Friend or Fiend, The Troubling Tale of the Gray Squirrel
This week’s blog was written by Liam B., a Gobblers and Bass alumni. Liam is a junior in high school who has attended the Wildlife Leadership Academy as both a student and an assistant team leader over the past two summers. He has participated in WLA mainly due to to his interest in wildlife overall, and notably ornithology. He plans to attend college and afterwards pursue a career with the game commission.
Fall is upon us, and as such, many people wandering the wooded areas of Pennsylvania begin to take notice of one of the more well-known inhabitants of our state. Their long, grey bushy tail, stark white underbelly, and overall inquisitive nature make the Eastern Grey Squirrel one of the most easily recognizable rodents in the eastern United States. However, they are often regarded as a nuisance or pest. This is not without cause, as their curiosity often lands them in trouble. Regardless, they also perform many important functions in their natural habitat that can’t be ignored.
The Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinesis) is a very prolific rodent, inhabiting much of eastern North America, from Quebec to the tip of Florida, they are surprisingly adaptable. This has allowed them to expand their range into other countries where they have been introduced, including Europe and Africa. They are omnivores, consuming a wide variety of berries, seeds, mushrooms, insects, and occasionally smaller vertebrates. Despite being rodents, they are not as aggressively fecund, having smaller litters of 1-4 once or twice a year, but they can have as many as eight kits in a litter. They are crepuscular, often seen around the beginning or end of the day. Contrary to popular belief, they do not hibernate, unlike some of their relatives. This means that they need to have food ready for winter; they are notorious for their caches, holes in the ground, where they store nuts and seeds. This notorious caching behavior is part of why they are important for the ecosystem. They don’t eat all of their stored food, this results in the “planting” of new trees to help the forest continue to grow. They are also an important prey species for a variety of animals. Notably, they are often caught by hawks, bobcats, foxes, and owls. They are also hosts to many small invertebrates, such as fleas and ticks. This causes issues when they come into contact with people and domestic animals.
Gray squirrels are not seen just in forests but also in woodland edges and even in more urbanized areas. This is unsurprising, due to their ability to modify their behavior and the abundance of food in these areas. However, their inquisitive nature tends to get them into trouble. Whoever came up with the idiom “curiosity killed the cat” had clearly never encountered squirrels before. They can cause extensive property damage due to their ability to easily chew through wood and plastic. They can breach roofs and cause damage to other wood furnishings outside and around the house. They have often gotten into electronics such as wires and chewed through them, resulting in power outages at the cost of the life of the squirrel. These can range from small-scale single-home outages to widespread, more costly power disruption. According to Unititl, an interstate electric utility company, around 8.5% of their outages have been caused by squirrels gaining access to their substations. However, much of the wrath that gray squirrels have received comes from the ornithological community, as they have a tendency to raid bird feeders, especially during the leaner times in fall and winter. These raids often drive off the birds. This results in the generation of a self-perpetuating cycle. Bird watchers set up new feeders with anti-squirrel countermeasures. The squirrels are thwarted for some time. Then, due to their surprisingly high intelligence, the squirrels figure out how to breach these defenses. This drives off the birds, and the cycle begins anew.
The gray squirrel’s flexibility also has caused issues outside of their non-native ranges. Particularly in Europe, but also in South Africa, where they had been introduced by Cecil John Rhoades onto his estate in Cape Town. In Europe, specifically, the UK and Ireland where they have few predators, they began to aggressively outcompete the native red squirrel population. Various campaigns have been launched to exterminate the gray squirrels, however, due to their much higher fitness, and the introduction of a foreign virus into the red squirrel population, the gray squirrels still maintain their foothold. So, the fate of the red squirrels remains uncertain.
The Eastern Gray squirrel is an interesting species. They have an important role in their natural habitats both as propagators of the forest and as food sources for larger animals. However, many of their interactions with humans tend to go poorly. As such, they have been made out to be small furry miscreants. Despite this, they are an important part of their native ecosystems, and as such, deserve to be treated with some amount of respect.