Today is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, a day to dispel the bad rap so often given to these ubiquitous critters. I have come to terms with the resident eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my garden by installing a cone of black metal that baffles them from eating all the seed from the winter bird feeder. Now, instead of cursing them, I enjoy watching their antics as they dash up and down tree trunks, use twiggy branches as springboards up in the bare canopy and, as indeed they do, try to get around the baffle. When they sit still, for perhaps a moment, I see how endearing they can be. Front paws curled under as if in a muff, tail ornately curled, and a twinkle in a mischievous eye.
The squirrels I get to see up close seem relatively healthy. They are not suffering from a lack of black sunflower seed in their diet. They must be relying on caches of acorns and nuts gleaned in warmer months. A keen sense of smell and a good spatial memory aid them in the recovery of hundreds of caches. They employ an anti-theft device against onlookers and clever blue jays by digging fake holes and reburying vulnerable food. Uncovered caches, twenty per cent or so, contribute to new oak forests. Another favorite food of squirrels grows in my tangled wood, namely, black walnut. Squirrels are well equipped with four sharp incisors to break through the bright green outer husk of the fruit. That gnawing sound often accompanies me as I garden on a warm fall day.
As well as planting forests these busy, scurrying animals provide other benefits for our environment. All of their digging and burying aerates the soil. Squirrels build a lot of nests using leaf litter and twigs sturdy enough to withstand winter storms. In severe cold spells they nest together in tree cavities. Birds and other animals often use any of these nests that go unclaimed. Squirrels are omnivorous and will eat tree-infesting beetles as well as lawn grubs. In turn, squirrels are an important food source for birds of prey.
So as an arctic blast of air sends wind chills plummeting, I am hoping that habitat in my garden provides a warm place for squirrels to hunker down and their stores of food will last until warmer days when I’ll hear their little barks and see the flick of that incomparable fluffy tail.