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Squirrelly in the Backyard

In southern Ontario, squirrels are a fast-moving fixture. They have adapted nicely from whatever their original habitat was to living amongst humans, although this arrangement seems to work better for the squirrels than some humans.

‘Squirrelly’ means erratic behaviour. It should be upgraded to include annoying, destructive, nasty, invasive actions, with occasional cute frolicking. And respectful acknowledgement of hanging out, even on the coldest winter days, with only a bushy tail to wrap overhead for warmth. This might be a little complex to pack into the definition of one word, but … squirrels.

Any story needs an adversary to make the protagonist’s life interesting. Thus, to highlight the good bits of peaceful backyard living: Enter squirrels stage left. And right. And out of nowhere.

Cut to these villains: 

  • Digging in potted plants. 
  • Eating birdseed. 
  • Digging up any newly planted plants. 
  • Digging up previously planted plants. 
  • Invading any available crevice in the home to occupy the attic, fascia, chimney, garage etc. 
  • Eating more birdseed. 
  • Stealing everything from the vegetable garden. 
  • Dismembering flowers. 
  • Taking one bite of tomatoes, squash, zucchini, pears etc and leaving the rest on the lawn or deck. 
  • Squawking at the cat/dog/contractor/nothing identifiable, suggesting there are horrible predictors lurking in the hedge. 
  • Eating birdseed. 
  • Making lots more squirrels. 
  • Eating birdseed. 
  • Looking innocent while cavorting in the tree tops. 

All nature has a purpose. Nature’s purpose for squirrels cannot be to annoy humans. Why, then, are squirrels?

Nature dictates what happens in an urban backyard just as it does in a wild environment. Undomesticated species behave by their instincts because it’s embedded in the DNA, other genetic programming, and through nurture if that is the tradition of the species (oak trees nurture their young differently than squirrels1).

If squirrels dig things up, it is because they evolved to dig as part of their way of life. 

Consider dogs, bred for special purposes, like herding sheep, catching rodents, or guarding things. If a herding dog is in a living room full of people, it tries to herd them, and make them stay in their pen – the living room. Ratting dogs will hunt rodents, whether in the castle basement or family pet ferret cage.

In an ecosystem, each member of the community makes a contribution to the ecosystem, consumes components and is consumed by others. This ongoing cycle contributes to balance.

For example, rabbits eat ground cover but if they eat too much, plants die, as do many smaller species sheltering in the ground cover or feeding from it. Foxes eat rabbits. Therefore, the right balance of foxes to rabbits is important for the rest of the ecosystem.

Back to squirrels. The squirrel’s place in a natural ecosystem is2:

  • to enhance plant biodiversity. All that collecting of seeds and burying them, but not digging up nearly as much as they bury, leads to the seeds germinating in areas where they might not without the squirrels. Broad distribution is a good thing for individual species. If one site becomes inhospitable, the species can survive in another. Bigger picture, biodiversity is important because each species contributes something unique to the environment, helping the whole system weather variable conditions. 
  • dinner for large birds, such as hawks, carnivorous mammals like coyotes and foxes3.
  • to eat a variety of things. Seeds, nuts, bugs, fruits and vegetables. I like to watch them nibble the kernels out of maple keys, which stops a bizillion maple seedling from starting all over my yard. 

The squirrelly behaviour that drives me squirrelly, because it seems annoying rather than fulfilling a need, is a byproduct of the squirrel’s nature. They dig to bury food for later but sometimes this uproots the plants I plant. It’s in squirrel DNA to dig up the plants in my garden (errrg!).

Squirrels eat bird seed because they are foragers. They look for food everywhere and clean things up in the process. Seeds are part of their natural diet. No surprise when they see a big vat (bird-feeder) full of their favourite food that they do whatever they can to consume as much as they can. Also, squirrels have powerful teeth and jaws, for chewing through the hard shells natural nuts come in (think walnut). Using their endowments to get a something vital to their life comes naturally, even if it means destroying a bird-feeder or storage bucket for seed.

Half-eaten produce left lying around is particularly irksome and seems like such a waste. I’ve read that the reason squirrels do this is they are looking for water.4 How well do we really understand what motivates squirrels?

This summer, I’ve found a number of squash with large holes and all the seeds removed from the inside, leaving behind the fleshy part that we humans eat5. As consumers and re-planters of seeds, perhaps squirrels are collecting to distribute tomato and squash to other yards near me, discarding the part we usually eat.

If only there was a way to coordinate this. I’d gladly give the squirrels the seeds I scrape out of the squash before I roast it, and then there’d be more for all. 

Squirrels find their way (naw, naw, naw) into attics and soffits because it makes a nice, cosy place for the family to live. More secure than a nest in a tree that could blown, or be cut, down. Or worse, expose their young to a predator like a hawk. What’s not to love about a home in a human home?

As ecosystems go, if there is enough conflict between species that one feels threatened, species will get aggressive. Squirrels aren’t threatening, they are annoying, so I won’t do something like trapping or poison. Besides, that would only work until a new squirrel family arrived in the ‘hood. I could move into a high-rise, or another region that doesn’t have squirrels, but they aren’t that bad.

Why pick on squirrels? Other species in the backyard are easier to embrace (not literally, ouch), even if there are tradeoffs. 

  • Bees pollinate the flowers and vegetables, even if they have to be given a wide birth to avoid stinging, and occasionally locate their hives in inconvenient places. 
  • Birds generally don’t cause trouble, but eat insects and sing prettily, so they are good to have around. 
  • Raccoons get into the garbage, skunks spray the dog, chipmunks bury seed everywhere including shoes left outside, and mice bring their natural activates inside. All this is predictable and manageable.

Squirrels get a higher aggravation score. They seem to be trying harder to be annoying. Or smarter. Now that’s a scary thought. 

1 I started to say oak trees don’t nurture their young but it could be said that the mature trees create the environment on the forest floor that seedlings grow up in. Also, there are theories that trees communicate through root and other networks in the ground, but that’s another story.

2 and

3 One reference I found suggested that raccoons eat squirrels. OMG, I would love to see this drama. Both are feisty urban critters, adapted to eating what they find in the human-dominated environment. I think it would lead to gang wars. I can see the squirrel and raccoon graffiti now. 

4 for example:

5 Not absolutely sure it’s squirrels doing this.

Thanks for reading.

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