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Watching squirrels can be entertaining

Squirrels enjoy gathering food from bird feeders to store for winter once food is scarce. John Zvirovski / The Sun

If you are looking for some cheap entertainment during this fall season or need a little time out, pull up a chair to the window and observe the squirrels running around the yard. They are very active this time of year gathering their food sources to make it through the winter.  

Squirrels are interesting critters as they don’t really damage much in the yard, but they seem to be around all the time and get to be a nuisance in other ways. Their most destructive nature comes out when you have bird feeders in the yard, as they like to try to get at the food any way they can. Wooden feeders are most at risk, as the squirrels will chew them up in order to get at their contents. Metal feeders tend to hurt their teeth a bit more and create more of a barrier. They also dig many holes around the yard in the fall, as they are trying to bury the food they have gathered. I notice it most in my gardens where I have mulch, as it is scattered all over the place, and usually not where it is supposed to be!

These curious creatures are part of the rodent family, but I have to admit that they are much cuter than the mice and rats that belong to the same group. Squirrels have that cute face with their perked ears and large eyes that seem to be taking in everything around them. Their eyes are positioned on the sides of their faces, which enables them to see both in front and behind them. This is a great feature when they constantly have to be on the lookout for predators such as hawks, fox, raccoon and owls, to name a few.

They have a joyful character, which is apparent with their running and jumping around within the trees. Sometimes I consider them to be the monkeys of the north by the way they can go from one tree to another without effort. Their big fluffy tails are typically the same size as the rest of their body and their fur is very smooth and soft to the touch. They are so irresistible, but I would not recommend befriending them too much as they can bite if you try to hand feed them.  

Squirrels are unique by design as they have double-jointed back legs that allow them to cling to trees and climb them quickly. They have sharp claws that hold easily onto the bark for a secure support system. Their back legs have five toes each whereas their front ones only contain four. Their large tail is used for balance and navigation when the going gets tough while fleeing a dire situation.  

There are nearly 350 different types of squirrels in the world, in all continents except Antarctica and Australia. They are native to the Americas and Eurasia and were introduced to Africa at a later date. The most common types that we have in our area are the Western and Eastern gray squirrels, the red squirrel and the Flying Squirrel. The gray squirrels are nearly twice the size as the red squirrels and seem to be the most common. The flying squirrel is not seen nearly as often as it is a nocturnal species.  

Flying squirrels do not actually fly, but rather they glide through the air from a high spot to a lower spot. They have a flap of skin that is attached from the body to all four limbs. When they leap from a treetop, this flap acts as a parachute and allows them to glide to the ground floor. In some cases, they can travel up to 150 feet in this manner.

Squirrels live anywhere from 10 to 12 years and are sexually mature at the age of 1 year. They typically have two litters a year with anywhere from two to eight babies each time. The babies are born without fur and blind and remain that way for nearly two months. They rely on the mother to nurture them into adulthood.  

The main food source for these animals is nuts, berries and seeds that are high in fats, carbohydrates and starches. These all act as a great energy source through the winter months when food can become scarce. In the fall they gather these items and bury them in the ground. Many times they will rub the food item against the side of their face and then bury it. This practice acts as a transfer of their scent to the item so they can sniff it out later in winter. They have good memories as to where they have hidden these items and can smell them even under a foot of snow.  

Spring bulbs are also a treat for squirrels as they are the perfect source of starch. They typically will go after the tulips and crocus, but can’t stand the taste of daffodils or alliums. A good way to protect your bulbs in the fall is to lay a piece of chicken wire over your bulb areas. This acts as a barrier, which hinders them from digging into the ground. This can be lifted from the ground once spring arrives.    

In the springtime when their food sources have vanished, they tend to resort to eating tree buds, sap, insects and caterpillars. If they face dire times of scarce food, they may even resort to eating eggs and baby birds to survive.  

I have heard many people talk about them as being pests, but I think overall they are quite harmless and enjoyable to watch. If you want to encourage them into your yard, try putting out a dish of unsalted peanuts and other unsalted nuts and seeds and watch them gather. You will also see some new nut-loving bird species joining in the fun. During this time of year, you can see nature’s creatures at their finest. Instead of thinking of ways to get rid of them, maybe it would be easier to think of ways we can co-exist with them in a balance of sweet harmony.