Squirrels – Bushy-tailed Rats 19 Feb 2014

Rats are rodents, and so are squirrels. Obviously, they aren’t identical, but related they are. Little furry, ratty, bird feeder pilferers, squirrels are a frequently seen part of East Texas fauna. Smart enough to bury acorns and other food all over creation and then find them weeks later, they’re also dumb enough to pause at the edge of the road watching for cars, and then dash in front of them with perfect timing to get flattened. That’s not a simple task. Their timing has to be absolutely perfect or the approaching car will miss them.

Some squirrels get excited, run out too early, and then realizing their mistake, stop smack in the middle of the road and wait to get pancaked. Sound familiar? What’s wrong with ‘em? Suicidal? Playing chicken? No, I think the fault is maternal training. “If you see something big and dangerous swooping down on you, FREEZE!” [Splat!]

We have three kinds of squirrels in East Texas. Fox squirrels are the largest, with bodies approximately 22 inches long (including their tail), gray squirrels, also called cat squirrels, with bodies about 15 inches long, and flying squirrels, only about nine inches in length.

The scientific first name (genus) for fox and gray squirrels is Sciurus. Dating back to early Greece, Aristotle used the word “skiouros” to describe them. “Skia” means shade and “oura” means tail – animals that sit in the shade of their tail. These furry-tailed characters are also the source of disparaging comments such as, “nutty as a squirrel” or “squirrely,” as well as one honoring their practice of preparing for hard times by “squirreling away” food supplies.

Squirrels don’t live long – about five years – usually succumbing to starvation or attacks from predators. In cities, many don’t live to see their first birthday, mostly due to losing right-of-way disputes with motor vehicles.

Before burying nuts, they lick and mouth them, chemically marking them so they can smell their stashes even under a foot of snow. Fox and gray squirrels eat a very wide variety of foods including the buds, flowers, and seeds of maples, mulberry, hackberry, elms, wild cherries, dogwoods, hazelnuts, and an occasional frog, bird nestling, or other small vertebrate. They also eat pine pollen cones and the seeds from female pine cones, carefully peeling each cone scale to get the seeds and littering the ground under their feeding areas with piles of cone fragments called squirrel middens.

Most interesting to me is the fact that squirrels often eat poisonous mushrooms that would kill you or me and are not harmed. So, don’t believe the myth that observing what wild animals eat will provide you with safe survival food!

Squirrels are interesting in other ways, too. Their front teeth grow continuously, like beaver dentures, to compensate for the wear and tear they receive from gnawing on nut shells and tree bark. To climb down trees, their hind feet turn backwards allowing them to grip better as they descend head down. Leaping from branch to branch they balance with their swirling tail. Sweat glands on the bottoms of their feet and between their toes may help them mark their territory. When squirrels are hot or excited they leave damp footprints.

Texas’ most unusual tree-dwelling rodent is the flying squirrel, that is entirely nocturnal. A skin membrane along their sides connecting their front and back legs can be spread like a sail that allows them to glide up to 80 or more yards.

Although squirrels look fun and friendly, don’t hand feed them. They get a little excited and clumsy when munching goodies, and may accidentally include the tip of your finger in their snack. That can be a big problem, because you don’t see many squirrels wearing collars with rabies tags. Yes, squirrels can carry rabies! Even a minor bite requires you to seek medical help, and may mean taking rabies shots. Squirrels can also carry bubonic plague, transmitted by a bite from their fleas. (They don’t wear flea collars either.) In short, if you want to feed squirrels, set up a feeder and enjoy their antics from a distance. But, keep your hands off them.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.