage people to put out food for squirrels, they’re quite capable of finding food on their own. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t enjoy and appreciate them.
In my part of the world there are four species of squirrels; one is a ground squirrel the other three are tree squirrels in that they spend a lot of time in trees and typically use tree cavities for shelter. One species is nocturnal; the other three are active in daylight.
The eastern chipmunk is our ground dwelling squirrel, although few people think of it as a squirrel. A ground squirrel it may be, but it does spend quite a bit of time in trees and shrubs searching for fruits and nuts and birds’ nests (yes, chipmunks eat birds’ eggs and nestlings) –
Bold and noisy, red squirrels favor woodlands with a high portion of pine, hemlock or spruce. They’re extremely quick as they dash about the treetops and can be important predators of nestling songbirds. Once, when I was walking in the Big Woods I heard something falling through the branches of a nearby large hemlock. After a long fall through the hemlock a red squirrel landed with a thud in the old road on which I was walking. In an instant the squirrel, apparently uninjured, dashed off and back up into the hemlock.
When most of us think of squirrels we think of the ubiquitous gray squirrel, the inhabitant of city parks and the raider of bird feeders. Gray squirrels can be found almost anywhere there are trees and/or a source of food – extensive forests, farm woodlots, parks, cemeteries, suburban neighborhoods, even big cities where they may live in buildings and feed on handouts and scraps. Gray squirrels have been introduced in areas to which they are not native, including Great Britain, where they have become invasive pests.
Gray squirrels can be nuisance at times, but we should appreciate that they can be responsible for “planting” a large proportion of the oak/hickory forests we enjoy and use. Gray squirrels hide acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts for later use by burying them in seemingly random places, a method called “scatter hoarding”. Some squirrels don’t survive to retrieve their hidden horde, some nuts can’t be found again, in times of unusual abundance more nuts are buried than the squirrels can eat, and thus these tree seeds are planted.
Those un-retrieved nuts are the source of multitudes of seedlings; they had been stored in the perfect place – in the soil, protected from seed predators like deer and turkeys and black bears, moist enough not to dry out. Gray squirrels occasionally carry nuts hundreds of yards before burying them and thus can help spread oak and hickory into abandoned fields.
So, let’s give an appreciative tip of the hat to the squirrels.