Squirrels and Humans: “Of Least Concern”

Photo courtesy of "Western Fields" by the California Game and Fish Protective Associations published in 1902.

Photo courtesy of “Western Field” by the California Game and Fish Protective Associations, published in 1902.

Project Life Overlooked: When deciding what species to pick for this project, it took a while to decide which way to turn. I did not know if I should search for the most complicated species, or the most beautiful, or the most interesting or the most controversial. That is generally what I associate with good work; picking something with the most “interesting” of qualities and displaying all its intricacies. Eventually I realized, often times the most common place of things (or in this case of species) can be just as complex and worthy of awe.

The GTA is home to both the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). The Grey Squirrel is considered the invasive of the two, while the Red Squirrel is considered the victimized native species. They are ever present; in our gardens, in our gutters, in our parks and in our bird feeders.

Through my research, I have come to find that the Grey Squirrel is villanized almost world-wide. Through our concern for the conservation of “native” species, and the concern for the aesthetics of our houses, we have failed to take notice of the incredible life story of our fellow Torontonians.

Squirrels are ever present in GTA life. But what do we know about them? Not many of us realize that we share a landscape, a time pattern, many calculative behaviours, and shocking fecundity. Furthermore, the ICUN deems us both “of least concern” (IUCN, 2008).

This project seeks to push past the surface perception many city dwellers have of the squirrels, and the Grey Squirrel in particular. I hope to present an in depth scope of their intricate lives, as well as the different ways the lives of humans and squirrels interact. Enjoy the following video of a squirrel camera trap. It is not often we get the opportunity to appreciate these light-footed and quickly fleeing beings. You will hear the vocalizations we often only hear coming out of the tree.


Photo courtesy of "Portraits at the Zoo" by Ellen Velvin, published in 1915.

Photo courtesy of “Portrait at the Zoo” (1915) by Ellen Velvin.


It is often thought that grey, brown, black, and white squirrels are different species, when in fact they are simply variant morphs of the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Naughton, 2012. p. 39). Nonetheless, grey is the most common coat of Sciurus carolinensis (p. 39).
The ankles on the hind legs of the Grey squirrel rotate 180 degrees, which allows them to face in the opposite direction of its front legs when descending a tree head first (p. 40; Downie, 2014). They also see in colour and their eyesight is very sharp. This is especially true in the red-green spectrum, which, it is believed, helps them in locating food (p. 40).                                                                                                                                                                                                &

The white morph of the Eastern Grey Squirrel is rare (2012. p. 39), and Torontonians have made a competitive sport out of reporting spottings of the infamous and elusive albino squirrel of Trinity Bell Woods park. Sadly enough, while searching for photos of our rare friend, I learned he passed away                          this August of 2014, being found hanging from a hydro wire, electrocuted to death (Blog TO, 2014).

The Elusive Albino Eastern Grey Squirrel of Trinity Bellwoods Park. Photo courtesy of Blog TO, August 2014. May he rest in peace.

The Elusive Albino Eastern Grey Squirrel of Trinity Bellwoods Park. Photo courtesy of Blog TO, August 2014. May he rest in peace.

Grey Squirrels are sexually monomorphic, meaning the males and females are similar in size, and they are the heaviest in the fall season, which is accredited to access to an abundance of bird feeders (Naughton, p. 40). Their diet consists of many items including seeds, nuts, flowers, bark (p. 41).
Grey Squirrel and Red Squirrel females will mate and reproduce often before their first birthday (p. 42). Grey Squirrel males are ready to mate as soon as their testes descend from their abdomen (p. 42), and Red Squirrel males when the testes finally enlarge (p. 83). Both species’ females will be in oestrus for eight hours (p. 42). While Grey Squirrel females will mate with many partners, male Grey Squirrel sperm coagulates into a plug, which, unless the female removes it during grooming, decreases the likelihood of suitors after the first mate impregnating her (p. 42).
Both species use tree cavities in the winter and dreys (nests made of leaves) in the warmer months (p. 41; Mammals of Toronto, 2012). Grey Squirrels will also leave their nests in search for food every day in the winter, whereas the Red Squirrel is more likely to stay in its nest or tree cavity to retain warmth (Mammals of Toronto, 2012).
Grey Squirrels are diurnal, which means they are active and complete their tasks during the day, and rest at night (p. 41; Downie, 2014). Red Squirrels are relatively diurnal, but are known to continue activity well into the night (p. 82). Whereas Red Squirrels are more prevalent in cottage country, the Grey Squirrel dominates city life, making them no stranger to Torontonians (p. 82) Recent surveys say that the population of squirrels in cities is ten times greater than that of the rural settings, and this is most likely due to the abundance of food to be found (Downie, 2014). Grey Squirrels share a schedule and landscape with Torontonians, which might explain their seemingly constant presence (Downie, 2014). While they are regarded as a pest and nuisance, in fact, they are simply living their lives in perfect time with us.

Photo courtesy of "Wild Scenes of the World" (2815) by Charles Webber.

Photo courtesy of “Wild Scenes of the World” by Charles Webber, published in 1815.

Whether or not squirrels remember the location of their nut caches has been a contested topic for many years (Naughton, p. 41). There are conflicting reports to be found throughout the literature. While the Toronto Wildlife Guide rejects the notion of memory and attributes cache recovery in squirrels to powerful olfactory abilities which they employ within inches of the caches, Professor Mike Steele of Pennsylvania (who has been studying North American squirrels for over 20 years) is proving otherwise (Downie, 2014). A recent episode of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s The Nature of Things entitled “Nuts about Squirrels”, hosted by David Suzuki, gives insight into the findings of his recent research (Downie, 2014). Steele and his students focused on a particular park in Pennsylvania, inserted tracking tags into individual acorns (2014). They then threw them in the direction of a squirrel with the hopes it would run after it, and bury it in a cache. Once the chosen squirrel successfully buried several of these doctored acorns, they would trap the squirrel and remove it from the park (2014). GPS coordinates were then taken of each cache location, and they would then wait for several weeks. After the allotted period of time, the GPS coordinates were used to relocate the caches to check if the doctored acorns were discovered by another squirrel (presumably using their olfactory senses) or if it was still buried (as the one who buried it had been removed) (2014). The goal of the study was to see if a buried acorn was the “domain of a single squirrel” (2014). After several weeks, the researchers found that very large numbers of the cached acorns remained buried in the absence of their burier (2014). Furthermore, after checking the cache locations 36 hours after the test squirrel was released back into its home range, they found almost all of the acorns it had buried had been dug up (2014). These results suggest that memory plays a great role in cache recovery in squirrels (2014).
One of the main question that arises from this this study is then how does the squirrel remember? Steele answers this question by pointing to triangulation (2014). Triangulation is a process in which a squirrel will select a site for a cache using a particular “distance to and angle of fixed objects, like trees and rocks…these landmarks will later guide it back to the exact location of each acorn” (2014). Steele also notes that squirrels have a mental capacity to remember the location of hundreds of acorns by means of triangulation (2014).
Further than triangulation, there is another impressive behaviour that has been discovered in squirrels – deception.

Photo courtesy of "Bannertail: The Story of a Gray Squirrel" by Ernest Thompson Seton, published in 1922.

Photo courtesy of “Bannertail: The Story of a Gray Squirrel” by Ernest Thompson Seton, published in 1922.

Deception is observed in many animals, but it was not until recently that deceptive behaviour has been observed in a species other than a captive bred and kept primates (Steele et al, 2007). These observations also result from studies conducted in laboratories; all other instances of deceptive behaviour observations are generally hard to credit as they are anecdotal and not properly documented (2007).
Behavioural deception involves the “use of false signals to modify the behaviour of a receiver in a way that benefits the sender, at some cost to the receiver” (2007). Primates, and now in the case of squirrels, actually engage in a variation of behavioural deception called “tactical deception” (2007). This differs greatly from other forms of deception like morphological deception, which would, for example, mimicking another species’ color pattern (Osvath and Karvonen, 2012). On the contrary, it is a chosen and deliberate behaviour, which is: “under normal circumstances…presented “honestly”, however in this case it is used tactfully to deceive” (2012).
Dr. Mike Steele and his colleagues (Steele et al,2007), in their article Cache protection strategies of scatter-hoarding rodent: Do tree squirrels engage in behavioural deception? conducted the first behavioural deception study with rodents (2007). It is also the first study of its kind to be conducted on wild, as opposed to captive, animals (2007).
This study focused on wild living Eastern Grey Squirrels, monitoring their deceptive caching behaviour. If in proximity to a noticed conspecific, the squirrel would dig a hole in the ground, with the desired nut hidden in its mouth, and pretend to bury it, covering the hole diligently as it would were it a real cache of its own (2007). In many instances, the squirrel would dig several “pretend” caches (2007). The study concludes that the Eastern Grey Squirrel will “cover empty sites in the course of caching food, either before or after the food item is cached. The results of this study strongly suggest that this behaviour functions to deceive potential pilferers that may be watching and to decrease the probability of losing caches to them” (2007).

The realm of robotics has recently started utilizing the deceptive patterns in squirrel behaviour to develop military robots capable of predicting deception, engaging in deception, and reacting to deception (Shim and Arkin, 2013). In this study, new algorithms modelled on squirrel deceptive behaviour were created to allow for deceptive behaviour in the robot prototypes (2013). Shim and Arkin, the authors of this ongoing effort, state: “Deceptive behaviour in robots is potentially beneficial in several domains ranging from the military to a more everyday context” (2013).


Photo courtesy of the New York Tribune of May 2, 1909.

Photo courtesy of the New York Tribune of May 2, 1909.

INVASION?                          Regardless of their impressive and positive attributes and abilities, the Grey Squirrel, which was introduced and is not “native”, has been villanized in many countries. To put this in perspective, the North American Red Squirrel density is approximately 0.2 to 4.5 per ha, while Grey Squirrels density is 21 per hectare (Naughton, 2012, p. 42; p. 83). The Grey squirrel was introduced to places such Canada, Britain, the United States and South Africa (Signorile et al, 2014). Being highly adaptable is what lead the Grey Squirrel to successfully survive and ultimately proliferate in the UK after a few introductions in the earlier 1800’s by the British themselves who enjoyed the small and acrobatic squirrels (2014). Italy is now experiencing population growths of Grey Squirrels and considers them a pest with grave consequences (2014). Grey Squirrels were first introduced in 1948 in Turin, and so are relatively new to the country (2014). The most recent population spike is in Perugia, Italy, after a couple Grey Squirrels were bought and kept on display in a park, but escaped (2014). While this does not immediately seem like an issue, it is important to note that a Grey Squirrel population can grow quite rapidly starting with only a few individuals (2014). As in Canada and the UK, conservationists in Italy are concerned that the Eastern Grey Squirrel is out competing the native Red Squirrel. Furthermore, while the Grey Squirrel will live approximately 9-13 years, 60% of Red Squirrels die in their first year of life, 80% in their second year, and 90% in their third (Naughton, 2012, p. 83).
In Canada, the Grey Squirrel was introduced in Stanley park in 1909, Manitoba in the 1930’s and later to various places such as Vancouver Island, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Nova Scotia (p. 40).

In British Columbia the Grey Squirrel appears to be of much greater concern than it is currently of in Ontario. The BC government states that Grey Squirrels can be hunted all year long without a licence or permit (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, 2014). There is also currently an outreach program which encourages citizens to report sightings to the Ministry (2014). The goal of the outreach program is to educate citizens so that they will know which squirrels are native and which are invasive, to encourage citizens to report sightings, and to decrease the spread of the Grey Squirrel (2014). In their FAQ section, they promise not to harm the Grey Squirrels which are located thanks to sighting reports, and they list methods for pest control (2014). Such suggestions include not feeding or relocating them, adding a squirrel deterrent to bird feeders, hiring a trapping company or trapping them personally- no expertise required (2014). As mentioned, Section C of the Wildlife Act allows them to be captured and killed at any point throughout the year, and conclude by urging citizens to use “humane euthanasia”, but no suggestions as how to proceed in humane killing are supplied (Wildlife Act, 1996). British Columbia has also established a “citizen science” component to their outreach program, with a network of volunteers dedicating their time to trapping and recording Grey Squirrels (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, 2014). Also, from 2009/2010, the BC government conducted a test project where they injected hormonal contraceptives into 40 Grey Squirrels and monitored the population (British Columbia Ministry of Environment, 2014). The results showed a small decline in population and this method is now considered a potentially viable option for population control by the government (2014).
Ontario, on the other hand, considers the Grey Squirrel small game mammals and one require a hunting version of the Outdoors Card and a Small Game licence tag to hunt and kill them, whereas the Flying Squirrel is listed as “specially protected” (Ontario Ministry of Environment, 2014).

There are many organizations internationally which are undertaking the task of conserving the Red Squirrel along with British Columbia. Some of these organizations are Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrel (SSRS), and Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RRST) and Red Squirrel Northern England (RSNE) out of England. RSNE’s project Manager, Nick Mason, spoke with David Suzzuki in the Nature of Things episode Nuts about Squirrels and explained that “cranial dispatch” is the method they recommend for Grey Squirrel extermination, he believes it is the most humane way with which to dispose of the species (Downie, 2014). Cranial dispatch, which essentially means shooting the squirrel in the head with a gun (of any size), has actually been a conflicting issue in Scotland. While cranial dispatch was originally suggested as a mean of culling the Grey Squirrel, news reports later came out in 2012 that one could be jailed for violating the Animal Health and Welfare Act of 2006 (Deadline News, 2012). The issue is then complicated further by the fact that it is also illegal to release a Grey Squirrel once it has been trapped (2012). Some then suggest not bothering to catch the squirrel in the first place.

Cranial Dispatch Cranial dispatch, eh?- You want to blow my small brain straight out the back of my head, do you?- You want to exterminate me, do you?- Me, who is in your “garden”?-
Me, who is taking seeds and nuts?- Me, the one burying them?-
How about I point to you?-
You, who built your “garden” in my home range.- My family’s been here longer than your family.- You, who fragments and cuts down forests, while I grow them.- Why are you taking sides?-
I take a lot of seed, you know?- Well, you know.-
Twenty percent of those seeds grow, you know?- Well, you don’t know.-
Cranial dispatch, eh?-
Which one is your garden again?- S. Iannicello, written while feeling restless on behalf of the voiceless Grey Squirrel

Contesting the notion of “humane”


Photo courtesy of "The History of Sumatra" retrieved from the British Library

Photo courtesy of “The History of Sumatra” retrieved from the British Library

Seeking out a variety of representations of squirrels from different cultures proved to be a refreshing change of tone. In many cultures, there are beautiful and compelling values held by or discovered by squirrels. An example of this can be found in an ancient Persian tale called The Squirrel That Wanted Its Tail Stitches Back On. The story involved a young girl named Goli, “who lived with her mother in a lovely little house”, who is sweeping when she bumps into a small squirrel. The quarrel becomes so frightened that its tail came loose and fell off (Hekmat, 1974, p. 50). Goli then scolds the poor squirrel for getting frightened to easily. The squirrel replies “but the Unseen Hands pushed me into it. I couldn’t help myself.” (1974, p. 51). Goli then remarks that one cannot blame things on “unseen hands” and sends him off to figure out his own problem. The squirrel first goes to the cobbler, who sends him for thread to the spinner, who sends him for cotton to the farmer, who sends him to the gypsy for sieve, and the list goes on. Finally, the squirrel is successful in having his tail stitched back on and returns to Goli. He thanked Goli for her advice, and she concludes the tale by stating: “And don’t forget you’re more powerful than any Star or Unseen hands…Remember what a poet once wrote… Even if what you want is in the lion’s mouth, go and get it out” (1974, p. 55). There are several indigenous stories involving squirrels as well. One of which, called Txamsem Fools Squirrel Woman involves the naughty man Txamsem, who takes advantage of the pining mother Squirrel Woman who is looking for her lost son. Txamsem then morphs and pretends to be the grief stricken Squirrel Woman’s child and robs her of her winter food storage. A story of deceit ensures and Txamsem is eventually punished by Mother Nature and the Earth for what he has committed (Toye-Welsh, 1997). There is also an Ojibwe legend called How the Bat Came To Be (Mammals of Toronto, 2012). In this legend, the sun gets stuck in a tree one day while trying to rise. The animals grow concerned and decide to set out to find it. The squirrel happens upon the Sun itself along its travels and the sun begs it to help. Diligently, the squirrel does its best but keeps getting burnt when he tries to get close enough to help the sun, as it is simply too hot. Eventually, the squirrel succeeds in setting the sun free, but it came at a price. The squirrel was not blackened from being burnt, blind from the strength of the sun and its tail fell off. The sun was so grateful but felt so terribly that it asked the squirrel what wish it had, if any. The squirrel replied that it had always wanted to fly. And so, the sun turned the squirrel into a bat, so that it could fly whenever it wished, it no longer needed its vision and its black colour was becoming (2012). Finally, there is a Tlingit legend, found within Julie Cruikshank’s Do Glaciers Listen? told by a woman named Angela Sidney (2005). In this legend, called “How Animals Broke Through The Sky”, a squirrel is instrumental in striking up the movement of the animals to figure out how to break through the sky, so that summer and warmth may come through sometimes, so as not to freeze to death (2005, p. 80).

Interestingly, in the legend “How Animals Broke Through The Sky”, the squirrel mentioned is a mother, who is crying for her lost offspring that froze in the cold.
Similarly, while there are many animals in “Txamsem Fools Squirrel Woman”, Squirrel Woman is the only one who remains in the form of a human woman, while the rest of the animals are in animal form in the illustrations. Furthermore, in the ancient Persian tale, the small squirrel learns his lesson from a wise young girl (Goli) who lives only with her mother (which is very clearly stated in the first verse of the tale). I was surprised to find such a powerful, wise and sound conviction come from a girl, let alone a young girl, who lives with a single parent, in such an old text. Further, I was surprised to find a young girl who is willing to posit that one must not look above to the Unseen for strength, and holds that one must look to themselves instead. There appears to be a common thread throughout these tales linking women and squirrels, and it is up for debate as to why that is. I would like to venture that perhaps it is due to the historical underpinnings of under appreciation of women through time, as women are often deemed subordinate, incapable, and weak, and yet there is the other thread through history in which women prove themselves to be in fact incredibly powerful, problem solvers, wise and sound. I feel as though squirrels are often initially perceived in a similar manner, and yet as we develop an intimacy with the lives of squirrels, one comes to find that they are industrious, calculating, deliberate and incredibly capable, amongst many other things.


Photo courtesy of the "Creative Commons" on Flickr.

Photo courtesy of the “Creative Commons” on Flickr.

Returning to the idea of sharing a space and a landscape with our fellow Torontonians, the squirrel, Nuts about Squirrels, the episode of The Nature of Things mentioned above, also speaks with Professor Joel Brown of the University of Illinois (Downie, 2014). Dr. Brown speaks of his recent research which examines the way squirrels visualize the very same landscape we occupy every day. His experiment involves setting out trays filled with sand and a variety of nuts an seeds (2014). The essential idea is that the habitat we live in has been constructed in a way that is opportune for us, for the most part, but involves hazards and obstacles for others (like the squirrel). These hazards and obstacles can be fences, pets such as cats and dogs, streets etc. By leaving out these trays for a certain allotment of time in specific places, and then retrieving them and noting which foods were taken from which trays in which location, Dr. Brown established a topographic map of safety and danger for the squirrel (2014). While some parts of the yard may be relatively safe with only about 3 feet of fear, say in front of the house deck, other parts of the yard may feel like 12 feet of danger for the squirrel, for example beside the fence with the neighbour’s dog behind it (2014). He states: “Where they feel safe, they will spend more time digging through the sand looking for every last seed but where they sense risk they grab and run. The more they left behind the greater their perceveid sense of danger for that part of the yard” (2014). Furthermore, Dr. Brown notes that what may be the most attractive parts of the city to us, he sites for example a man made mini waterfall in a garden, may be the most terrifying part of the landscape for the squirrel; essentially we share the same landscape, but we see it rather differently (2014). Taking this idea, I invite you to carry it with you through the city and your homes. The next time someone lectures you about having no sympathy for invasive species, what will you stop to think about? Will you consider the most efficient way to kill an abundant species, or will you stop to notice that humans are abundant as well? The next time someone suggest you put poison out in your yard, or in your bird feeder, or in your gutters, how will you respond? As inhabiters of the same borrowed land, we ought to consider the ways in which we can accommodate each other, not immediately, without thinking, seek to reduce, minimize and stifle. We ought to realize the similarities between us, after all – we are both considered “of least concern”. (Should you be interested, check out the episode Nuts About Squirrels – here is a preview!)



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