Another had squirrels, not in her walls or attic, but right in her living room. To be sure, squirrels are with us, and with each other too. We've been hearing squirrels in the dining room ceiling, clomping around like crazy, and making soft, moaning sounds.
Anyone who has watched one of those nature shows about squirrels knows how persistent and resourceful they can be. When they want something, squirrels do not give up; they keep trying new tricks until one finally works. The truly squirrel-proof bird feeder has not yet been made, and whatever the latest design with that claim, don't worry - there's a squirrel out there that will someday crack the code.
The talents of squirrels have made these animals undeniably, and often annoyingly, successful. They were making it big in the great outdoors before we came along as new patsies to pester. The squirrel family is called Sciuridae, and is in the rodent order, Rodentia. The family name suggests scurrying, which is what squirrels do when they're not chattering, skirmishing, foraging or getting into trouble. There are seven Sciurid genera in North America east of the Mississippi, and 13 species. The family encompasses chipmunks, ground squirrels, tree squirrels, pocket gophers, marmots and beavers. Our eastern woodchuck is a marmot, and though it is not a squirrel, it's an excellent climber despite its bulk. The marmots and beavers stand apart from the rest of the Sciurids whose similarities outweigh their differences.
All the squirrely Sciurids are omnivores - that is, they eat a wide range of animal and vegetable foods, mostly insects, nuts and fruits. All have similar "bucky" teeth for nipping and scraping, and strong molars for grinding. Nearly all breed twice a year, in spring and again in late summer. All tend to store food, especially nuts and seeds, for lean times. None are deep winter sleepers, and at least in mild weather will venture out for a snack, often something they've stashed away in a nook known only to the hoarder.
Pocket gophers and ground squirrels are absent from the northeast, although Franklin's ground squirrel was introduced into New Jersey from the Plains states just after the Civil War, and persisted for several decades there. The east is the domain of squirrels and chipmunks, which are not much different from each other save that chipmunks are striped, have thinner tails and are slightly smaller than squirrels.
Here in New York we have five kinds of squirrel, but just one kind of chipmunk. The fox squirrel, sporadic in western New York, does not come as far east as the Catskills or Hudson Valley. Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) rarely enter the walls or interiors of houses, but frequently snoop around barns and sheds where they can easily slip in and out of cracks and through open doors.
Squirrels are another matter. Accustomed to tree holes and hollows, they fearlessly nose through knotholes, push back loose boards, slip through narrow notches under eaves, or even chew through rotting wood to find ways into inner spaces. Interiors are inviting to squirrels, promising nooks for nesting, resting and refuge. There may be food, including caches forgotten by other squirrels.
Indoors is a safe, cozy place to raise a family, unless you get found out.
Outdoors is iffier, and usually more work. Gray squirrels make two styles of outdoor nests, both types in trees. The leaf nest is basically a big ball of dry leaves in a crook or among the outer twigs of a tree. Often you can see two leaf nests in the same tree. The reasons for this tendency to cluster are not clear. Squirrels also make nests, again mostly of leaves, in hollow trees, entering through woodpecker holes or knotholes. The risk of settling in human dwellings doesn't seem to bother gray squirrels at all. I mentioned their noisiness, including their trysts, which start about this time of year.
One day, while getting some things from the attic, a gray squirrel ran up, sat on a cardboard box, faced me and scolded me sharply. Its mate trotted up and followed suit, as if to say "What are you doing in my house?" But until a friend told us about squirrels in her living room, we never thought of them as deep interior species like mice. Sitting down to dinner with a squirrel is probably not a common experience.
Eastern grays are the squirrels familiar to most people. They're everywhere - in every woods, in city parks, in most back yards. I saw one the other day in a mall parking lot, nosing around under parked cars. Our all-purpose squirrel is not always gray, and hardly ever all gray. Some are more brownish or golden or red-tinged. A fair number are black, especially northward, where their dark fur keeps them warmer in the winter by absorbing more heat. Rarely, a white gray squirrel is seen, and often makes the local news.
The smaller but scrappier eastern red squirrel tends to avoid buildings, lives in evergreen (pine, spruce or hemlock) forests, and prefers pine cones to acorns. These habits help to keep it apart from its larger gray cousin, but skirmishes between red and gray are legendary. These fights break out less often than imagined, however. Folks who live in, or closer to, the mountains will see red squirrels, perhaps more than grays, but for valley and city dwellers a red squirrel is a rare sight.
Another squirrel may outnumber the common gray squirrel in wooded areas, and yet be unknown and unseen, even to people who watch the wild animals around them. Not only are these squirrels quiet and unobtrusive, they are uniquely talented among squirrels in a way shared by a few frogs, snakes and lizards. They fly. Actually they just glide, but they glide well using broad, furry skin flaps between front and hind legs, banking and cornering and landing exactly where they aim.
Flying squirrels - two species, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) and the southern flying squirrel (G. volans) - live in our area, in tree holes, and in barns, sheds and attics. One reason people don't see them is that they sleep all day and work all night (to avoid lumberjacks maybe?). Despite their odd generic name (almost glaucoma, but both from a Latin root meaning cloudy or creamy), flying squirrels have great night vision and big, dark eyes, adding greatly to the cuteness factor.
Cute they are, but as our friend who last week caught seven said, "They don't clean up after themselves." She released them in a woods a good distance from her house, but wondered if they had a homing instinct. I have no idea. Our friend with the gray squirrels asked if they could cope if released outdoors. She wondered if they ever left her house, since they seemed to be so at home there. I told her I thought they must have a way in and out, and that probably they spend a lot of time outside, especially during warm spells or on brief runs to get take-out from their winter caches. They probably were able to fend for themselves outside, and retained enough innate squirrely savvy to find decent shelter for the rough times. Like us, they're waiting out this troublesome winter. A sharing spirit couldn't hurt. ++