Monday, April 21, 2014

The Rally Squirrel Is Back, and It Hates the Phillies!

Back in 2011, the Major League Baseball world was captivated as a squirrel helped the St. Louis Cardinals to a win in the National League Divisional Series against the Philadelphis Phillies. After the Cardinals went on to win the World Series, the team even immortalized the Rally Squirrel on their championship rings,

and on outfielder Skip Schumaker'sTopps 2012 baseball card.

And now the Rally Squirrel is back! This time, the squirrel (or one of its cousins) showed up at Coors Field in Denver as the Colorado Rockies were playing the Phillies this past Saturday. The squirrel made its appearance during the third inning, wandering around behind home plate, checking out the Phillies' dugout, and running into the outfield, to the delight of fans and television commentators.

The squirrel stuck around into the fourth inning, and the home team Rockies went on to win the game. It seems that the Rally Squirrel has a grudge against Philadelphia. Or maybe it's trying to send the message that the Phillies should change their name to the Philadelphia Squirrels. After all, what the heck is a "Phillie" anyway?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Update on Endangered San Bernardino Flying Squirrel

Update April 3, 2014: Today the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for failing in its obligation to protect the San Bernardino flying squirrel under the Endangered Species Act. Here's wishing the Center for Biological Diversity good luck in this action, and hope that it brings help quickly before we lose this wonderful squirrel forever!

The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel. It lives in high conifer forests in the mountains of southern California. Like other flying squirrels, this small nocturnal squirrel uses a membrane that stretches between its wrists and ankles to glide up to 300 feet between trees in search of food.

Unfortunately, the San Bernardino flying squirrel has declined in numbers in recent decades and may be in danger of disappearing altogether. In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to list the squirrel as an endangered species threatened by global climate change.

It is believed that the species has already disappeared from part of its range, the San Jacinto Mountains, and is now restricted to the higher elevations of the San Bernardino Mountains. And even on those peaks, its territory is gradually shrinking due to the effects of global warming.

The San Bernardino flying squirrel depends on cool, wet old-growth forests with plenty of big trees, fallen logs and large tangles where it can find its primary food, truffle fungus. In recent decades, harmful forest management practices that call for removal of downed trees and snags, and the spread of suburban development, have encroached on this habitat. Now the remaining territory is shrinking as rising temperatures and drought drive the squirrel to higher elevations.

Fortunately, there may be some relief in sight. Earlier this year the Fish and Wildlife Service issued an initial positive decision to protect the San Bernardino flying squirrel under the Endangered Species Act. Although this is not a final decision, it brings the squirrel a step closer to protection. A positive final decision would prevent further development on remaining habitat and could help make a case for additional restrictions on carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Good News For Berkeley Ground Squirrels

A few weeks ago I shared the plan of Berkeley, California to exterminate the California ground squirrels living in Cesar Chavez Park due to concerns that the squirrels' burrowing might release buried toxic chemicals into the adjacent San Francisco Bay.

Happily, this plan has now been postponed while the city looks for other options. The city council voted to order the city manager to report back in two months with a new plan for dealing with the squirrels, and a response to questions that were raised by citizens and activist groups, including the local Golden Gate Audubon Society, who were upset with the impending slaughter.

While it's possible that the squirrels could still face extermination down the road, it looks like the city of Berkeley is now wanting to find another course of action toward reducing the park's ground squirrel population. The Audubon group, in a comment letter submitted to the council, has made suggestions that include modifying the vegetation in the park to reduce the squirrel population, encouraging the presence of natural predators, the use of squirrel contraceptives, and stricter enforcement of rules against feeding the squirrels.

Perhaps in the future cities might want to reconsider the wisdom of building parks on top of toxic landfills.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The Eurasian Red Squirrel

Just as the eastern gray is the most familiar squirrel in much of North America, the Eurasian red squirrel is the most common squirrel species throughout most of Europe and northern Asia. Its range extends literally from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including Spain, France and Italy in southern Europe to Scandanavia, to Siberia, parts of China, Japan and Korea. Geographically, it is almost certainly the most widespread of any squirrel species in the world.

And one of the cutest, as well!
Throughout this range, the Eurasian red squirrel can be found in both coniferous and temperate broadleaf forests and woodlands. The prefered habitat is coniferous or mixed forest, where mature trees provide nesting sites and a sufficient diet of seeds and acorns. Other foods favored by the red squirrel include fungus, tree bark, sap wood, and occasionally, if other food is in short supply, birds' eggs or even nestlings. Food is stored for the winter by burying or hiding in nooks or cavities in trees. However, the Eurasian red squirrel is not as proficient as the eastern gray at caching and retrieving the supplies, and much of the stored food goes unfound.

The Eurasian red squirrel exhibits an unusal degree of variability in its appearance both geographically and by season. In general, the head and body is 7.5-9 inches in length, with the tail adding an additional 6-9 inches--a bit smaller than the eastern gray squirrel. The coat can range from very light red, like the squirrel above, to almost black. Throughout much of its range red squirrels of many different shades can be found coexisting within a fairly small area. The underside is generally white or cream in color. The coat changes twice a year, with, predictably, a thinner coat in summer and a thicker coat in winter. Perhaps the most distinguishing physical feature of this squirrel is the ear tufts, which are generally larger in winter.

Like most tree squirrels, the Eurasion red squirrel may nest either in a tree cavity--often an abandoned woodpecker hole--or in a drey made of sticks and leaves and placed in a fork high in a tree. Mostly solitary except when raising young, several red squirrels will nevertheless share a drey during cold winter weather to better keep warm. Mating takes place in late winter, and often again in summer. Litters usually contain 3 or 4 young, which are cared for by the mother until about 8-10 weeks old.

The Eurasian red squirrel is not considered threatened over most of its range. However, in a few areas their numbers have dwindled. These areas include England, Ireland, and Italy, where eastern gray squirrels have been introduced. While the gray squirrel has been villified in these areas, especially in the British Isles where culls of gray squirrels have been carried out in many areas, it is clear that habitat loss has also played a large role in the decline of the red squirrels. I have discussed my opinions about this issue elsewhere on this blog.

In many areas red squirrels are
obviously still quite common!
The Eurasian red squirrel, common in the Scandanavian countries, figures prominently in Norse mythology. The squirrel Ratatoskr (translated "drill tooth") is found in written compilations dating to the 13th century, running up and down the world tree Yggdrasil, carrying messages and insults between the eagle at the top and the serpent below.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel

The San Joaquin antelope squirrel, also called the Nelson's Antelope squirrel, inhabits the San Joaquin valley of central California. It is a relatively small ground squirrel, about 8.5-9.5 inches in length, with small ears, short legs and a short tail. The upper part of the body is buff or tan, with a white stripe running down each side. Because of the small size and the stripes, this squirrel is often mistaken for a chipmunk, but unlike chipmunks the San Joaquin antelope squirrel lacks black and white stripes on the face and back.

San Joaquin antelope squirrels are omnivorous. Their prefered foods include vegetation, fungi, seeds, and insects, especially grasshoppers. Green vegetation makes up most of their diet from December through April, when this food is most abundant. During the remainder of the year insects may make up 90 percent of the squirrels' diet. Vegetation and insects are prefered over seeds, probably because they provide greater amounts of water, which is vital in an arid climate. They are diurnal, or active during the day, and usually forage for food in the early morning and the evening, especially in the summer when they will retreat to their burrows during the hottest part of the day. These squirrels are not tolerant of extreme heat, but do very well in colder weather and do not hibernate during the winter.

San Joaquin antelope squirrels live in small groups of about 6-8 individuals. They either dig their own burrows or, perhaps more often, use abandoned burrows of kangaroo rats. They breed once each year, with the births taking place in March or April. Young first leave the nest about 30 days after birth.

Sadly, the San Joaquin antelope squirrel is an endangered species. Its range has been reduced by about 80 percent by agriculture, petroleum development and urban sprawl. In addition, the use of pesticides in commercial agriculture may be reducing the supply of insects, one of the squirrels' most important foods. And some of their most important vegetable foods are being displaced by invasive plant species. Currently the species survives only in two areas of the San Joaquin valley. One of these areas, the Carrizo Natural Area, is protected public land. Nevertheless, this small ground squirrel faces a precarious future unless strong steps are taken to protect and expand its remaining habitat.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Petition to Help Save the Ground Squirrels and Gophers in Berkeley, CA

I am happy to say that there is now a petition that you can sign at the Care2 website to help save the California ground squirrels and gophers at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, California. I wrote yesterday about the impending extermination of these animals which local park officials say is necessary because their burrowing may release toxins into the bay. Please click below and take a look at the petition and consider signing to prevent this cruel, drastic, and extremely dubious measure.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Berkeley, California Planning Mass Execution of Squirrels

The city of Berkeley, California is known as a center of tolerance and compassion, but a recent proposal by the city government goes against that image. The city is planning the mass extermination of ground squirrels and gophers in Cesar Chavez park. The park, which overlooks the San Francisco Bay, is built over a reclaimed landfill, and city officials are concerned that the burrowing squirrels might release dangerous toxic chemicals that could spill into the bay. So the city has hired an extermination company to trap and kill many, though not all, of the squirrels and gophers that inhabit the park.

California ground squirrel

As described in this story about the impending slaughter, when the park was built, the landfill was enclosed by layers of clay underneath, on the sides, and on top. The top layer of clay was covered with a layer of topsoil, which is what the squirrels and gophers have been digging into. As of yet, there has not been a problem with the rodents penetrating the clay that protects the landfill. But apparently, as the population of squirrels has increased, city officials have grown concerned that they might burrow right through the clay. If this happens, chemicals that are no doubt contained in the landfull could spill into the nearby bay.

The potential problem has been exarcebated by human visitors to the park who ignore signs warning them not to feed the squirrels, further increasing the population of the animals. The squirrels and gophers cannot be relocated as this would violate state laws that prohibit the relocation of any wild animals. Berkeley officials say that they have tried less extreme measures such as luring birds of prey into the park by providing nesting boxes and perches, but this did not help. And poisoning is not an option because it would affect other species.

There can be no doubt that protecting the San Francisco Bay from pollution has to be a priority, but the articles that I have read about this issue raise a number of bothersome questions. Is it not possible to upgrade the barrier that surrounds the landfill, perhaps by increasing the thickness of the clay cap or adding another material to enclose it? Is the extermination of the squirrels and gophers to go on indefinitely, and at what cost? Surely park officials are aware that any individuals killed will be quickly replaced by others that move in from the surrounding area and by breeding.

There are several other waterfront parks in the area that are also built over landfills, that also have large populations of ground squirrels, but for some reason at the other parks the potential release of toxins is not considered a problem. What makes conditions at the other parks so different? It seems to me that the Berkeley city officials need to more fully explain why this drastic measure is necessary, and investigate more fully what other steps could be taken short of killing potentially thousands of animals.

If the problem here really is the result of humans feeding the squirrels, then maybe the land in question should be closed off and turned into a wildlife preserve instead of a public park.

Update: I've put a link below to a petition that has been created to stop this drastic and cruel measure. Please click below to view and consider signing the petition!