The irrepressible squirrel—a love-hate affair

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11545429026081.jpg’, ”, ‘A persistent gray squirrel raids the writer’s bird suet feeder.’);

About the only two small, usually wild, mammals we who live in an urban environment routinely come in contact with are the cottontail rabbit and the squirrel. Of these two, the squirrel is by far the more common. The squirrel, as with many other species of animals and plants, evokes mixed emotions in those who share the countryside with him. You either love him, or you hate him.

There are four kinds of tree squirrels in Illinois: the red squirrel or chickaree, the eastern gray squirrel, the fox squirrel, and the Southern flying squirrel. The gray and the red squirrels are the ones we in the Rock River Valley see on almost a daily basis. Occasionally, we will observe an albino or a melanistic (black) individual, but these are actually red or gray squirrels with an improbable genetic variation.

Many individuals enjoy having squirrels in their yards and watching their playful antics, such as chasing each other through the branches of a tree or burying nuts in the fall. Some people encourage their presence by providing feeding stations for them. Dried ears of corn may be purchased at the feed store and are a squirrel favorite.

There seem to be just as many individuals who “hate” squirrels as there are those who “love” them. There is no doubt about it: squirrels can become a real nuisance. They are inherently inquisitive and may enter uninvited into your home. They seem to have a knack for falling down a chimney or finding a way to gain access to the attic. If this occurs, it is best to call an animal control officer to remove the intruder. The squirrel is a rodent and has long, sharp incisor teeth with which it can inflict a painful bite, so, if you insist on catching one with your hands, heavy leather gloves should be worn.

One of the most vociferous groups who are irritated by squirrels is the bird lovers who place seed and suet in feeders for their feathered friends. If the feeder is not of the “squirrel proof” type, old bushy tail will quickly intimidate any bird that tries to feed there and proceed to decimate the supply of food.

Squirrels are very smart, and I don’t believe a bird feeder has been invented that is 100 percent squirrel proof. They are very persistent and will eventually find a way to get the bird food. I have never seen a squirrel that was not fat, even in winter.

I have suet cake encased in a broad-meshed, wire basket hanging from the eave of the back of my house for the benefit of woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and others. I thought there was no way a squirrel could get to this feeder, but the varmint, after many unsuccessful attempts, manages to make his way down the narrow nylon cord holding the feeder and steals a meal of suet impregnated with seed by inserting one of his front legs through the wire and flicking off hunks of the energy-rich food with his long claws.

Another of the sins squirrels commit that outrages bird lovers is their propensity for robbing bird nests. Chickadees, cardinals, warblers, and many other birds that nest in locations inhabited by squirrels fall easy prey to their depredations.

On the plus side is that many enjoy the “sport” of squirrel hunting. Squirrels are prolific breeders and may produce several batches of young during the year, so they are in little danger of having their numbers reduced appreciably by hunters.

On my 10th birthday, my uncle presented me with a fantastic gift, a bolt action, single-shot, .22-caliber rifle. After an extended period of instruction in marksmanship and firearm safety, he took me squirrel hunting in a grove of pecan trees along the banks of the Trinity River near Fort Worth, Texas. After a long period of sitting quietly at the base of a tree, a fat, red squirrel presented himself on an open branch. That was the first game animal I ever harvested. My uncle bagged three more that day, and we turned them over to his and my grandmother’s long-time cook and housekeeper. She rolled the carcasses in flour and pan fried them, and I remember to this day that they were delicious.

Though I gave up hunting many years ago, the thrill of that first squirrel is remembered well and is comparable to the excitement I felt when I caught my first bass on a lure I had made myself.

In spite of his faults, I think most of us are delighted old bushy tail is around, if for no other reason than to challenge us to try to outwit him.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Aug. 2-8, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!