The carefree life of summer is fading and it is time to get to work. Children return to school; animal babies leave their nest, those “to do’s” that we put off in summer are coming to roost, our landscape is giving up and preparing for the winter, and it is time for squirrels to make their presence known.
Squirrels are more active now; the lazy days of summer have given way to a working autumn. The trees are dropping their nuts and squirrels are feasting on them, caching them, and messing with us. Of our local wildlife, squirrels seem to be the most playful and most amused by us humans.
They appear to enjoy our attempts to keep them from bird feeders. Over the years, my husband and I tried all methods of squirrel proof feeders, even employing a battery operated one that acts as a “tilt-o-whirl” when squirrels land on top of them.
We finally realized that we were really just creating a squirrel gymnastics center; and chose to enjoy the show. The squirrels dazzled us with their feats of athletic and mental brilliance. Watching them climb up a greased pole was hysterical. They would take turns until one of them was able to absorb all of the oil and the others found a way to stick their claws into the metal. Squirrel baffles were overcome by jumping from tree branches above, sticking their nails into them and leaning over to get the treats. “Squirrel-proof” feeders that would close when too much weight was on them, would be attacked from above. While squirrels rested, birds got as much food as possible before squirrels returned to the feeders.
Squirrels are also amusing to watch in nature. My neighbor swore that they deliberately pelted him with nuts while he was mowing the lawn. I see them dropping nuts onto the pavement, running down and gathering the exposed meat. Humans help them by stepping on the nuts, so our walkways are now covered with broken shells.
Do squirrels play? Naturalists believe that they do and that their play behavior falls into two categories: solitary play, where an animal will run, climb, jump, twist, tumble and play fight with objects; and social play such as tag or mock fights. Watching them play tag around a tree trunk and race up and down a tree looks like fun, but naturalists believe that these games are a form of play fighting over territory. A squirrel territory can be between 1-25 acres; but except for mating season, they typically overlap peacefully.
My older dog, Annie, who has cataracts and diminished hearing, likes to sit sphinxlike in the grass and watch them play. She silently watches their staccato fluid movements as they search for nuts or sunflower seeds. We call it “Annie TV.” My other dog, Gus, still likes to try to chase squirrels, but he is no match for their speed, their zig-zag pattern, or the plethora of trees in my yard.
In addition to be exceptionally active, squirrels are very busy chattering away these days. They seem to be arguing with each other about which nut belongs to whom. But they are especially talkative to Gus. After dashing up a tree to avoid being caught, they will come down the trunk at a level where he can’t reach them and taunt him “you missed me, you missed me.” To him, it is all in good fun, he and walks away knowing that he is outmaneuvered.
Squirrels have a strong sense of smell. Their sense of smell is so evolved that they can find a cached nut under a foot of snow. Despite this, it is estimated they lose up to 25% of their stored nuts to forgetfulness and animal thievery. Which explains why they dig up all of my planters every week (mistaking my flowers for a newly planted cache) and each year I have an abundance of tree seedlings.
Squirrels also possess sharp hearing, exceptional eyesight, and a good spatial memory (to remember where they stored their nuts). Squirrels are also very intelligent. In Chongqing, China, squirrels have been trained to sniff out illicit drugs. It is not surprising that they are one of the most resilient species in all habitable regions.
They are very busy these days preparing for winter, stuffing their faces with our abundant nuts and caching others. Scientists believe that squirrels organize their nuts more carefully than many of us organize our own food. They appear to organize their nut stash by quality, variety, and possibly even preference. Squirrels “chunk” their nuts and bury different types of nuts in different places depending on the size and quality. They also pretend to bury nuts to throw off potential thieves.
Squirrels in North America used to migrate, the last great squirrel migration of hundreds of thousands of squirrels was recorded in 1968 in Wisconsin. It is believed that since then, this mass migration behavior has gone extinct. After all, with the addition of humans, there is plenty of year round food. Unlike many forest creatures, gray squirrels have successfully adapted to suburban life. They take advantage of our large growth nut trees, our planters (for storage), our birdfeeders, and our fall decorations (pumpkins, corn).
As I was researching squirrels for this article, I discovered that the Eastern Shore has its our own squirrel species, the Delmarva fox squirrel. It resides deep in the forest and, except for its larger size (up to 3 pounds), it looks a lot like a common gray squirrel with a slightly fluffier tail. Unlike its cousin, the Delmarva fox squirrel spends most of its time on the ground, instead of trees. Delmarva fox squirrels live in grown forests near freshwater, and in small woodlands next to crops. Its largest concentrations can be found in Talbot, Kent, Queen Annes, and Dorchester counties, with the most in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. These squirrels has recovered so well from habitat loss that they were taken off the endangered species list in 2015.
So, when you hear the ratcheting, screeching, clicking, or even squealing sounds along with the sound of nuts falling onto the ground, look for our resilient little acrobatic, fluffy-tailed rodents long-jumping along the tree limbs. We even have one of his cousins named after our area. Pretty impressive for a fun loving, little rodent.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.