Crazy Over Squirrels

Americans are schizoid about gray squirrels—a scourge to some, a delight to others

12-01-1997 // Michael Lipske
Gray squirrel in tree

SHE CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF THEM, lavishes food on them in her backyard, even had one painted—bushy tail and all—running across the rear of her motorcycle helmet.

HE CAN’T STAND THE SIGHT OF THEM, begrudges each pilfered sunflower seed, even wrote a book—his best-seller—on outwitting the furry freeloaders.

She—Iris Rothman, Washington, D.C., writer, editor and squirrel lover—started out like many, a simple feeder of birds. But the dark-eyed thieves taking her birdseed also managed to steal her heart.

“Birds are more beautiful, but beauty isn’t everything,” she says. She found herself admiring the cleverness of squirrels, their gusto. “They do have just sort of a joie de vivre.” Besides, “I realized that all my efforts to keep them away were going to fail.”

He—Bill Adler, Jr., Washington, D.C., writer, literary agent and squirrel loather—has drawn a line in the birdseed. “Squirrels have a brain the size of a peanut,” he says. “And yet they constantly outwit humans. They’re a menace to birdfeeding.” Adler decided long ago, “My mission was going to be figuring out ways to thwart squirrels.”

Adler and Rothman represent extremes in human response to that remarkable, and remarkably vexing, native American mammal known as the eastern gray squirrel.

Able to gain tall birdfeeders in a single bound, and to empty one in half a morning, the roughly one-pound rodent with the plumed tail seems to delight as many people as it infuriates. Gray squirrels are even making friends and enemies in England, having crossed the Atlantic (with human help) decades ago.

The eastern gray, Sciurus carolinensis, is one of eight species of tree-dwelling squirrels (ten if you count flying squirrels) that live in the United States. At home in woods and towns from Maine to the Dakotas and south into Florida and Texas, the creatures rarely venture far from the safety and convenient nesting places found in trees. Females often have two litters a year (one in late winter and one in late summer), and will move the young to a new nest when the flea population becomes too large.

Trees provide the staples of the gray squirrel's diet: hickory nuts, beechnuts and acorns. But the creature’s tastes are surprisingly wide, bordering on epicurean: truffles and other fungi, fruit, insects, meat (baby birds, for example), tree buds and, as every bird lover knows, birdseed.

The creatures’ diet and their habits result in Americans being of two minds when it comes to their furry-tailed neighbors. In public opinion polls, squirrels usually rank first as troublemakers among urban animals. Gardeners grit their teeth and homeowners howl when squirrels nip buds off trees, uproot flower bulbs and invade attics to raise families. The Adlers among us mutter about rodents on welfare when the brazen animals loot “squirrelproof” birdfeeders.

Meanwhile, the nation’s Rothmans delight in the antics of one of the few wild mammals that, like people, keeps daylight hours, and one that is not too proud or shy to hustle for peanuts in city parks—which is why squirrels also rank at the top of lists of preferred urban wildlife.

Entrepreneurs understand Americans’ schizophrenia when it comes to squirrels. “All you’ll feed are birds” promises the maker of a feeder that delivers a mild electric shock—“a small correction,” according to product literature—to any squirrel messing with the battery-charged device. “Stop the War! Feed the Squirrels!” trumpets another company, this one offering several feeders just for bushy-tailed rodents.

Nuts About Squirrels

The war stopped long ago at Iris Rothman’s home. While she shows a visitor her squirrel figurines on shelves and her collection of squirrel refrigerator magnets, three or four real, live, hungry squirrels scamper back and forth on the deck outside her kitchen door. One animal yanks insistently at an empty feeder hanging above the deck. It’s squirrel dinnertime, and Rothman steps outside to refill a few of the more than a dozen feeders squirreled away in her townhouse yard.

“People should stop fighting squirrels and just enjoy them,” insists Rothman, with a perky enthusiasm suggestive of her favorite rodent. “They are one of the very few wild animals you can actually observe up close.” Rothman praises squirrels for their athleticism, sleek good looks and craftiness.

Gray squirrel

Asked how much money she spends on seed for her backyard beasts, she turns coy, explaining that she doesn’t want her husband to read the figure in print. “But it is my only extravagance,” she says in self defense. And she suggests that to sample someone really “c-r-a-a-a-z-y about squirrels,” try calling Gregg Bassett.

Imagine a middle-aged gent with sideburns and slicked-back hair, a squirrel clinging to his T-shirt where it covers the gentle slope of his belly. The squirrel’s nose nearly touches the man’s as the animal uses its teeth to take a peanut from the man’s mouth. This is the photo of Gregg Bassett that comes with an application for membership in The Squirrel Lover’s Club.

“I’ve become very good friends with squirrels,” says Bassett. A resident of the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, he runs a company that sells what he calls “unique pet supplies, things like videotapes cats watch.” He used to think if you’d seen one squirrel you’d seen them all. That was before Bassett began hand-feeding his backyard squirrels, before he realized that the common everyday squirrel has “tons of personality,” and before he launched The Squirrel Lover’s Club in August 1995.

Twelve dollars a year brings you the newsletter (called In a Nutshell) and the warm feeling that comes from joining more than 600 other squirrel nuts from 37 states and six countries. A few squirrel-world bigwigs belong to the club, like Chuck and Lou Ann Best, owners of Twiggy the waterskiing squirrel, a furry fixture on the boat-show circuit.

There is a serious side to the club. Just maybe, hopes Bassett, the squirrel lovers can reach out and convert some squirrel haters. “Not everybody,” he concedes. “There’s some people that are never going to like squirrels no matter what. Hey, that’s okay. But a few of them ...”

"Common Thieves Shrouded in Fur"

“The enemy” is how Bill Adler, Jr., refers to Bassett. No guy who practically kisses squirrels is going to soften up Adler. Not that Adler truly hates squirrels. He has taken their measure and judged them valuable—as worthy foes. “I mean, we don’t have the Russians anymore,” he explains. “So we need something, and that something is squirrels.”

In the second edition of his book, Outwitting Squirrels, Adler expresses his “opinion that squirrels are just common thieves shrouded in fur, with cute, fluffy tails. If you feed birds—beautiful, majestic, creatures of the wind—then you must also curse squirrels. And work to outwit them.”

Squirrels are well-equipped to get along without purloined birdseed, researchers point out. For example, everyone knows squirrels bury acorns to tide them over winter. For several years, ecologist Michael Steele of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, has been studying what the animals are really up to.

When an acorn sprouts, its energy transfers to the taproot, making the seed less valuable as food. In field experiments in which they presented different kinds of acorns to wild squirrels, Steele and his colleague, Peter Smallwood of the University of Richmond, found that the animals bury nuts from red oaks (which do not sprout until spring) but immediately eat acorns from white oaks (which sprout soon after hitting the ground and are thus more perishable).

Steele and his colleagues have also found that squirrels in a few cases come back to their caches of red oak acorns in spring and—with a scrape from their teeth—kill the seed embryos before they germinate; they then rebury the acorns for later eating.

Recently, Steele has witnessed squirrels going through the motions of hiding a nut without actually burying it. After creating a few fake caches, the squirrel finally buries its acorn, behavior that amounts to a shell game to confuse cache robbers such as blue jays and chipmunks.

One thing researchers don’t have a good handle on is just how many eastern gray squirrels are out there. According to Vagn Flyger, a squirrel expert and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, when scientists have tried to guess how many squirrels live even in small areas of forest (basing their estimates on how many animals could be spotted), it often turned out that “there were about six times as many squirrels in the woods than you can see.”

Thanks to all the supplemental food available in cities and suburbs, squirrels are able to reach densities that they could never really reach out in wild areas, says Bill Bridgeland, a Maryland urban wildlife biologist specializing in solving homeowners’ nuisance-animal problems. “Out of all the wildlife I deal with— snakes, bats, raccoons, birds, possums, skunks—squirrels are number one in terms of the calls I get,” says Bridgeland. He has removed squirrels from attics, eaves, cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, ventilation ducts and living rooms, as well as from hospitals and nursing homes.

Annoying as a squirrel in the house can be, Bridgeland says we usually have ourselves to blame. Adult female squirrels “don’t just gnaw their way through” homes when seeking a den site, he says. They look for some kind of opening, such as a loose board or unscreened vent pipe.

Some interactions between squirrels and humanity qualify as more than mere nuisances. Take, for example, the squirrel that climbed onto an 11,000-volt power line above commuter rail tracks in Connecticut in September 1995. The animal created a short circuit that not only toasted itself but also led to a power failure that idled 47,000 train riders for several hours. Another adventurous Connecticut squirrel was blamed for shutting down Nasdaq, the computer-based stock trading network, for half an hour in August 1994, after the animal disrupted power from an electric utility.

Trouble Abroad

At least these are American problems caused by American squirrels. But our native gray squirrel has been making trouble abroad. Charmed by its snappy looks and winning ways, Victorian collectors took the gray squirrel to Britain during the nineteenth century. Now the American import threatens to wipe out the United Kingdom’s native red squirrel. “The grays don’t go around beating the reds up,” says Tom Tew, a scientist with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which advises the British government. But grays outcompete reds, for example, by being better able to use resources such as acorns.

Conservationists hope to tip the scales in favor of red squirrels in places where the natives have managed to hold on. They are experimenting with food hoppers designed to feed only red squirrels, or to poison only gray squirrels. But persuading the average English squirrel lover that it’s necessary to kill grays hasn’t been easy.

“Part of the problem we have as nature conservationists is, of course, that the gray squirrel is a very lovable rogue,” says Tew. “It’s a cute animal.”

The gray squirrel is indeed one adorable ugly American. Those bright eyes, those little paws made for holding peanuts, that billowing tail—all help us forget that it is just another rodent, like other less-loved rodents.

“Maybe if the tail wasn’t quite so fluffy people wouldn’t feel the same,” muses Tew. “Because,” he adds coolly, “it would look a lot more like a rat.”

Since writing this article, Washington, D.C., journalist Michael Lipske reports that he has become “a peanut-tossing slave to the greedy squirrels that act like they own my backyard.”

To Feed or Not?

If you can’t beat ’em, feed ’em, could be the motto of The Squirrel Lover’s Club president Gregg Bassett. Some backyard birders, however, take outwitting squirrels as a personal challenge. Here are their tips for foiling birdseed bandits:

  • Mount your birdfeeder on a metal pole at least 8 feet from the nearest branches and 5 feet from the ground. Attach a baffle (a large circular piece of plastic or a pipe at least 6 inches in diameter with a sealed top) 3 or 4 feet from the ground to keep the squirrels from climbing up.

  • Suspend your feeder from a wire between two trees or poles, at least 5 feet from the ground. String several old record albums on the wire to create a spinning squirrel-deterrence system on both sides of the feeder.

  • Buy a squirrelproof feeder. One of the best, says NWF naturalist Craig Tufts, is a sheet-metal feeder with a pivoting perch. The weight of a squirrel causes the perch to swing downward, closing a metal lid over the birdseed.

  • “Run outside yelling and waving your arms every time a squirrel appears,” writes Bill Adler, Jr., in his book, Outwitting Squirrels. “Not only will you scare squirrels away, but you’ll get terrific exercise.”

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