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Early one spring on Southern California's Black Mountain, a quail stands on a tree stump at the edge of a clearing in a forest of conifers. The bird does not seem to notice that it is being stalked at this very moment by...a fox? A coyote? Elmer Fudd? No, a squirrel. A western gray tree squirrel, to be precise. Hunkered down in a predatory crouch, the squirrel approaches with a rustle of fallen pine needles and tree leaves. When the rodent is within a few inches of the stump, it pounces upon the quail, a brief struggle ensues, but the quail escapes, leaving the luckless squirrel to try again later.
Biologist J.R. Callahan, of the University of New Mexico, recounted his observation of this stealth squirrel in a recent article in the scientific journal Great Basin Naturalist, in which he showed that the bushy-tailed animals we think of as cute little park dwellers have a dark side. Callahan compiled a list of squirrel victims that range from doves, blue jays and other birds to lizards, rabbits, mice and even other squirrels.
The whole squirrel family gets into the act. A 1991 study showed that tree squirrels were the chief predators of juvenile snowshoe hares in parts of British Columbia. Ground squirrels feed on other burrowers, such as moles and gophers. Chipmunks living along coastal Mexico eat crabs, while some U.S. chipmunks indulge in lizards and eggs.
Callahan suspects that squirrels prey on other animals not for the meat, but for the bones. One bird-killing fox squirrel, for example, avoided the meat of its prey and gnawed the bones. Callahan hypothesizes that squirrels may supplement their predominantly vegetable-food diet with animal matter during seasonal declines in certain plant food nutrients.