D.C. Squirrel Week:

Apr 05, 2011

John Kelly and Dr. Richard Thorington were online to talk about all things squirrel-related as part of the first-ever D.C. Squirrel Week.

Squirrels, the final frontier. Or, the common frontier, anyway. Around these parts, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a squirrel. They are such a pervasive part of our parks and backyards that I had to launch The Post's first-ever Squirrel Week. And I'm delighted to have as my guest for today's chat, Mr. Squirrel himself: the Smithsonian's Richard Thorington. We see so many squirrels that we may forget they are in fact wild animals  deserving of study.

Post your squirrel questions, and to see a behind-the-scenes tour of Richard Thorington's domain, click here.

D.C. Squirrel Week? Cuzzzz, this is where the nuts are? I love squirrels. What makes D.C. special enough for its own Squirrel Week?

Well, the original inspiration was a story I did last month. I received so many responses to the column on squirrels I suspected there was a deep, untapped reservoir of squirrel love (and hate) out there. Plus, we have one of the world's leading squirrel experts right here, the Smithsonian's Richard Thorington. Discovery has Shark Week. We have Squirrel Week.

Is the black squirrel native to Washington? I only ever see black squirrels here.

Click here to read my Sunday column on this very subject: "Where did D.C.'s black squirrels come from?" (Hint: No, they're not from around these parts originally.)

Where is the most squirrelly part of the District? As in Squirrel per mile(km) ratio. I think it's time we settle this once and for all.

I will quote from Dr. Thorington's book: "A 1977 study in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., documented a squirrel density of approximately 12.5 squirrels per acre--one of the highest densities ever recorded!"

I don't like to think about that .5 squirrel.

Squirrel Week?! Bah! Humbug! Those critters freak me out, the way they lurch one way and then the other. You can never tell if they're coming to get you or not!

That's an interesting point. I've heard that squirrels have trouble hearing which direction a car is coming from. Dr. Thorington, can you illuminate?

The darting back and forth is usually a successful strategy for avoiding preadators. But it doesn't work so well for cars.

I used to like squirrels. As a backyard tomato gardener, I hate them. Last summer as my 12 tomato plants were full of fruit ready to turn red, the squirrels struck and ate every tomato off each of my 12 plants. What can I do to keep them away. My garden area is 8 feet by 16 feet and completely caging it in is a bit impractical. Help! I miss my tomatoes!

Try scattering moth balls or moth flakes around. They seem to dislike it.

What is the population of black squirrels in NOVA? Ellie- 4th grader who thinks the squirrel in your article is cute even though my teacher is freaked out by the picture.....Ashburn VA

I don't know. Why don't you keep track of the number of gray squirrels and black squirrels you see. I would be interested to hear what you find.

I just *love* squirrels and would love a pet squirrel. Are you totally against domesticating them? If not, what should someone know about having a pet squirrel.

I don't know how Dr. Thorington feels about this but I have spoken with several wildlife rehabilitators and they are all against this. First of all, they're very hard to care for, especially as babies. Most people feed them milk, which is bad for them. And they have to be fed every 2 to 4 hours when young -- even through the night. Then as they grow up, they become attached to humans, which makes it hard for them to survive in the wild. They will run up to humans. But because theyr'e wild, they often will scratch or bite them, which must be reported to the state health department. So, these folks say: If you find a squirrel, bring it to a rehabilitator who will nurse it back to health then let it go.

Do squirrels hibernate? Where do they sleep?!

Ground squirrels - chipmunks and woodchucks in our area - do hibernate. They spend the winter in an underground burrow they dig. Tree squirrels - gray squirrels and fox squirrels - don't hibernate. They sleep in their leaf nests (called a "dray") or in hollows in trees.

John, a coworker sent this to me and I was thrilled. All winter I've been buying food to feed them. Everyone thinks I'm a bit extreme and I have a whole drawer stocked full of squirrel food. As I walk home to Georgetown from my job in L'Enfant most nights, many of the squirrels know me by sight along the mall. They come leaping over the grassy fields when they see me or come down from tree branches if I call them or lure them with a sound of a wrapper. There's one tree in particular that I stop by and call for them to come out from the tree hole. Once I counted 20 squirrels coming out. I feed them everything from peanut butter crackers (they seem to love these best) to peanuts to cracked corn, etc. I know they say you're not supposed to feed the squirrels but I figure they're hungry if they're rummaging through garbage cans and pulling out wrappers with schrapnel of food particles. Once I even had to save a squirrel who got its head stuck in a thin necked yogurt top. I had to find a stick, put pressure on the yogurt cup to enable the squirrel to pull its little head out. Sad. I guess my question is, "Is it okay to feed the squirrels? Should I only feed them in winter when food is scare and tourist handoffs slight?" I think squirrels are AWESOME and you should see some of the amazing pictures I've taken of them.

Here's a story that a reader named Susan Berzak of Falls Church sent in:

When she worked near McPherson Square, Susan joined the cadre of people who brought peanuts to feed the squirrels. When she switched to pecan halves, the squirrels went crazy, preferring the tree nuts to the pedestrian tubers.

On one memorable morning walk to work, there were several very serious looking business people, both male and female, briskly walking through the park They were apparently intent on getting to work on time. Most had suits on and were carrying briefcases and/or laptops.

“By now the squirrels recognized me by sight as the ‘pecan lady’ and rapidly ran towards me if they got any hint that their special treat was about to be handed out,” Susan wrote.

When she opened her magic bag of pecans that morning, dozens and dozens of squirrels came running at her. They scampered from the trees, they coursed across the grass, a stream of gray fur hungry for a handout.

“It must have looked like a Stephen King novel to see all the squirrels running like crazy towards me, because many of the ‘suits’ jumped back in alarm and held up their briefcase or laptop in front of them for protection, sort of like a medieval shield..... It was a sight to behold and still brings a smile to my face when I think about that unusual morning walk through the park.”

Aren't squirrels just rats with fluffy tails?

They are rodents, but they are in a different family (Sciuridae) from the rats and mice.

Is it true that squirrels are Satan's minions and thus cannot be harmed by worldly weapons? Besides automobiles, they don't seem to have any predators. Who can I hire to exorcise these beasts as I can't drive my car on my patio?

I think if you told a squirrel he had no predators he'd laugh in your face--then bite it. Dogs, cats, snakes, neighborhood kids training to be serial killers. Also, I was walking my dog and watched a raptor swoop down at a squirrel. Almost got it too, except that my dog had startled the squirrel. That was on ticked off hawk.

Either of you have one? Interesting those black squirrels haven't migrated into Fairfax County but have made it to Silver Spring. Black ones taste better in stew and gumbo BTW.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never eaten squirrel, though several readers have told me it is quite good--just like chicken, if they're to be believed. I don't have any recipes, but just this morning a reader sent me this, from the 'L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook' by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones.:


1/2 lb. ham slice, diced and browned    1 cup dry white wine
2 squirrels cut into serving pieces     1/2 tsp. marjoram
flour                                   1/2 tsp. rosemary, crumbled
salt and pepper                         3 cloves garlic, finely diced
3 Tb. butter                            1 dash Tabasco
2 Tb. oil                               1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
                                            or mushroom catsup

Dice and brown the ham pieces until crispy.
    Shake the squirrel pieces in flour, salt, and pepper and saute' until brown in butter and oil, turning often in a skillet that crowds them, about 10-12 minutes.
    Add remaining ingredients, cover, and cook over fast simmer
for 20-25 minutes more.
    The flour coating should thicken the sauce some, if not enough add flour and water shaken or smoothed into paste.

Where did the black and white squirrels in DC and across the river really come from? I heard they were a gift from Czarist Russia.

All gray squirrels are native here. The black color form was introduced from Canada around 1902. Early in the Smithsonian history there was a curator who liked to buy squirrels in the market and release them on the mall.  We don't know how many or what colors they were.

I read (I think in a Lewis & Clark book a few years back) a description of a vast squirrel migration in the early 1800's that sounded like it would have been pretty awesome to behold. Any chance that squirrel numbers are approaching the level where they might start migrating again? I'd love to be able to see a migration one day.

It is possible. There was a small one in 1990 in the Washington area.

Dear SquirrelMeister, Here is my sad tale of squirrel depredation in my suburban idyll. In the spring of 2008, the acorn supply was at a low ebb, with overseas demand soaring. The squirrels were famished, and some among them ventured to try new gustatory pleasures. Upon taking a chunk out of my fiber-cement siding, they were hooked ! The ensuing weeks of ravenous munching left my siding looking like the frayed hem of Miss Haversham's wedding dress. Luckily the next year's acorn situation moderated, and our frisky grey neighbors were once again fat and happy. But my siding, Oh!, my siding...

Until I embarded on this quest for knowledge, I thought squirrels only ate nuts and flower bulbs. Apparently, they eat anything and everything. The grossest thing I heard was bird brains. (Note to self: Work up "Squirrel Zombies" pitch for Hollywood.) Like all rodents, their incisors grow continuously and so they have to always be chewing, lest the overgrown teeth make it impossible for them to eat. (First rule of Squirrel Club: ABC...Always Be Chewing.) I wonder if that's why squirrels ate your siding.

I'm from Texas and on my recent visit to Washington DC I noticed that your squirrels are different from our down south squirrels. What kind of squirrels are they?

You mean your squirrels or our squirrels? We have six types of squirrels in our area. They are the subject of tomorrow's column, but here's a preview:

Eastern gray squirrel, groundhog (yup, it's in the squirrel family), Eastern chipmunk (ditto), Southern flying squirrel, North American red squirrel, Delmarva fox squirrel.

If they ATE them. They sample one bite and move onto the next one. This year I'm installing a "Squirrels Keep Out" sign.

Perhaps they're trying to send you a message: Your tomatoes just aren't that good.

For two years I have watched a young squirrel mature in my backyard near College Park. My Native American ancestors would have believed him to be a divine symbol, though my partner refers to him as "apocalypse squirrel." While people seem fascinated with his white coat and reddish eyes, the other squirrels never seemed to give his coloring any thought. Are they color-blind? How frequent are albino squirrel births? Growing up in Alexandria and as an undergrad on a squirrel-laden campus in Houston, I never saw one before.

If a white squirrel has pink eyes,  then it is definitely an albino.  There are white squirrels with dark eyes that are not albinos. An albino squirrel would not have good vision. Albinism is fairly rare.

Have you pitched your idea to the Discovery Channel? A whole week devoted to the often dangerous and misunderstood squirrel.

I like it. Discovery: Call me.

(I also have another idea for them: Each episode I go to a different workplace where pristine conditions must be maintained, ie, a satellite construction facility, a broken hard-drive recovery place, etc. It's called "Clean Jobs.")

Why does my teacher think Reston Virginia squirrels are CRAZEEEEEEEEEEE? Mrs. Collins fourth grade class- Ashburn Virginia

That is a question only Mrs. Collins can answer. Does she think Reston squirrels are CRAZEEEIER than, say, Arlington squirrels? Or does she think all squirrels are crazy?

Dislike squirrels? You might get a kick out of this video (which I heard about from a respected scientist).

I recently watched a movie called Grand Illusion made in 1937. One scene had a pet squirrel in a cage. Did people used to keep squirrels as pets?

Squirrels do not make good pets. They chew on too many things, they can not be housebroken, and they are extremely active.

Speaking of pet squirrels and squirrels in cages: As I was doing archival research for Sunday's column on D.C.'s black squirrels, I came across a lot of ads for squirrels. Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, you could get mail-order squirrels. One guy, I remember, would send you a pair of squirrels for six magazine subscriptions. Another advertised black squirrels, suggesting that those were desirable back then. I wonder how many people would send off for a pair of squirrels. And I wonder what the mailman thought when it came time to deliver them.

About how many teeth do squirrels have and do they brush them 2 times a day? Masan - future 4th grade dentist Ashburn VA

Squirrels have two large incisors above and below with which they gnaw on everything. They are continually growing and would grow right into the skull if they were not ground down by the gnawing. They also have molars and premolars for chewing and these do not grow continuously.

We actually have proof that (some) squirrels brush their teeth. This photo was sent to our user gallery a few days ago. If any of you have squirrel photos, you can upload them here.

Do they not have squirrels in other parts of the country?? "Look, Honey! A squirrel in the wild!" Seems like every bunch of tourists just has to kneel down and take pictures of these "exotic" animals--much to the consternation of cyclists and runners and most anyone else who'd like to get by!

There are 278 species of squirrels in the world, found on every continent but Australia and Antarctica. You'd think squirrels would fade into the background, but they don't. A colleague was remarking the other day that she had some friends visiting from Australia. All the kids wanted to do was chase the squirrels around. I guess they get tired of kangaroos, but squirrels are unique to them.

What is the best way to prevent squirrels from getting into my bird feeders?

That is a difficult question. The best way is to have your bird feeder where they can't get to it - sometimes this is difficult. I have heard that people put hot pepper in with their bird seed and that this does not bother the birds, but it does discourage the squirrels. I have never tried it. I  like to feed the squirrels.

Wow, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a squirrel? I tried that, but it didn't work. Well, I didn't have a dead cat, and the live cat wouldn't go along, but, I still don't think it would work.

Will you pleeeeeze put in a good word for my tweets? http://twitter.com/DCSquirrel Thanx, Luv and nuts, DC Squirrel

Yes: Everyone should be following DCSquirrel. He would prefer to be on Chitter, but Twitter will have to do.


Are squirrrels protective of, or territorial about the nuts around their living areas when they perceive a threat by humans or other non-squirrel animals ?

Yes, they will sometimes pretend to bury a nut in one place and then bury it in another place. Reputedly, they are more likely to do that when they are being watched, but how does one tell when a squirrel thinks he is being watched or not being watched....

Is it legal to hunt and eat squirrels in the District? Sincerely, Surviving the Government Shutdown

Not since 1906.

Jake, our aging black labrador retrieved, would like to get to know the city's squirrels a little better. He is curious to know how to get them to run more slowly.

There was a Maryland squirrel resarcher, the late Vagn Flyger, who studied squirrels by putting out peanut butter laced with Valium. When the squirrels conked out, he would take them and mark them so he could tell one from another.

I took a 30-min walk on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial during lunch recently and counted over 50 squirrels! Anyone who has observed them for more than a few minutes can see that their main source of sustenance comes from overflowing garbage cans. My question: Does the overabundant mono-culture of mostly cute squirrels on the Mall hlep keep less desirable rodent infestations, like rats, at bay?

Rats are active at night. Try the same walk at night and you will see how many rats there are.

I find it hard to believe this woman can have a tame squirrel that wears all these clothes. I've inspected the images closely and cannot determine if they are just stuffed squirrels.

God, I hope that's a stuffed squirrel. If it's alive, imagine what it does for its ego being forced to wear all those outfits. The 9/11 image is real classy.

Do squirrels live in extended families? We often have 3 squirrels at once at our feeder.

They  may be related to one another, but gray squirrels are not very social. They will share a nest in cold weather.

I've had to cut down two old-growth oak trees in the past two years because of disease, and I notice that fewer squirrels visit my yard, probably because there are fewer acorns and less cover for them. Are there any particular trees or shrubs (other than oaks) that I could plant to attract squirrels and chipmunks?

You could try other nut trees such as hickories and walnuts. Chipmunks will go out onto a road to pick up pieces of nuts and expose themselves to being run over. Bear that in mind if your yard is near a road.

I've been trapping squirrels with a Havahart trap and taking them to the park. I live in the city and, given the traffic, assumed that 3 miles would be far enough to prevent their return. However, I'm up to 28 and wondering if they just want to go for a ride in my car.

I bet you're getting different squirrels, moving in after the competition is gone. And I hate to tell you this, but unless you're releasing the squirrels on a friend's property, you're probably breaking the law. Parks don't like it when you drop animals off there, even if they're wild animals.

But your story reminds me of something I heard from a ranger at Prince William Forest Park: They stopped a man who ws releasing an orange squirrel into the park. Like you, the man had been trapping and repatriating squirrels from his yard. But he didn't know whether the squirrels that came were new squirrels or old squirrels returning. So he spraypainted one DayGlo orange so if it came back he'd KNOW it was one he had trapped.

Have either of you eaten squirrel? Do they taste like chicken?

Yes, but not one of my favorites. Well, sort of like chicken in that they are a mild meat. I wonder if the taste is influenced by what they eat.

I feed the squirrels black oil and striped seeds plus peanuts. Do the seeds help with grinding down their teeth? I didn't know that they continue to grow, and don't know that the seeds would help.

Not as much as a hickory nut or walnut. They would probably have problems on a straight diet of peanuts.

I remember Mike Huckabee stating he ate squirrels. He said something about putting them in a blender, but he may have been joking (or not). Do squirrels blend well?

Too many bones for a blender.

I have always that an oversized squirrel would make for a great antagonist in a corny thriller with its rapid movements and sharp teeth. How large can squirrels become?

In college I started to write a novel called "Attack of the Killer Squirrels." It almost got me kicked out of my creative writing class. Sadly, I only wrote two chapters, now lost. The biggest member of the squirrel family is the marmot, up to 18 pounds. The biggest tree squirrel is the Ratufa. Our Eastern gray squirrels average around 500 to 550 grams.

Dr.Thorington, what is the chance that a squirrel who has only part of its tail, will live a normal squirrel lifetime? One squirrel, in particular, that I observe hopping like a rabbit, has done so, going on its second year now.

Yes, they seem to do pretty well without a tail. You might look to see if it affects his jumping.

Mr. Kelly, the other day you wrote that squirrels will kill birds and we won't see birds palling with squirrels. However we put seeds on the ground for both squirrels and birds and they all eat it at the same time. We have never seen a squirrel attack a bird.

It was Dr. Thorington who told me that. And then someone e-mailed me a photo of a squirrel snacking on a bird, too gruesome to post here. (Actually, I would post it, but can't figure out how.) I don't think birds are a squirrel's go-to food, especially when there's a feeder full of seed. But if he gets hungry and there's a bird handy, he might attack. Dr. Thorington also said squirrels have been known to eat fledglings. Of course, they'll eat baby squirrels too. Nature is rough that way.

I notice that some of the squirrels I feed on Capitol Hill are missing patches of fur. What causes this?

It may be mange. If many squirrels share the same nest, they can get lots of itchy external parasites.

I've rescued not one but TWO baby squirrels in my lifetime! The first was in Boston - two baby squirrels fell out of a tree and one died. Their mama didn't come to get the live one so my family took it in for the night. The next day, we set it back out and the mama came and picked it up! The second was in Foggy Bottom, a little black thing. Our pug tried to eat it. We fed it Pedialyte out of a baby medicine dropper, then brought it to the DC animal shelter on NY Ave.... do you think they handed it over to a wildlife rehabilitation shelter, or just let it die? I'm hoping it's not the latter...

I hope so too. The rehabber I spoke with said they start the littlest baby squirrels off on a special formula (not milk!) and then move to ground-up rodent chow mixed with liquid. By the way, she called the really little ones "pinkies," because they're all pink and hairless.

What might cause some members of a family of gray squirrels to start sporting beautiful strawberry-blond tails? Of approximately 15-20 squirrels, there are now 3-5 each year that have this strange unmatched tail (which look as if it were transplanted onto the gray stub of their original tail). Over the years, the red had lightened to a reddish-blond shade.

I have seen this too. I don't know what the genetic basis for it is.

Tourists seem to get a kick out of feeding the little buggers. Has this created an artificial food source for squirrels? Should we pass a local ordinance to "not feed the squirrels?"

It doesn't seem to do any harm, though it may increase the squirrel population somewhat.

How do you get them out of your attic? If you try to go up in the attic, they will just run through the rest of the house between the walls... Help!

I once did a column about trappers and what they did was make sure all the entrances/exits to the attic were sealed up except one. Then they waited till the squirrel (well, raccoon in this case, but the principal is the same) went out and they put a trap over that hole. When the raccoon tried to re-enter after its night of foraging, it was caught. I guess with squirrels you'd have to set the trap during the day when they were all out feeding. I don't think chasing them through the attic would work.

How many types of squirrels are there?

There are approximately 285 species of squirrel in the squirrel family Sciuridae. The "headquarters" of the family is in Southeast Asia.

I hear the Bronx Zoo cobra was trying to make a break and head for some of those yummy Washington squirrels.

According to Dr. Thorington's book, some squirrels develop a resistance to snake venom. So bring it, cobra!

I am aware of Dr. Thorington's interest in the introduction of black squirrels to the District in 1902 and 1906. The expansion of the melanistic trait is intriguing, and has garnered some interest in study of population genetics within an urban environment. But I was wondering if there have been any recent studies to determine if the behavioral ecology (e.g. home range size, foraging strategy, activity pattern) of these melanistic populations vary significantly from their more common gray peers.

Not that I know of.

I have seen squirrels making nests of leaves high in the trees. What kind of shelter does this offer in cold, wet conditions? Do they stay in the same "home" year round, or do they live in hollowed out tree trunks too?

I have wondered the same thing - how much does a leaf nest protect them from rain and cold. They will use hollow tree trunks, perhaps more in winter than in summer. They will frequently change where they nest, perhaps due to fleas and other parasites in the nest.

D.C. is full of tree squirrels, we know, but what about the delightful ground squirrel? Is there a good place in D.C. to find ground squirrels?

I have seen chimpmunks running around at the zoo.

Are chipmunks squirrels?

Yes, definitely.

How long do wild squirrels typically live in our area? Also, how long have they been around? Were they around during the dinosaur era?

The oldest squirrel fossils are from 36 million years ago, so that's after the dinosaurs were extinct. My understanding is that gray squirrels in the wild live about two or three years, on average.

That sounds like a feel good kid's movie.

The Little Chipmunk that Couldn't.

I have a cedar birdhouse in my backyard. I fill it with songbird mix, which birds and squirrels alike seem to love. I had a baffle, but the squirrel broke it, ate the seeds, and is slowly tearing apart and eating my birdhouse (literally eating the wood!!!!!). WHY is the squirrel doing this and how can he be made to stop? (I need solutions that do not involve getting rid of the birdhouse or anything that would harm the birds). I would also prefer not to kill the squirrel or shoot it or trap it. Please help. Thanks!!

Squirrels will chew away wood to get to seed. There is one birdfeeder which is cylindrical and has a base which will spin with the weight of a squirrel on it. It is not affected by the weight of a bird. These seem to work well.

That's all the time we have today. Thank you for your questions. And thank you Dr. Thorington for explaining squirrels to us. There are so many more things to write about, I think Squirrel Week will have to become an annual fixture in my column. And, yes, I may have to finally sample squirrel. I guess maybe I could  go to West Virginia for that.

Please enjoy the rest of Squirrel Week. Share your squirrel stories in the Comments section under my column. And send us your squirrel photos.

Thank you all for your interest and good squirrel-watching to you.  Dr. Thorington

In This Chat
John Kelly
John Kelly's column "John Kelly's Washington" appears Sunday through Thursday online and in The Post. He blogs at "John Kelly's Commons." He started at The Post in 1989 as the deputy editor of the Weekend section. Since then he's edited Weekend, founded KidsPost and been a general assignment reporter in Metro. He drives an old sports car and plays the drums -- though not at the same time. He lives in Silver Spring, where he has one wife and two daughters.

John Kelly column archive
John Kelly Q&A archive
Richard Thorington
Richard W. Thorington Jr. co-authored "Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide," published by Johns Hopkins University Press. As curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, he oversees a collection of 30,000 squirrel specimens. He has observed squirrels in South America, Southeast Asia and in many parts of the United States, and has published more than 40 academic papers on squirrel anatomy, behavior and ecology. He lives in Bethesda.
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