Squirrels have been around for 40 million years, but we’re just beginning to understand them.
Squirrels must be doing something right. Or a lot of things. We think of them as cute or pests, but there’s much more to them.
They are the oldest surviving mammals. Earth has endured squirrels for 40 million years. All this with a walnut-size brain that’s getting smaller over the ages.
Their habitat has changed from the deep woods to urban sprawl. No matter. They can adjust to anything. (Squirrels usually are the first creatures to re-inhabit volcano zones.)
Our gray, brown and black squirrels build nests in trees. They look sloppy, leaves and twigs, but are engineered to protect against blizzards.
Squirrels do not hibernate. They will spend long periods in their nests during bad weather. It’s only one squirrel per nest, but if the weather is severely cold, they will gang up in one nest for the body heat. Then when the weather clears, the visitors take off, thank you.
Squirrels are rumored to be prolific breeders, but they’re usually limited to one litter of four per year. The youngsters mate after they are a year old. Most are born in springtime after a 33-day gestation period.
Mama squirrel is picky about partners but hardly monogamous. She tries to mate the strongest and best looking of the herd. Then that’s it for him; she will not return. This is a key to their survival, as it prevents inbreeding.
Squirrels have incredible sensory powers, starting with their eyes placed high on their heads. This gives them a wide view without having to turn.
Their sense of smell beats a bloodhound. They know a human or predator is present long before they see him. Perhaps you have watched a squirrel peeling an acorn and then washing it with its tongue. This deposits his scent on it. He then will find it buried even under a foot of snow months later.
Squirrels are one of the few animals that sweat from their feet. This allows them to lay down a scent in wide areas and marks their personal territories.
Unlike other creatures, they cannot digest carbohydrates. That limits them to protein from nuts, fruit and oil seeds. If food sources end, they will eat insects and become carnivores, eating dead animals.
They are nature’s comedians. They love to run and play. A favorite is jumping from tree top to tree top — flying. They are nosy. Squirrels like to look into our windows and see what’s going on.
Their inquisitiveness gets them into trouble with humans. A squirrel will find its way down a chimney or through an open window and tear up a house trying to escape. The only solution is to trap them.
They show a superiority bent, and that is the downfall for them. When squirrels sense danger, they freeze. Then they get run over by vehicles. Traffic is their No. 1 killer.
They do not need humans or dependency on them for food. Squirrels find plenty and never starve. Their worst time is early spring when the nuts they planted are sprouting. Then they will nibble tree buds.
Brown and gray squirrels are indigenous almost everywhere. Two grays mating might produce a black one. These are black to hide them in deep forests. Blacks are smaller overall and more aggressive.
Squirrels are easily trained if food is involved. They can become pets, but domesticating them may harm them. They’ve done just fine in 40 million years on their own. It’s best to enjoy them but not to become part of their lives.
Contact Jim Hillibish at firstname.lastname@example.org.