ALBANY — I have not found much good to say about being in social isolation except, perhaps, for the weather. Most of my time these last few months has been spent in near perfect south Georgia weather — cool nights and sunny days with low humidity. When I am not sequestered in my den working on my books, posting blogs and writing these articles, I have been working in the yard or sitting on my back porch. I have enjoyed the beautiful flowers in my wife’s garden, watched hummingbirds battle over the feeder that hangs outside my kitchen window, and listened to the squirrels fussing at some unknown danger.
I may be the only person I know who actually likes squirrels. Everybody else either hates them as pests or is indifferent toward them. Squirrels have even entered our American vernacular as a somewhat derogatory adjective. Squirrelly, according to Merriam-Webster, describes a person who is unusually active, restless, or lacking stability and control. If that is not bad enough, the dictionary goes on to suggest a squirrelly person is “morally dubious or questionable.”
The eastern gray squirrels that inhabit our neighborhoods are not morally dubious, but they are so ubiquitous we hardly notice them. They seem to be everywhere. Their original home was the oak, hickory, and walnut forests of eastern North America. That is because they eat primarily nuts, and they prefer the cover that the dense shade trees provide. In nature, their numbers are controlled by owls, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. In our neighborhoods, the squirrel population seems to be controlled by cars — and the occasional electrical transformer.
I don’t claim to be an expert on squirrels. I have worked with other rodents (guinea pigs, prairie dogs, and capybara), but the only tree squirrel I ever worked with as a zookeeper was a beautiful squirrel from Southeast Asia, the Prevost’s squirrel. Its striking, tricolored markings — a white stripe along the side that separates a black back, and a chestnut red belly — helped me appreciate the elegance of squirrels for the first time.
There are nearly 250 species of squirrels in the world living on all continents except Australia. They are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa, and they come in a variety of sizes. The tiniest squirrel is the aptly named African pygmy squirrel. It is only 5 inches long from nose to tail. Others reach sizes shocking to those who are only familiar with common tree squirrels. The Indian giant squirrel, for example, is 3 feet long and could chase a small dog. Even in south Georgia, we have a variety of squirrels in sizes ranging from delicate flying squirrels to robust, colorful fox squirrels.
Some squirrels burrow underground and inhabit vast subterranean towns (prairie dogs). Some live on the ground, scurrying around forest floors (chipmunks). And some, like our gray squirrels, are terrific climbers adapted to life in the trees but who also spend time on the ground in search of food such as nuts, acorns, berries and flowers. Eastern gray squirrels are commonly seen everywhere from woodlands to city parks. They are social and vocal, using tail signals and vocalizations to communicate.
As their large eyes indicate, squirrels have excellent vision, which is especially important for these tree-dwelling species. Many also have a good sense of touch, with vibrissae on their limbs as well as their heads. The teeth of squirrels follow the typical rodent pattern, with large incisors (for gnawing) that grow throughout their life, and cheek teeth (for grinding) that are set back behind a wide gap.
Tree squirrels live in a three-dimensional world like big city apartment dwellers. They are equally adept on the ground, climbing up and down trees, and scampering about on branches high in the air. I imagine that they have preferred pathways to get from place to place just like I do. When I go from my house to the grocery store, I have a preferred route down Old Dawson Road and left on Pointe North. The squirrels seem to operate in the same manner. I see them hopping from the big oak tree in my back yard, onto the wooden privacy fence where they walk along its top to a small tree in my neighbor’s yard. I wonder where they are going. Do they know there is food ahead? Surely, they are not just wandering aimlessly — out for a walk, as it were.
We recently had to cut down a large loquat tree in our backyard. It had been damaged by Hurricane Michael, and we finally grew tired of looking at the broken branches and dead leaves. We did wait for it to finish bearing fruit for the year as a nod toward the squirrels and birds — or was it in deference to my wife who would come in from the garden with both hands full of ripe, delicious fruit? I wonder what the squirrels thought as they surveyed our cruel action from high in the oak tree. Their days of romping in its branches and gorging on loquats were over. They were forced to watch helplessly as their favorite dining spot was wiped out in a few hours.
Since our last dog died a couple of years ago, the squirrels have had free rein in our yard. We have had a few problems with them gnawing the PVC plumbing vents on our roof, but otherwise they cause no problems. That may be because the only bird feeder we have is filled with sugar-water for the hummingbirds. If we had seed feeders, we would probably be at war with the furry creatures, like most bird lovers I know.
Squirrel-proof bird feeders are their own industry. They come with names like squirrel proof, squirrel buster, and squirrel-be-gone. Bird lovers can purchase special poles and baffles to thwart the acrobatic, seed-loving rodents or they can use whatever is at hand, like grease or a toy slinky applied to the pole. Then there is something called the rule of 5–7–9. Experts suggest that feeders be placed out of reach of the squirrels which, it is said, cannot jump more than 5 feet up from the ground, won’t jump more than 7 feet across from a tree or building, and are reluctant to drop more than 9 feet onto a feeder from above. How they came up with those numbers I am not sure. I wonder if they account for the Olympic champion long-jumping squirrel, who can jump 8 feet across from a branch?
My brother Don is an avid bird enthusiast who lives in South Carolina. He once kept several bird feeders in his lovely suburban backyard, but his tree-covered property was, of course, ideal squirrel habitat. The squirrels would clean out his bird feeders in minutes. Don had tried baffles, greased poles, and expensive squirrel-proof feeders, but nothing seemed to work.
When I visited him several years ago, he seemed to have hit on a solution. He had run a wire between two trees and suspended his feeder from another wire halfway between the trees, far enough that squirrels could not leap the distance (presumably following the rule of 5–7–9). But as extra insurance against the squirrels walking the wire, he ran it through a continuous line of plastic, two-liter soft drink bottles that were fastened together with duct tape. In order to get to the feeder, a squirrel would need to walk these rolling soda bottles like a lumberjack in a log-rolling contest. I believe he was successful, but he had spent hours on the contraption and its appearance was — let’s just say rustic.
I like having the squirrels in my yard. We also have rabbits, box turtles, several species of lizards, and a few garter snakes. It is my own little wildlife refuge, and, in these days of isolation, I need all the company I can get. When I stretch out on my porch in the afternoon, I doze to the sound of wind chimes, bird songs, and squirrels chattering in the trees. I wonder if they are warning me that the neighbor’s cat is on the prowl again or they are just feeling squirrelly.