August 11, 2021

As I was leaving work yesterday, I noticed a squirrel playing around the oak tree at the front of our property.  Several weeks ago, I commented on the red squirrels that are more prevalent in the River Valley where I live.  In contrast, it is the gray squirrels that are abundant in the Ozarks where I work. 

The Eastern Gray Squirrel is one of very few mammalian species that can descend a tree head-first.  It does this by turning its feet so the claws of its hind paws are backward-pointing and can grip the tree bark.  While my Fox Squirrels are adept climbers and climb headfirst down my fence, they are unable to do the same on trees.  Apparently different squirrels have unique features.

When I looked online, I found the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), also known as the grey squirrel, is a tree squirrel in the genus Sciurus.  It is native to eastern North America, where it is the most prevalent.  Like many members of the family Sciuridae, the eastern gray squirrel is a scatter-hoarder; meaning it hoards food in numerous small caches for later recovery.  Some caches are temporary and located near the site of a sudden abundance of food.  These caches can be retrieved within hours or days for reburial in a more secure site.  Other caches are more permanent and are not retrieved until months later.  Each squirrel makes several thousand caches each season.  The squirrels have very accurate memory for the locations of these caches and use landmarks to retrieve them.  Smell is used to uncover the squirrel’s own caches, as well as to find other squirrels’ caches.  If the ground is too dry or covered in snow, it can result in lost caches.  The lost caches are why the Gray Squirrel is known as an essential natural forest regenerator.  The grey has a habit of losing caches of nuts and seeds.

Squirrels sometimes use deceptive behavior to prevent other animals from retrieving their cached food.  They pretend to bury the “object” if they feel that they are being watched.  They prepare the spot as usual by digging a hole or widening a crack, mime the placement of the food, but conceal it in their mouths, then covering up the “cache” as if they had deposited the object.  The Grey is also known to hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees (if their rival is not arboreal).  This complex repertoire suggests the behaviors are not innate (inborn) and imply a theory of intellectual thought used by the Grey.  It always amazes me what “dumb” animals can learn.

Thoughts:  The Gray has been widely introduced to other parts around the world.  On mainland Britain, they have almost entirely displaced native red squirrels.  On the European continent, the Gray has been included in the list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern (the Union list) since 2016.  This specifies the species cannot be imported, bred, transported, commercialized, or intentionally released into the environment in the whole of the European Union.  Until recently, visitors from the US held a similar distinction due to the covid virus.  Perhaps we should take time to emulate the animals and learn something.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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