Happy National Squirrel Appreciation Day!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this holiday, it was founded in 2001 by Christy McKeown, a wildlife rehabilitator in Asheville, North Carolina. The concept is very simple: on January 21st, people can show their appreciation for these little critters by leaving out a little extra food at a time when food resources are especially scarce. People can also start simply by learning about these animals and how to better live with them, so that they can continue to thrive throughout Ohio.
Squirrels are all members of the Sciuridae family, and there are 285 species worldwide. The smallest is the African pygmy, about 5 inches long; the largest is the Indian Giant squirrel, which can grow to be three feet! Squirrels are native to every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. They were introduced in most major city parks in US during the 1850s and ‘60s to bring nature to people who couldn’t get out of the city. Feeding them was a common way to promote kindness to animals.
Most species of squirrel are built very similarly. Their hind limbs are longer than their fore limbs, with 4 to 5 toes per paw. Tree squirrels are able to climb down trees head-first by rotating their hind ankles 180 degrees – this points their paws backwards, allowing them to grip the tree bark. They have excellent senses of touch, due to whiskers on their limbs as well as their heads. They also have very developed vision, indicated by their large eyes. Squirrels’ incisors are always growing due to their constant gnawing, at a rate of about 6 inches per year.
Squirrels cannot digest cellulose, a component of many plants. As a result, they must rely on foods rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fats. This makes early spring a difficult time in temperate regions, because buried nuts begin to sprout and are unavailable as food, but new food sources are not yet available. Most squirrels have diets consisting of nuts, seeds, conifer cones, fruits, fungi, and some green vegetation. Some squirrels will also consume meat when faced with hunger: mostly insects, eggs, small birds, young snakes, and smaller rodents. Some even eat tree sap!
Squirrels in Ohio
The most common squirrel types in Ohio are the Eastern Gray squirrel, the Fox squirrel, the Red squirrel, the Southern Flying squirrel, and the Thirteen-Lined Ground squirrel. Groundhogs are also a member of the squirrel family, although most people don’t associate them with typical squirrels.
Eastern Gray squirrels were very common across Ohio when the state was first populated. So popular, in fact, that early laws required taxpayers to turn in a quota of squirrel skins along with tax payments, to prevent disruptions to agricultural development. However, their numbers eventually began to dwindle, and by 1885, hunting laws were enacted the restricted the hunting seasons and bag limits. They are polygamous, meaning that males mate with more than one female, and typically breed twice a year. Some scientists think that running up and down trees is part of a courtship ritual for these animals. Males have no role in rearing the young, which typically takes place in leaf nests (found in the crotches of tree branches) or dens (formed in hollow trunks or branches). Baby squirrels (called “kittens”) are completely dependent upon their mothers until 14-15 weeks of age, when they will venture out to live independently. However, some families stay together for as long as 9 months. Eastern Grays can usually be found in large expanses of hardwood trees.
Eastern Gray squirrels are typically gray in color, sometimes with a reddish tint, and a gray-white belly. However, there are some “melanistic subgroups” of this particular species. This means that Eastern Gray squirrels can vary in color, ranging from being completely white to completely black. A common example of this is the Black squirrel, which can be seen in many areas throughout Ohio.
Fox squirrels are the largest species of squirrel in Ohio. They resemble the Eastern gray but they are larger and much more orange in color, sometimes appearing yellowish-gray. They were not originally inhabitants of the Buckeye State, but moved into the area from the Midwest when settlers cleared away the woods and provided more open areas. Male Fox squirrels, when attempting to mate, initiate a chase of the female that leads to mating. They are similar to Eastern Gray squirrels in that they are polygamous and breed twice a year. The males have no role in rearing young, who are completely dependent on their mothers for the first 5 weeks to 3 months of life. Fox squirrels typically live in woodlots 10 to 20 acres in size; young are raised in either leaf nests or dens. Fox squirrels make use of a number of tree types for shelter, including hickory, oak, beech, black walnut, maple, elm, and buckeye.
Red squirrels are usually uniformly red in color with a white belly. However, they experience a large amount of color variation between populations and during different times of the year – their coats frequently become gray during the winter, for example. They have distinctive ear tufts, giving their ears a tall, pointed appearance. Unlike most other squirrels, who bury their food, red squirrels store conifer cones in middens, or piles. These middens can reach up to 30 feet across and 1.5 feet deep! They also mate twice a year, and nest either in leaf nests or dens. Like Fox squirrels, males will chase the female before mating with her. Red squirrels prefer coniferous of mixed forests, and are often found around large structures.
The Southern Flying squirrel is actually the most common type of squirrel in Ohio. However, most people aren’t aware that they live around flying squirrels. They are seldom seen because they are nocturnal. They don’t actually fly; they glide, using a flap of skin called a “gliding membrane” that extends from their wrists to their ankles. When stretched, it allows them to glide distances up to 150 feet. Southern Flying squirrels are olive-brown in color, with white bellies. They breed twice a year like most squirrels, and usually nest in hollow trees. They prefer woodlands or forests with deciduous or mixed types of trees.
The Thirteen-Lined Ground squirrel is named for the 13 white stripes on its sides and back, on a brown background. They are typically 7 to 12 inches long. Unlike tree squirrels, they live in extensive ground burrows that they dig to escape predators. They are in hibernation for six months out of the year, and breed only once in the springtime, immediately after hibernation. Kittens mature quite quickly, leaving the burrow after a month to live independently. They are found in open short- and mid-grass prairies. They frequently crop up on golf courses, so tread with caution the next time you decide to play a round!
Many homeowners are bursting with anecdotes about the squirrels in their area – but some squirrel stories are more infamous than others. For example, the NASDAQ stock market was shut down twice – in 1987 and in 1994 – due to squirrels chewing through power lines. In 2011, an Eastern Gray squirrel ran onto the field during the Major League Baseball playoffs, becoming an impromptu mascot for the St. Louis Cardinals. They went on to win the World Series!
In 2010, a study found that some squirrels collect old rattlesnake skins to chew on. They then lick their fur and cover themselves with the scent of the rattlesnakes, helping them to hide from predators who hunt by scent. But don’t think that they’re not also capable of predation. Thirteen-Lined Ground squirrels have been observed performing a number of predatory behaviors. A scientist in the 1920s observed one of these squirrels preying upon a young chicken! Others have reported seeing them eat snakes, and further studies have found that they eat birds, shrews, lizards, and other rodents.
Celebrate and Appreciate!
So what can you do to help out some of Ohio’s favorite critters? As it turns out, lots!
For one, simply providing a little extra food for them can help them survive during harsh winters. Nuts, seeds, suet, and even buds from trees are all excellent foods for squirrels. However, be careful not to provide too many unusual treats; things like peanut butter are alright occasionally, but can cause health problems for the squirrels. Also, avoid feeding them too regularly, as you don’t want them becoming dependent upon provided food.
That being said, if you want to make a one-time treat for your local squirrels, it’s easy to make a squirrel feeder! Simply spread peanut butter over a pine cone, making sure to get it into all the crevices of the cone. Hang it from the branch of a tree a good distance away from any bird feeders, and voila! A treat for the furry friends in your yard.
If you want to do something a bit more involved, you can actually certify your own garden or yard to attract wildlife, including squirrels! It’s called a Certified Wildlife Habitat, and there are over 176,000 in the US. You need food sources (native plants, seeds, fruits, nuts, berries), water sources (birdbaths, ponds, water gardens, streams), cover (thickets, housing boxes, mature trees), and places to raise young (dense shrubs, vegetation, nesting boxes). Check out this article for information on how to register.
Clearly, there are many ways to celebrate National Squirrel Appreciation Day, from simply learning about squirrels to helping to feed and house them. But the point of the holiday is to understand that our environment evolved and grew with these animals, and that it couldn’t function without them. We should appreciate them for the role they play in the natural world, whether it’s on another continent or in our own backyards here in the Buckeye State. Spread the word, and go squirrels! – Samantha West
Samantha West is a senior Zoology major at Ohio Wesleyan University. She has loved animals and wildlife since childhood, and hopes to work in species conservation upon graduation.