Squirrel Week 2014: Ask a squirrel expert

Apr 08, 2014

Squirrel Week is back and columnist John Kelly is here with University of Pennsylvania professor Etienne Benson to answer all your questions about how squirrels came to live in our cities, how we interact with them and anything else you want to know.

Want more squirrel chat? In past years we've talked about how to speak squirrel and caring for squirrels in need.

Hello and welcome to today's online discussion about squirrels. Our guest is Etienne Benson of the University of Pennsylvania. I kicked off my annual Squirrel Week with a look at Dr. Benson's research on the Eastern gray squirrel.

Now, Dr. Benson isn't a biologist or an animal behavioralist. He's a historian, which means he has a unique perspective on these ubiquitous animals. The main one is this: They weren't always so ubiquitous. Please ask him questions about the human/squirrel relationship. And feel free to share your comments on these bushy-tailed critters.

In case you haven't read it, here's Etienne Benson's article from the Journal of American History: "The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States." Don't be put off by the fact that it's in a scholarly journal. It's actually quite readable.

What’s going on with the squirrel week photos? will they be printed?

The gallery is up online. You can view it by clicking here. Well, here: "On the trail of bushy tails." I had eight of my favorites blown up and mounted on foamcore. They're hanging in the front window of The Post, on 15th Street NW, between L and M. Stop by and take a look!

When you see a wild squirrel can you pet it?

You can certainly try, though the results will probably not be great for either you or the squirrel, and may actual be illegal depending on where you are. Even when squirrels are used to being heavily fed by humans, as they were in many U.S. city parks starting at the end of the 19th century, they remained ... well, squirrelly. I've found photos of them sitting on feeders' shoulders and read descriptions of them running up pants' legs in search of a nut, but no one -- even those who made the dubious choice of keeping them as pets -- suggests they really like to be petted. However tame they may become, they remain much wilder than animals that have been bred for docility.

Is it possible to feed squirrels too much or do they just go bury their food when they are full? I sometimes feed them grapes which they seem to like but I get concerned that it could make their little furry stomachs wonky.

Several readers have reported incredibly obese squirrels in their neighborhoods, so maybe it is possible to feed them too much. For example, here is a photo of a squirrel holding a cheese cracker (Lance's?). This is one of the squirrels that shook down a Fairfax County golf course.

A very chubby squirrel eats some food it had found at Jefferson District Park in Falls Church, VA. The squirrels get seriously fat and the golfers got seriously annoyed.(Photo by Tom Gannon)

(Photo by Tom Gannon)

Why do squirrels engage in such risky travel behavior (i.e. crossing a busy road) when they see so many of their friends and loved ones not making it across the road....seems they would have developed a more sophisticated understanding of the danger of humans with speedy 2 ton vehicles hurling at their tiny bodies....Is the nut really the reason the squirrel crosses the road??

It's a fascinating question and points to the limits of squirrels' adaptability, at least so far. When squirrels were first introduced to U.S. cities in the late 19th century, there were of course no automobiles on the roads, though there were a lot of horse-drawn carriages and some electric trolleys. Urban squirrels have had more than 100 years to adapt, though, and nonetheless cars remain a huge source of mortality. In some cases, they may be taking a "rational" risk and just pulling the short straw, but in other cases it seems clearly to be bad call. Who knows, maybe in another 100 years urban squirrels will have evolved to figure it out -- or the urban landscape and our transportation infrastructure will have changed so much that automobiles are no longer a serious threat. (Jet packs, anyone?)

I´ve had one squirrel baby come into my hands, couldn´t keep it alive with the formula I have used for dogs and cats. What is a good formula mix for orphaned babies? Hopefully, something Handy.

Yeah, I don't think that stuff works. And neither does cow's milk. The best thing to do is call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, like Second Chance in Gaithersburg. The other hardship is that baby squirrels have to be fed every few hours, even through the night. And in order for them to poop properly, their nether regions have to be, um, stimulated. That's what the mother squirrel does. Best to leave it to the pros.

I know this isn't about our US squirrels, but does anyone know the status of the little red squirrels over in the UK? I had heard they were on the decline and seriously threatened. I loved those tuft-eared cuties when I went to England in the 1970s and was sad to learn that they are disappearing.

I wrote about red squirrels during Squirrel Week 2012: "Brits rally to save red squirrels from invasive grays." The reds are definitely endangered. It isn't just that the grays are bigger and pushier and eat all the food. They can also carry a nasty little thing called "squirrel pox." Grays don't suffer ill effects, but it kills reds. There are few redoubts where the reds are hanging on, mainly up north.

Interesting about squirrels introduced to US cities, but what about urban squirrels in cities Canada, UK, India, etc.? Indian palm squirrels all over Delhi landmarks. Can't avoid Ottawa's black squirrels, either. There are Persian squirrels in Istanbul, & even Thai squirrels in Hong Kong!

Really glad you brought up the international perspective. I was recently lucky enought to see a white squirrel in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park, which some friends had pointed me towards, but I haven't had a chance to see Delhi's palm squirrels yet. There are squirrels all over the world, but people's relationships to them differ both in time and space, and not just because of biological differences between species. By focusing my research on one place, the U.S., I've tried to show how the "same" animal can enter into very different relationship with people depending on landscape, technology, culture, etc. I eagerly await the work of the global squirrel historians. 

Dr. Benson: One of the points you raise in your paper is how the way American city dwellers think of squirrels has changed over the last 150 years. Can you describe what you found in your research?

It's a fascinating story. Gray squirrels circa 1850 were thought of in a few different ways: as pests (swarming over corn and wheat fields), pets, or as wily game to be hunted in the deep woods. Then, because of intentional human introductions to city parks, they became the quintessential urban wild mammal, thought by many to be both entertaining and deserving of charity from compassionate, humane-minded, "civilized" urban residents. And finally they became ... well, whatever they are now: parts of the urban ecology, urban (rather than rural) pests, annoying neighbors ... . By tracking these changes, we can see how American ideas about the city, nature, and human-animal relations have changed over time.

I know of some people who have had problems with squirrels getting into their attic and creating a mess. What is the best way to prevent this?

You have to make sure there are no holes that they can climb through. And if they're in there, you probably have to hire a guy to get them out. Unless they're flying squirrels, which I believe are federally protected. Eight years ago I wrote a story about a guy who invented a device he claimed drove squirrels out. It's basically a strobe light that deprives them of sleep and drives them crazy.

Then once they're out you have to make sure you seal up every opening they could get through.

with "The Urbanization of Deer"? I realize this is off-topic, but deer are as big a nuisance as squirrels in my yard. And no matter how many berry-bearing trees I plants in an attempt to lure cedar waxwings, the damn tree rats always denude the trees before the waxwings' annual fly-by.

A great topic. Because they're smaller and thus less dangerous for drivers, and somewhat less voracious in the garden, and aren't associated with a disease like Lyme disease, squirrels have avoided some of the vitriol you can find in descriptions of deer populations. But I think the basic question is similar: How to deal ecologically, effectively, and ethically with the animals that we share the landscape with, and whose "overabundance" is often the result of our own actions.    

For all those people asking whether wild squirrels are really tame, I offer this:


Vacationing in Colorado and in pictures, I've seen squirrels with long hair on their ears. It stands straight up. What kind of a squirrel is this, where did they come from and where do they live?

There are more than 275 species of squirrels in the world. Chipmunks are squirrels. Groundhogs are squirrels. Yellow-bellied marmots are squirrels. I don't know which kind you saw, but several have tufted ears. The red squirrels of Britain have tufted ears.

This is strictly hypothetical. An IF question. IF my 2 year old get's bitten by a squirrel while feeding it should the father take him/her to a doctor? Remember this is purely hypothetical. An IF question. IF that father were to take the child to be seen by a doctor wouldn't that father get in some kind of trouble with authorities and IF that child were bitten by a squirrel aren't the odds in favor of that child being OK?

I'm neither a physician nor a lawyer, but for what it's worth, hypothetically speaking, I would say that the chance of getting a disease from a squirrel bite is about as small as the chance of getting in trouble with the authorities for feeding a squirrel.  

Dr. Benson: I've become infatuated with one of the earliest references to a specific squirrel in American history. You mention him in your paper. What can you tell us about Mungo, aka Skugg?

Not much, unfortunately, although like you I think he (?) is a fascinating character who deserves more attention from historians. Franklin wrote his epitaph for Mungo in a 1772 letter to a British correspondent, Georgiana Shipley, to whom he seems to have given the squirrel as a gift. The full epitaph is worth reading (it has something to say about Franklin's ideas about the independence movement, too), but I also like Franklin's little doggerel addendum:

Here Skugg

Lies snug

As a bug

In a rug. 

I've seen a few in the DC area. Is that a fluke or are they migrating southward?

Four years ago, during the inaugural Squirrel Week, I explained where our black squirrels came from. Indeed, it was Canada. They were introduced by the Smithsonian, something that I doubt would happen today.

By the way, black squirrels are the exact same species as gray squirrels: Eastern gray. It's just a different color. It's something to do with the genes. If you remember your high school Mendel and fruit flies and peas, you would know how that works. I don't remember it, actually.

I have see plenty of black squirrels over the years. There is a small population here in Alexandria. However, those individuals have always seemed to be smaller than gray squirrels. Lately, I have noticed some black squirrels near National Airport while commuting on the Mt. Vernon bike trail. These individuals are as large as gray squirrels and some are not completely black, but have a little brown mixed in. What gives?

These are probably just color variations. There are also white squirrels, mostly albinos, but sometimes interesting color variations, like the squirrels of Brevard, N.C. They have black eyes and a little black patch on their forehead.

I was wondering whether squirrels were considered pets in the early 20th century. There is a movie with Jimmy Durante called "The Great Rupert" which appears to have people out walking squirrels.

Squirrels have been kept as pets since at least as early as the 18th century, and I would guess much earlier. In the U.S., which I'm most familiar with, pet squirrels were often the orphaned offspring of mother squirrels killed by hunters. The babies were taken from the nest and then sold or kept as pets. I've found lots of advertisements for live squirrels in nineteenth century newspapers, as well as evidence that many people soon realized that they didn't want such a troublesome animal around the house. In the archives of the National Zoo, for example, I found letters from people wanting to donate their pet squirrels, which were sometimes accepted. I've never heard of people walking their squirrels, though, so that may have been a bit of filmic license. But who knows, people do crazier things. By the mid-20th century, squirrel pet-keeping seems to have become much rarer -- perhaps because it was so easy to see them in your backyard or the city park.

Why do they eat my auto wires?

To disable your vehicle so you can't run over them.

No, actually I remember reading somewhere that they may be attracted to or like the feel of electricity.

Any good recipes on how to best prepare a delicious squirrel for dinner - ours, not his?

I once had squirrel stew in West Virginia. It didn't taste like chicken.

This BBC recipe for braised squirrel specifies claret - would it be OK to use Chianti, or a boisterous Californian red? http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/sauted_squirrel_20328

Thanks for this recipe from Britain, where they really hate our gray squirrels.

When I worked near McPherson Square, I would see tourists taking lot of photos of the squirrels, as though they were exotic and fascinating. Are there areas of the world where there are no squirrels?

I used to think that only Antarctica and Australia were the only places without squirrels, but someone the other day said Australia had squirrels now. I guess they snuck in somehow. But even places that have squirrels don't have squirrels as forward as the squirrels in many parts of Washington. Lafayette Square, for example.

DC has been one of the epicenters of squirrel-feeding and squirrel fascination since the end of the 19th century, when a Smithsonian employee began introducing them to the Mall and the Rock Creek Park area. When I lived there a few years ago and was working near the Mall, I remember having to fight off the squirrels trying to get to my lunch (exaggerating only slightly). Lafayette Square has been one of the most important sites for urban squirrel history because of a debate that began in the late 1970s over what to do with the huge squirrel population there. The answer: stop feeding them so much. That marked a huge sea change in the way organizations like the National Park Service and others with responsibility for urban green space managed their squirrel populations. All of a sudden, "Do Not Feed the Wildlife" signs started going up everywhere.

How do you know they're not little pandas?

Because there isn't a crowd of people around them, gawking at their every move.

I would think they would be asking whether tame squirrels are really wild.

Well put. You can take the squirrel out of the wild, but you can't take the wild out of the squirrel. Did we learn nothing from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"?

Do you think it is silly to give squirrels names? It might sound insane but I have names for my backyard feeder squirrels according to gender and color. Regina, for example is a young black female squirrel that regularly visits the feeder and stands her own ground.

It may be silly, but it's also extraordinarily common. Naming is part of how we humans bring other creatures into our social worlds; it's what allows us to see them as individuals. As long as you're careful not to treat them as humans  -- which doesn't mean not treating them as individuals with personalities and subjective experiences -- I think you're ok. Regina sounds like a squirrel worth meeting.

I love black squirrels! How do they survive in nature though, when they can't hide from predators very well? Can gray squirrels have babies with black fur, or only squirrels with black fur? Thanks.

It's that DNA thing: If you know either or both parents have the gene for black fur you can predict the odds of the whether babies will be black, or melanistic, as it's called. 

I've heard conflicting things about whether there's an advantage to dark coloration. Some say it retains heat better and so might make it easier for them to survive cold weather. As for albino, it probably makes those squirrels a target for predators.

Dr. Benson: Your focus is on animals, obviously, but when you were researching squirrels you were interested in their existence in urban settings. How did the design of American cities -- and the ways they developed -- affect squirrels?

If American urbanites hadn't collectively decided to build large parks along the lines of New York's Central Park, or to plant trees on the sidewalks, or to favor development that allowed people to have yards and gardens, it would have been much, much tougher for squirrels to gain a foothold and thrive. In fact, it was tougher for them up until the late 19th century, when the city changed in just the ways I've described. So when we see a particular kind of animal flourishing in the city, I think we need to ask ourselves not only why that animal is flourishing by also why that particular city -- recognizing that cities are always changing -- makes it possible. 

Would you like your grey squirrels back? We have too many of them over this side of the pond, and they've for many years been eating our red squirrels' buried nuts.

Yeah, well you've been invading our shores with your late-night TV personalities: "John Oliver of 'The Daily Show' gets his own fake news program on HBO."

I've read that in England, the population of native red squirrels has been severely threatened by a disease, squirrel pox, that was introduced to the country along with gray squirrels, as well as by competition with the larger grays. Apparently, the grays have an immunity to this disease. At our home in Maine, we have both red and gray squirrels visit our bird feeders. The reds, though much smaller, are far more aggressive than the grays, so I'm not so worried about general competition. But I was wondering if squirrel pox is an issue for North American reds?

I've never heard of it being an issue, but that doesn't rule it out. Keep in mind that the European red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is in an entirely different genus from the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). The former is actually more closely related, in an evolutionary sense, to the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) that has been replacing it in the UK.

Dr. Benson: Most of your research has been on animals considerably larger than squirrels. But do you think there are commonalities between them and wolves or whales or other megafauna, as far as how humans think of them and treat them?

There are some practical differences that have serious consequences for the kinds of relationships we humans can establish with other animals: it's harder to keep a free-living whale, or a tiger, in a city park. But I think we can also learn something more general from look at squirrels, which is that our relationships aren't "hard-wired" by biology or ecology. They can actual change over time as we reshape the landscape and change our expectations and values.

Is there a bird food that will really discourage squirrel thieves stealing it? It seems that squirrels cannot read and so do not know that we have purchased squirre-resistant food.

I've seen a few things on the market. One is a bird seed that's mixed with cayenne pepper. Apparently, birds don't have taste buds (who knew?) and so the spice doesn't bother them. But squirrels don't like it. Until they do. Some readers have told me they develop a taste for it.

The other thing to try is safflower. I did notice that when I filled our feeder with safflower, the squirrel pilfering dropped. But safflower is pretty expensive.

The only fool-proof way is to keep the feeder at leat 8 to 10 away from where squirrels can launch themselves. Here's my column from last year on this: "A report from the frontline of the squirrel birdseed wars."

Squirrels in my yard drive me nuts by eating the buds off my camellia trees. I've asked my cat to go get 'em, but they are too fast. Can cats ever catch squirrels? Is my cat just out of shape?

Sorry to say, your cat might be out of shape. Cats can definitely catch squirrels and are among their most significant predators in urban areas. A word of advice: a straight chase is probably not the best strategy, since squirrels are quick runners and even quicker climbers. Your cat might want to try the stealth approach.

DC now has its own wildlife rehabbers, at Citywildlife.org who work with injured and orphaned squirrels. Are there any statistics on whether rehabbed squirrels survive when they are released in the wild?

That's a good question. I don't know the answer, but I think trained and qualified rehabbers do a pretty good job. They have a lot of practice with squirrel babies, since they're so common and come twice a year, after the spring and fall breeding seasons.

I think it is entirely appropriate to name specific squirrels. For example, I have a specific, adjective-laden name for the squirrel who chewed off all the new twig growth on my dogwood to line his/her nest. I would tell you the name of this squirrel, but you couldn't print it.

Is it Nutsy McSillypants?

What is the best weapon to eliminate a squirrel defeating a 'squirrel-proof' bird feeder? Heck...our largest discretionary expense has been feeding the birds, squirrels and deer this winter. This keeps the spouse happy...but the rodents empty the cattle feeder filled for them, defeat the squirrel baffle and keep the birds from their meals. Thought I might try barbed wire on the Sheppard's hook. I'm not going to use a .22. Figure I'd like to get a well-powered CO2 BB gun as the current Daisy rifle is near the end of it's life.

The best weapon? Forgiveness.

I once escorted a visitor from Belgium around the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore, and he took pictures of the squirrels. So I guess European cities (Brussels at least) don't have urban squirrels.

Having lived in Berlin for a few years, I know that they do have squirrels there, at least, but they are European red squirrels. While people will sometimes feed them, they are much less numerous and more reserved than the American gray squirrel, and indeed can be quite hard to spot. Whether a massive feeding campaign could change their behavior is, to me, an open question; but it's likely there are some biological-behavioral differences that make the American gray squirrel so striking to some visitors to North American cities. 

Can a dog out run a squirrel? I think mine did once & I was very surprised.

There are some specimens (skins and skulls) of gray squirrels that I've handled in the mammal collections of Harvard's natural history museum, the Museum of Comparitive Zoology, that were labeled as having been caught by the dog of a Harvard employee. So it's definitely possible.

Like a vicious squirrel pox outbreak, I've been spreading Squirrel Week throughout The Post. Here's my story from KidsPost today: "One paw washing the other: Oak trees and squirrels have evolved to help each other."



And here's a lovely photo gallery of squirrel-inspired home decorating ideas, from pillows to vases: "Squirrel Week: go nuts for squirrel decor."

Where do squirrels commonly nest? Do they use the same sites winter and summer?

They nest in tree holes and other cavities (see: pest control), as well as leaf nests of their own construction. Since the leaf nests are less weather-proof than the cavity-nests, they're more commonly used in the summer, and they are often abandoned and rebuilt when they become too disheveled or infected by parasites. 

How comes they're so clever? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsuVLsDyln4

Yup. This is a great example of their stick-to-it-iveness:



This is what I want to do whenever I see a camera aimed at me.

I'd love to see your selfies.

Our visitor from Australia went nuts taking pictures of our squirrels. They have a lot of exotic fauna Down Under, but no squirrels.

What surprised me in my own research was discovering that North Americans also went nuts over squirrels in the late 19th century. At the time, they seemed new and amazingly tame for a creature that had previously been thought of as a wild resident of the countryside. Something like seeing a coyote on the National Mall would be today, if the coyote were small, cute, and begging for nuts. 

I love being entertained by my backyard woodland gray squirrels. They jump, climb, and chase with periods of almost unlimited energy. I constructed a combination bird/squirrel outdoor feeding table stacked stand in the wooded area. I feed them a combination of wild birdseed and cracked corn. Because of the certainty of food, the birds and squirrels seem to just line up in the thicket and surrounding trees ready for their food once I replenish the multiple layers of the feeder. I think that the feed mix contributes to their energy levels. Do you agree?

That sounds like a reasonable assumption. You're probably very popular with the fauna.

There is a large squirrel poplulation at the Police Memorial near Judiciary Square. There was one last year who had only a partial tail who I haven't seen this year. What is the life expectancy of your average squirrel? Those Police Memorial Squirrels are fearless. I thought one was going to climb onto me to nest in my hair.

I've read that the standard life expectancy of a free-living squirrel is only 2-3 years, but that's likely to vary. In captivity they can live significantly longer. 

Why don't more people know about Ratatosk, the Norse Squirrel God? Is it because there are no squirrels in Iceland, where the Viking Sagas were finally written down? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratatoskr http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/norse-mythology.php?deity=RATATOSKR

Shouldn't he be Squirrelatosk?

Could feeding them constantly over a long period (several years) cause them to forget how to forage and live on their own? My husband feeds a large quantity of peanuts to a mob of them outside our house every day - throughout the day.

As early as the 1860s, I've found an article claiming that New Haven's squirrels had gotten so fat from human feeding that they were losing their grips and falling from the treetops. I suspect that was an exaggeration, but there's no doubt that squirrel behavior changes when abundant food is available. In the early 20th century, it was common to make analogies between urban squirrels and the urban (human) poor, and to question whether they deserved the charity they got or were becoming dependent on hand-outs. You can learn a lot about how people understand their society by looking at how they talk about animals.

Well that's all the time we have for today's squirrel chitter-chatter. Thanks for stopping by. Squirrel Week continues tomorrow and Thursday. I'll have some online only content later in the week and I'll be back with a column on Sunday to wrap things up.

I want to thank Etienne Benson for joining us. He's helped me appreciate that the relationship between humans and squirrels is more complex than I may have thought.

Thanks for all of the wonderful questions - too many to answer! Food for thought for many Squirrel Weeks to come. 

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.
Etienne Benson
Etienne Benson is a historian of science, technology, and environment whose research has to do with relationships between humans and other kinds of animals, particularly relationships that are mediated or transformed or brought into being by developments in science and technology. He teaches in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
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