A Squirrel For All Seasons
Anyone who has ever taken Chem 5 with Professor Kull has come out of the class having learned his theories on nature. One that stood out to me particularly was a tangent regarding why people tend to hate rats, but like squirrels. The argument was something to the effect of this: Rats have hairless, scaley-looking tails, squirrels have furry tails. Perhaps, Professor Kull submitted, the naked tails of rats subconsciously remind us of snakes, and we don't like snakes because in prehistoric times we competed with them when foraging for eggs.
So, by benefit of association with snakes, we deplore and fear the average wharf rat, but not the average squirrel. Whether or not this hypothesis is true, or if it will ever receive grant money from the National Science Foundation for further study is beyond me. It does bring up something interesting, though -- people do typically like squirrels. At Dartmouth, which is thoroughly enveloped by nature, we can see them every day, both on campus and in the woods. Seeming to thrive equally in an urban park or in the wilderness, squirrels are an animal everyone is familiar with, whether or not we ever pay any attention to them. And so we plunge into a quick look at urban ecology, focusing on those fuzzy critters we all know and love, squirrels.
There are two types of squirrels on campus I am aware of, eastern gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, and the little eastern chipmunks, Tamias striatus. Depending on what part of the United States you come from and your upbringing, the way in which you view these squirrels can vary wildly. There are those who think squirrels are cute. Chipmunks nearly always get the "Oh, he's so cute," response when viewed by parents and grandparents, especially when the chipmunk has its cheeks stuffed full of seeds.
Another universal reaction by the "cute" respondees is to snatch away their children/grandchildren as the young ones prepare to make contact with the cute-from-a-distance chipmunk, obtaining whatever nastiness and filth the little rodent may be carrying. (Unwittingly saving the rodent from the nastiness and filth the child is carrying). There is a minority who dislike squirrels. I knew a woman from Long Island who not only disliked squirrels, she feared them to the point of calling them "fuzzy-tailed rats," this being something of a blow to Professor Kull's theory. There are some who were raised on Chip and Dale and The Chipmunks and have the Disney outlook on squirrels. This includes thinking of them as mischievous little critters that always get into trouble and spend their days playing and hoarding food. There is the regionally common mentality of believing squirrels to be moving targets. Friends of mine from home often punctuated this by stopping the truck upon seeing a squirrel, pulling the .22 from behind the seat, and counting how many times the squirrel flipped in the air when they shot it. Yes, this is mostly a hick phenomenon. The most common opinion of squirrels, however, seems to be one of ambivalence.
So what are the real characteristics of these little guys? Squirrels are rodents, so they reproduce relatively fast and have a life span of less than five years. They always seem to be on the move, storing up food for the winter. Though chipmunks sleep out the colder months by hibernating, gray squirrels do not, having to dig through the snow for stored nuts, seeds, and mushrooms. I always thought they must have an incredible memory to do this, but it turns out they just have an incredible sense of smell which leads them back to the larder. (mmm...frozen acorns). Most people assume squirrels are playing when they chase each other. Turns out, the chase is a part of mating that brings females into estrous.
On a side note, it may be better that Disneyesque thinking has us believing the chasing is play as it would be pretty warped to tell your children, "That's not play, kids, that's foreplay." There are many perils involved in being a squirrel. Besides starvation and the elements, predators abound in the form of birds of prey, weasels, foxes, and kids with BB guns, to name a few. Here in Hanover, slow and infirmed squirrels commonly fall prey to cars and equally slow and infirmed frat dogs. Yes, it's a tough life. Like all things, squirrels do have their place, though. They are an important food item for many animals and very important to many tree and shrub species as seed dispersers. In an urban setting, they entertain us and act as a reminder that there is more to the world than concrete.
Why squirrels, you ask? The answer lies in that these are animals we all see nearly every day, yet we really don't know anything about them. They are relegated to the status of scenery: always there, but never really noticed. Perhaps on your next walk across campus, you will see a squirrel's nest, take some notice of their hyperactive antics, wonder at how they can cling to trees while running down head first, or witness an event I know must happen but have never seen myself: a squirrel falling out of a tree. It was initially simple observations such as these that made great naturalists of Darwin and Linnaeus and can help you and I have a better understanding of the natural world that permeates all we see and do.