Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Do Squirrels Do In The Winter?

As cold weather sets in and we complain about the freezing temperatures during our morning drive to work, it's easy to forget that wild animals have to deal with the winter weather without the benefit of heated homes and cars. Squirrels, like all other animals that live in cooler climates, have evolved a variety of strategies to deal with the winter cold. Of course, the specific strategies depend on the kind of squirrel, and the area where the squirrel lives, so it's not surprising that squirrels have a variety of behaviors to help them survive the winter months.

One of the most widespread misconceptions about squirrel behavior is that all squirrels hibernate during the winter. The truth is that while many ground squirrels do hibernate, tree squirrels and flying squirrels do not. This detail was apparently missed by the producers of Sponge Bob Square Pants, who depicted Sandy Cheeks, the seafaring eastern gray squirrel from Texas, sound asleep for the winter.

Of course, everything else about this show
makes perfect sense.

For real-life tree squirrels, the most familiar behavior for coping with winter is caching food. The eastern gray squirrel of North America is famous for its habit of burying acorns and other nuts. Facing competition for scarce food supplies from nearby squirrels and other animals, the gray squirrel caches nuts over a wide area during the fall, a technique known as "scatter hoarding." It bites and licks each nut, leaving its scent before burying it. The squirrel retrieves the buried nuts throughout the winter using both memory and its keen sense of smell. It is said that a gray squirrel can locate a nut by scent even through a foot of snow.




Squirrels have refined their caching techniques to reduce the number of nuts stolen by other animals. They have been observed pretending to bury nuts when they detect another squirrel or other animal nearby, attempting to throw off any potential nut thieves.

Other tree squirrels have different strategies for winter food caching. The American red squirrel inhabits coniferous forests of the north, where it feeds largely on seeds from spruce cones throughout the winter. Rather than scatter hoarding like its gray cousins, the more fiercely territorial red squirrel gathers cones into a central location, or "midden," in its territory. The pile of discarded leaves from the spruce cones can sometimes measure a meter or more across.

American red squirrel

Although they do not hibernate, tree squirrels and flying squirrels will reduce their activity and spend more time in their nests during the winter months. In colder climates, squirrels will often alter the timing of their daily routines. Instead of going out to find food in the early morning and near dust, they will leave the nest in the mid-afternoon to retrieve buried nuts, and stay curled up in their nests the rest of the time. A small supply of nuts may be stored in the nest so that during a particularly cold stretch, a squirrel may be able to stay in the nest without leaving at all for a day or two.

Tree squirrels and flying squirrels are territorial, and adults normally nest alone. But when cold weather sets in, often several squirrels living near each other will gather in one nest, temporarily, to share their body warmth. When warmer weather returns, the squirrels will part ways and return to their own individual nests.

Unlike tree squirrels and flying squirrels, many ground squirrels (which includes chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots) do hibernate during the winter. Not surprisingly, the ground squirrels of colder climates are the most likely to hibernate, and the length and timing of hibernation varies by climate. Squirrels of higher elevations, such as the Alpine marmot of Europe or the Belding's ground squirrel of western North America, may have extended hibernation periods lasting as much as eight or nine months.

Squirrels inhabiting similar territories may employ sharply different hibernation behaviors. For example, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, a very small species whose territory extends from southern Canada south to central Texas, may enter hibernation anywhere from late July to October, and emerge between March and May, depending on the local conditions. By contrast, the black-tailed prairie dog, a larger ground squirrel which has a similar range to the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, does not hibernate at all, but may go into a light hibernation-like torpor in its burrows for short periods during particularly cold weather.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel in Lubbock, TX

The champion of hibernation among the ground squirrels may be the Arctic ground squirrel. Found in Alaska and northern Canada, these squirrels live in colonies that may number in the hundreds. They spend the short spring and summer eating and gathering food to store in their underground tunnels. They hibernate from September until April in burrows that are lined with lichen, leaves and muskox hair. During hibernation, the Arctic ground squirrel's body temperature drops to 27 degrees F (-3 C), the lowest naturally occuring body temperature recorded for any mammal. When they awaken in April, the squirrels feed on the stored leaves, seeds, and grasses that they stored in the burrows until spring plants start to grow outside.

An Arctic ground squirrel hibernating in a
laboratory at the University of Alaska

Squirrels are an amazingly adaptable and varied family of animals. They can be found in some of the harshest climates on earth. I have touched here on just a few of the strategies that squirrels employ to survive the winter months. Of course, our familiar city gray squirrels are always willing to accept a little help from their friends.




Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pathetic Squirrel Killers At The Grand Canyon

Most people go to national parks like the Grand Canyon to appreciate the majestic scenery and the wildlife that these beautiful places offer. For two cowardly, pathetic men, allegedly from France, the canyon was apparently the perfect place to act out their sadistic impulses on a helpless squirrel.

In a video that went viral on YouTube a few days ago, the two men are near the rim of the Grand Canyon dressed, for some reason in only hats and underwear. While one of the men appears to film, the other first places bits of bread on the ground to lure a squirrel to the canyon's edge. When the squirrel approaches the rim, the man puts on a shoe, then walks up to the squirrel and calmly kicks it, sending it flying over the edge of the cliff. With an average canyon depth of around a mile, there is little chance that the tiny creature could have survived the fall unless it was lucky enough to land on an outcropping close to the top.

The person who posted the video has reportedly stated that he does not know the two men but that he thinks they were French, and that he did not know what was going to happen. Nevertheless, he did not report the incident to park authorities, and he was more than happy to post the video, complete with backing music. Honestly, I have doubts that the men really were French, or that they were really unknown to the videographer.

I have decided not to show the video on this blog, or even include stills from it. These two pathetic cowards have no doubt been enjoying the publicity as the images have spread throughout the internet. I will show a photo of a rock squirrel, the species that was probably the victim. Rock squirrels are common along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and have become tame enough there that they often approach tourists for food handouts that are readily given. The poor squirrel in the video had absolutely no reason to think it should fear the two men.



Thankfully YouTube removed the original video due to its upsetting content. The national park service has begun an investigation into the incident in hopes of identifying the men, but so far there seems to be little progress. Also, a petition is circulating on Change.org calling for the identification and prosecution of the men. And just today, a reward of $15,000 has been offered by PETA for anyone who identifies the sadistic killers.

It's always tempting in cases like this to call for the proverbial eye-for-an-eye, to say that the men in the video should themselves be kicked of the edge of the canyon. It is unfortunate that the maximum sentence that they might receive is six months in jail and a fine of $5,000. I hope that these loathsome jerks can be identified and given whatever penalty is available, and more importantly that they can feel the contempt of the whole world for their cruel, sadistic excuse for "fun".

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who Is Your Favorite Animated Squirrel?

Although the most popular cartoon characters seem to be cats, mice, and birds, a few animated squirrels have entertained us through the years. I present here some of the most popular cartoon squirrels, starting with Chip and Dale in the 1940s through Sandy Cheeks. If you look on the sidebar to the right of this post, you will find a poll where you can vote on your favorite.

Because I am focusing on cartoon squirrels seen primarily on television, I am not including the popular prehistoric squirrel Scrat from the "Ice Age" films, which I have not seen. I am also not including any characters from last year's film "The Nut Job" which received poor reviews and was not a big box office success.

Chip and Dale
The two Disney chipmunks made their first appearance in the short film "Private Pluto" in 1943. Most of their early appearances were as antagonists to either Pluto or, more often, Donald Duck. Only three shorts were made featuring Chip and Dale as the principle characters, all of these in the early 1950s. In 1989 the pair were given their own series, "Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers."

At first nearly identical, eventually minor differences in appearance were added--Chip given a smaller black nose, smoother head fur, centered front teeth, and slightly darker color--so that viewers could more easily tell the two apart. One feature that both Chip and Dale lack is the facial stripes which are characteristic of all real chipmunks.


Rocket J. Squirrel
Arguably the iconic animated squirrel, and a favorite from my own childhood, Rocky the Flying Squirrel made his debut in 1959 on "Rocky and His Friends," which later became "The Bullwinkle Show" (today both shows are routinely referred to as "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show"). Rocky was the highly intelligent but somewhat naive and oddly effeminate "straight man" to his amiably goofy best friend Bullwinkle J. Moose. One of the most well-known routines involved Bullwinkle attempting to pull a rabbit out of a top hat, to which Rocky replied "that trick never works!" The pair also took part in adventures that pitted them against their foes Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.

Although billed as a "flying squirrel," Rocky bears little resemblance to the actual mammal, and does not appear to possess a patagium (the skin flap between the fore and hind legs that allow flying squirrels to glide). He does, however, have flying skills that any real flying squirrel would envy, darting through the air and even rocketing between cities.


Secret Squirrel
A spoof of the popular James Bond movie franchise, Secret Squirrel debuted in 1965 on the "Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show." He received his own show the following year, only to be reunited with Atom Ant for one more year in 1967. An updated version of Secret Squirrel ran on "2 Stupid Dogs" starting in 1993.

Secret Squirrel, also known as Agent 000, is a hat-and-trenchcoat-wearing spy who, along with his sidekick Morocco Mole, fights international agents of crime and intrigue using both his intelligence and a collection of guns and gadgets.

Slappy Squirrel
Slappy Squirrel and her nephew Skippy were recurring characters on Animaniacs, which ran from 1993-1998, first on Fox Kids and then on The WB. Reruns continue to appear on various networks to this day. Slappy is presented as an ex-Looney Tunes star whose career has faded. Now a grumpy, somewhat bitter middle-aged squirrel, she lives in a tree with her young nephew who idolizes her. She faces both old foes and everyday annoyances, usually relying on exagerrated and chaotic cartoon violence to solve any and all problems. Like most of the Animaniacs segments, Slappy Squirrel is a fond spoof of old cartoons and movies.


Sandy Cheeks
Sandy Cheeks, who has appeared on "Spongebob Squarepants" since its debut in 1999, is arguably one of the most improbably characters in the history of animation, which is really saying something. An eastern gray squirrel from Texas, she lives in the underwater community of Bikini Bottom with a variety of fish and other marine life, and one yellow household sponge. Sandy lives in a dome, and when moving about underwater she wears a dive suit with a helmet. The source of her oxygen is not clear. The reason for her residence in Bikini Bottom is apparently some sort of scientific research.

Generally Sandy is portrayed as friendly and good natured, but she can also be vindictive and even violent, especially if someone insults Texas. There is a tree inside her dome where she sleeps, and in one episode she is seen hibernating, which tree squirrels in nature do not do.


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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Squirrel Postcards From Russia

I just wanted to share these images of Russian squirrel postcards that I found online. I really don't know anything about them except that they date from the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviet Union couldn't have been ALL bad if they were turning out cards like these. Enjoy!


This one is my favorite.
I believe it says "Happy New Year"


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The Shrew-Faced Squirrel

The shrew-faced squirrel (rhinosciurus laticaudatus) is a ground squirrel that inhabits mature forests of Borneo, Singapore, Sumatra, and the peninsula of Malaysia, and possibly adjacent southern Thailand. Living on the forest floor, it is one of the few squirrels that is mainly insectivorous, foraging for earthworms and insects that include ants, termites, beetles, and grasshoppers, as well as bananas and other fruit.


As its name implies, the shrew-faced squirrel has a long, tapered snout that causes it to superficially resemble the common tree shrew. The long snout, along with reduced upper incisors and a long tongue, is an adaptation to help the squirrel catch and eat insects on the forest floor. The tree shrew, by comparison, has a wider gape than the shrew-faced squirrel, and a longer but less bushy tail. The resemblence between the two species is so close that the people of the region call them by the same name, tupai.

The shrew-faced squirrel is a medium-sized squirrel, about 7.5-9.5 inches in length for the head and body, with a tail about 4-5 inches long. The back fur can be reddish brown or olive brown, with white or yellowish white fur on the belly.


Although not considered a rare or threatened species, the shrew-faced squirrel is secretive and rarely seen. It nests primarily in hollow logs where females give birth to and raise one or two young which are born blind and hairless.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Prince Charles Is a Bloodthirsty Squirrel Killer

Prince Charles is showing his true colors as an environmental hypocrite. Recently the Prince held a meeting with government forestry officials and conservationists at Dumfries House, one of his many luxurious homes. At this meeting the attendees reached a "squirrel accord" which outlines steps to preserve and restore Eurasian red squirrel numbers in the UK. The centerpiece of this accord is, of course, the grisly "culling" (a more polite term for killing) of massive numbers of grey (gray in the US) squirrels. The motivation for the accord is a naive nostalgia for the days when the Eurasian red squirrel was the dominant squirrel species in the British Isles, a day which the Prince refuses to acknowlege is long past.

Grey Squirrel

Grey squirrels have become a popular environmental scapegoat in Great Britain over the past few decades. Introduced to England in 1876 by a wealthy banker who thought that they would liven up the grounds of his estate, the species has spread throughout the island and now outnumbers the red squirrel by a considerable margin. Greys have been blamed for the decline in numbers of the red squirrel, but the truth is much more complex than "conservationists" like Prince Charles would have us believe. The most often-cited cause of the red squirrels' decline is a virus called "squirrel pox" which is deadly to reds but harmless greys, who are blamed for spreading the disease.

But the red squirrel advocates conveniently overlook other causes of the decline, such as habitat loss and urban, suburban, and agricultural development, which have wiped out conifer and mixed forests that the red squirrel depends on. The unfortunate fact is that grey squirrels are much more suited to living in small patches of hardwood forest, yards, and parklands in close proximity to humans than are their red cousins. It is obviously much easier for public figures like Prince Charles to point to a supposed villain, the grey squirrel, than to address the real problems that would require much more time, effort, and (most importantly) money to fix.

Red Squirrel

So what will come of Prince Charles' "squirrel accord?" The same that has been happening now for years. Traps will be set. Terrified grey squirrels will be "humanely" killed by shooting, or by bludgeoning or drowning in burlap sacks. Small localized and temporary increases in red squirrel numbers will be hailed as victories. And in the long run, nothing will change at all. The truth that the Prince and his allies refuse to acknowledge is that the window of opportunity to eradicate the grey squirrel from Britain passed a century ago. Hopefully the red squirrel will adapt and manage to maintain its numbers in some areas, especially the north of England and Scotland where conifer forests remain. But no amount of nostalgia will make the red squirrel the dominant species in the UK as it once was. Those who like Prince Charles want to save this species in Britain need to focus their efforts on habitat restoration and developing a vaccine for squirrel pox virus. They need to ask themselves how long the grey squirrel needs to be established in England before it stops being an "invasive" species and is accepted as part of the environment.

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?