I grew up in this warzone. More often than not there was a fat, black squirrel in our Calgary birdfeeder instead of joyful little chickadees. After months of effort, Dad finally surrendered to the furry invaders. He started leaving piles of seeds on the patio just for the squirrels, with the hopes that they would forget the birdfeeder. They didn’t.
Today, I come face to face with my long-time adversary, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.
A: Why do you raid birdfeeders? Aren’t you ashamed of stealing food from birds?!
S: Whoa lady, calm down! I know you’ve had some bad history with squirrels, but that doesn’t make us all evil rodents.
When it comes to food, we’re opportunists. Being able to eat lots of different things is what makes us so successful. In nature, there is no ‘bird food’ and ‘squirrel food’. It’s about who gets to the food first.
A: Okay, I guess home-owners shouldn’t expect only birds to show up at their feeders. In Calgary, I heard that you were an invasive species. Is that true?
S: We prefer ‘introduced’. It’s you humans who introduced us to Calgary! We originally only lived in the hardwood forests of Eastern Canada. A few hundred years ago you humans decided to put us in places we’d never been before, like Western Canada, South Africa and the U.K. And, being opportunists, we thrived!
A: You sure did! Did you run into problems with the species that already lived there?
S: We’re often competing with red squirrels over food and territory. Despite their small size, they are vicious! We usually give them what they want to avoid a scuffle.
A: You don’t strike me as non-violent. I often see you chasing each other through the trees!
S: It’s true that we chase each other a lot. We work hard to protect our territory from invaders. However, it’s all bluffing and posturing. Unlike the red squirrels, we rarely come to blows.
A: Speaking of colours, what’s the difference between a grey squirrel and a black squirrel?
S: Grrr, we get this question all the time! We’re the same species! Get it right!
A: Sorry, that’s obviously a sore spot. Speaking of sore spots, I notice that the end of your tail is missing! What happened?
S: Oh, that. A hawk grabbed me in mid-leap last week. Thankfully she only got the last vertebrae of my tail. I can shed those tail bones easily when those kind of things happen.
A: Whoa, like those lizards that lose their tails! Can you re-grow that tail bone?
A: Oh. That sucks. What is your tail for, anyways? It’s almost as long as the rest of your body!
S: My tail is good for lots of things! I use it to distract predators, communicate with my peers, and keep myself stable while jumping through the trees. It’s also a perfect blanket for cold nights.
A: Tell me more about how you communicate. You’re certainly very vocal! For years I thought I was hearing bird calls when it was actually squirrels.
S: It’s true, we have a large range of sounds. Many are alarm calls, to warn other squirrels about a predator, and to let the predator know that we’ve seen them. We even combine tail signals with sound signal to let others know if the predator is on the ground and in the air.
A: I guess you spend most of your time in trees?
S: Yes indeed! Not only do we get food from trees, but we also make our nests in them.
A: Squirrels make nests? What do they look like?
S: My favorite nest are inside tree trunks. An old wood-pecker hole works wonderfully. However, when I can’t find one, I’ll build my own nest high in the branches out of twigs and leaves.
A: I know you eat nuts and seeds, but what else do you eat?
S: It really depends on the time of year. In the spring, we love eating buds off the trees. In the summer, we pig out on fruit, like berries, apples and winged maple seeds. In the fall, it’s all about the nuts! If I’m really hungry, I may snack on insects, caterpillars, or even bird nestlings.
A: That is quite a variety of foods. Do you hibernate during the winter?
S: Not at all! That’s why we keep busy in the fall hiding nuts and seeds to get us through the winter.
A: Do you remember where you buried all those nuts?
S: No! We’re talking about thousands of nuts here! My memory isn’t that good. I use my nose to find them.
A: Do you find every nut you bury?
S: Of course not! I’ll find maybe 85% of them. The rest are found by other animals, or grow into new trees.
A: I guess we’re well into the summer breeding season right now. How do you go about finding a mate?
S: It’s actually a lot of fun. I’ll climb to the top of a tree and start a homing call to attract all the males in the area. Once a group of males has assembled, they will argue amongst themselves to find out who is dominant. It’s a lot of posturing and testosterone, as you could expect.
A: Then what happens?
S: Well, then I lead them in a wild chase through the trees! When I know which one I want, then I’ll let him mate with me. As long as he can keep up!
A: Does he help raise the babies?
S: Nope. I’m on my own. But it isn’t too bad. In 12 weeks they’re independent adults. And just so you know, my last litter had both grey and black kittens!
S: Baby squirrels.
A: That’s adorable!
S: So we’re not just birdseed thieves anymore?
A: Definitely not! Thanks for talking with me.
S: My pleasure.