by Gregory McNamee
Like many kinds of rodents, squirrels (tree squirrels, that is, of the family Sciuridae) are ubiquitous: they live natively nearly everywhere on Earth save Antarctica, Australia, Madagascar, and a few Pacific islands, 122 known species of them.
Eastern gray squirrel, New York City. Photograph by Gregory McNamee. All rights reserved
And like most kinds of rodents, squirrels live among humans, if sometimes uneasily. Some people consider them to be charming, feeding them such things as popcorn and peanuts; there is much pleasure to be had, particularly for people who cannot get around easily, in watching squirrels cavorting on the lawn and in the trees outside the window. Some, though, consider them to be pests and do their best to eradicate them, for squirrels, armed, like all rodents, with sharp teeth in constant need of exercise, can do plenty of damage. And some people consider them to bewell, a handy source of protein, for which reason, until recently, The Joy of Cooking included instructions on how to prepare and cook them. Indeed, the hit cable TV show Duck Dynasty, it seems, does not let an episode go by without a squirrel winding up in a cook pot.
Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Indeed, the International Union for Conservation of Nature numbers the gray squirrel among the top hundred most invasive species in the world. Its black cousin, while more limited in range, has been similarly successful, as is evidenced by the spread of the two species in an exchange of 1902: Samuel Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, sent a dozen gray squirrels from Washington, D.C., to the parks supervisor for the Canadian province of Ontario, who in turn sent him a shipment of black squirrels from a park alongside Lake Erie. Today black squirrels abound by the thousands in Washington, living without apparent competition among the native gray squirrels, while at that Canadian park the grays are thriving among the native black population.
Black squirrel, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Gregory McNamee. All rights reserved
Even so, we might note in passing, the earliest known mammalian teeth marks come from an ancestral squirrel that gnawed deep into the bone of a dinosaur resembling a proto-crocodile. The dinosaur had been dead for eons, but the size and depth of the bite suggests the proto-squirrels determination, a characteristic that its descendants share.
Squirrels, it might also be noted, have the wherewithal, in terms of social organization, to be able to pull off such a concerted action as that dog attack. Though few scientists study the matter, squirrels would seem to observe hierarchies of dominant males and females; study two males tussling over an acorn, and what we might have formerly assumed to be a charming display of play behavior takes on a Clausewitzian dimension. Some animal behaviorists hold that removing a squirrel from ones propertysay, one that has taken up residence in the attic and become a noisy pestis tantamount to killing it, since the removed squirrel would have to fight its way into membership in whatever other squirrel group it landed among.
A gray squirrel on a park bench, London, England mema/Fotolia
They even lie, which makes them more like humans than we might like to admit. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that humans and squirrels share a common ancestor in the family tree of a long-extinct early mammal called Labidolemur kayi. If we are distant cousins, then it might behoove us to be a little more considerate of the little sharp-toothed, bushy-tailed creatures among us.
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A Few Words for Squirrels – Advocacy for Animals
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