Squirrels

 

(This 1238th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 14, 2014.)

 

Few of us have mixed feelings about gray squirrels. I think that, if I took a poll, about forty-nine percent of respondents would fit well within the category defined as squirrel haters. Another forty-nine percent love the little critters. And that doesn't leave much room for those of us who appreciate their antics while we still recognize them as long-tailed, bird food stealing rodents.

 

Evidence for my supposition is found in bookstores and libraries. I checked recently and found the following titles: Squirrel Wars, How to Get Rid of Squirrels, Outwitting Squirrels, Squirrel Trapping, Squirrel Proofing, Controlling Crafty Critters, and Wildlife Pest Control around Gardens and Homes. While the last two titles are not specific to squirrels, their covers each show a gray squirrel.

 

Easily the most common request I receive from readers is how to protect their feeders from these wily robbers. Of course, they are asking the wrong person. We gave up feeding birds at the insistence of my wife after squirrels destroyed a series of expensive feeders.

 

Some people buy so-called squirrel-proof feeders and find them effective, but at least an equal number of those who try them report that their squirrels find a way to circumvent the barriers.

 

Even extreme measures don't work. Trapping and relocating gray squirrels or even killing them is rarely even a temporary solution. There are so many gray squirrels today that any squirrel-free region will soon be filled in with the overflow from nearby areas. When I lived in Connecticut, a neighbor shot nineteen squirrels that were raiding his feeders over a period of two months. At the end of that time, with no reduction in their population, he gave up and removed his feeders.

 

Of all the responses to squirrels at bird feeders, the only one I ever received that seemed to work well was from a woman who drove three large nails through a board, tipped the board over and forced corn ears down onto the nails. These standing ears she set out at the far back of her yard well away from her bird feeders. The squirrels, larger birds like crows and jays and an occasional grouse were satisfied to feed there and leave her dickybird feeders alone. All she had to do was replace the empty corn ears every few days.

 

In a kind of evil repayment for the alien species like house sparrows, starlings, garlic mustard and purple loosestrife that have been introduced into North America from other countries, we have exported our Eastern gray squirrel. Introduced to Great Britain in the Victorian era, this species has adapted very well, colonizing 90% of England and Wales and fast spreading through Scotland. Beginning in 1948, squirrels were released in Italian parks at several sites and they have begun to overpopulate and spread from those areas. Projections call for them to spread through the rest of Italy and into France and the remainder of Europe.

 

Among the many problems with introducing a species to a new region are two important ones: they outcompete native species because they do not face the predators that controlled their population where they originated, and they bring diseases for which native species have no defenses.

 

The gray squirrel in Europe serves both categories. They are outcompeting native red squirrels for food and spreading a squirrelpox virus to them, almost completely wiping out resident red squirrel populations. This is unlike here in North America where these two species are less often in confrontation. Gray squirrels are also contributing to the decline of some bird species. More important to the European economy they are causing irreparable damage to beech, oak, sycamore and Norway spruce forests through bark-stripping. In Britain alone the estimated cost of their depredations is the equivalent of $22 million per year.

 

In one regard you must give gray squirrels credit. They have an excellent memory. You have probably seen them grabbing a sunflower seed from your feeder or an acorn from below your oak tree and racing off to dig a hole to bury their treasure.

 

An interesting experiment showed that they remember the location of the specific food they bury. At separate times two squirrels were carefully observed burying food in the same large area. Months later these squirrels were released in the same plot at different times. Each relocated its own food but not that of the other.-- Gerry Rising