There’s a scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold comes face-to-face with a squirrel from his yard-obtained, last-minute-replacement Christmas tree. There’s a chase, someone faints; you know, general hilarity ensues.
This scene makes me laugh even harder because it reminds me of my first baby squirrel season as a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer. Let’s just say that the juvenile squirrels can be frantic and indecisive little escape artists when you try to clean their cages. I may or may not have had to fish a squirrel out of my shirt.
Some time has passed and being more adept at “squirrel wrangling”, I have kept the squirrels flying at my face to a minimum, but I am still as enthusiastic about the rodents as I ever was, as are my fellow WRSPA founders. Because we think they are cool (and because we believe you should, too), the gray squirrel is our first “Species Spotlight” animal!
Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
While there are three other species of squirrel native to Pennsylvania (the fox squirrel, red squirrel, and the flying squirrel), the robust little gray squirrel is a fairly common sighting. If you are able to get a close look, perhaps at some of the opportunistic “picnic” squirrels hanging around your local park trash can, you’ll notice their beautiful coloring. Their gray appearance can vary in darkness and often made up of soft gray, black, and white hairs with flushes of rusty red. (Side note: while watching squirrels at a local park nose through the trash my daughter asked if squirrels would eat pizza. The answer is, yes, a squirrel will eat pizza even though it's not good for them. Apparently, we have a lot in common with squirrels, no?)
Fun fact: the black squirrels that you will sometimes see are actually gray squirrels with a genetic marker for melanism. Casually bring this up at dinner and you’ll make more friends.
WHY THEY’RE SO COOL
Well, first of all, they’re cute (not that being “cute” is a requisite characteristic for loving a species, am I right?) Their furriness, their big eyes, their bushy tails, and their ability to hold stuff in their front paws makes them incredibly endearing and fun to watch.
Squirrels have some interesting adaptations that help them succeed. Often you’ll observe a squirrel running down a tree head-first, something that is difficult for other species of mammals who have to rely on the old-fashioned way (read: butt first). This forward-facing descent is made possible by a combination of sharp claws and flexible ankle joints that allow the squirrel’s foot to rotate backwards 180 degrees, keeping them steady and allowing them to see where they are going!
Another thing they’ve got going for them is their convenient, all-purpose, built-in HVAC/communication device/equilibrium-maintainer: the bushy tail. I sort of wish I had one. Their tails help them warn each other of danger, keeps them balanced, and is used to regulate their temperatures on top of being one of their defining characteristics.
Finally, if you’ve ever heard the term “squirreling away” you will recognize why we use it to describe any time we hoard or hide things for later use—squirrels are experts at this. In the early spring the gray squirrel will rely on new buds of trees for food, but they also rely on the mast (fancy science word for “various nuts”!) that they have hidden in the fall in preparation for scarce times.
The gray squirrels’ excellent sense of smell allows them to sniff out their buried stashes and maintain their caloric needs throughout the winter. This brings us to the “unrecovered nuts” (which sounds like a swell band name–feel free to use it, you’re welcome). The squirrels’ inability to ever possibly recover every nut that they have buried helps provide a valuable role in our ecosystem—those unrecovered nuts can sprout into trees, and, viola! New trees, new forest, new habitat.
SQUIRRELS IN REHAB
Wildlife rehabilitators are very familiar with the gray squirrel. Because squirrels build their homes in leaf nests and in dens of trees they can easily fall, especially after a nasty storm. While every attempt should be made to re-nest a baby squirrel, often times people find truly orphaned babies and bring them to a wildlife rehabber for help.
It’s quite a bit of work to keep these orphaned squirrels cared for and fed around the clock to ready them for their “real world” release back into the wild. In order to ensure that the squirrels are healthy, they need precise nutritional care and temperature and housing considerations. Even when they no longer require formula they’ll eat you out of house and home like any self-respecting teenager who’s always hanging around with the refrigerator door open.
A rehabilitator during the height of “baby season” (late February to early April) can be up to their neck in hungry, needy baby squirrels. Then, in mid-summer, when they put their hands on their hips and breath a sigh of relief, wiping the sweat from their brows having survived The Great Squirrel Influx of (insert any year here)...Ding! Round two! Those little buggers are at it again as the gray squirrel often produces a SECOND brood in July and August (and even later if the temperature stays unseasonably warm).
The tireless work of rehabilitators will get these orphaned babies out in time to start foraging and burying those nuts for winter. So...three cheers for the gray squirrel, and to the unrecovered nuts everywhere!
Dang those things eat a lot… did you know it costs anywhere from $15-$20 for the supplies to rehabilitate each baby squirrel? (And that’s not including the money it takes to keep the lights on!). Rehabilitators end up taking in dozens (or even hundreds!) of squirrels each year. Please consider donating to help us help wildlife!
Found a baby squirrel? Find out what to do here.