Back to the Squirrels

text and photos : Norma A. Hubbard  (February 2022)

Living during a pandemic it seems like normal times were so long ago, and with no end in sight, some days can feel endless. Yet time does march on. It was five years ago I wrote about red squirrels, which at the time, I couldn’t believe it had been five years since I wrote about flying squirrels. Looking back, it doesn’t feel like that long ago, still it was 10 years ago I started writing for Info Hemmingford. So, on this 10-year anniversary, let’s go back to the squirrels, to the largest one in our area, the Eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

Even though the name might indicate these squirrels are grey, the fur colours vary. Most grey squirrels are a mixture of greys and browns, some have reddish fur, and some are completely black that are often mistaken to be another species, but they are not. Grey squirrels are native to our area. Quebec and Ontario have larger populations of black ones compared to other areas in North America. Studies suggest there might be a link between colder areas and black fur, however it is not conclusive. Studies in Toronto found that the black pigment is a dominant gene over grey; plus, black fur squirrels have more testosterone than the grey ones, which might make for a more aggressive suitor, thus allowing the dominant black fur gene to flourish.

Regardless of colour, the main feature of this squirrel is its large fluffy tail. Its tail is used for warmth during the cold months, and during summer heat waves it is used for shade. The tail is also for balance. Anyone who has spent any time watching squirrels know they are like Cirque de Soleil acrobats as they climb and jump in the trees, or while raiding our bird feeders! Their tails are used to signal danger to other squirrels along with a ‘kuk’ sound. And just as a cat might twitch its tail when angry, so do squirrels. Squirrels are very tolerant of each other, and fights are very limited as many squirrels will occupy the same territory with only their tails twitching, indicating they are annoyed. On the other hand, grey squirrels are pushing the smaller red squirrels out of any area they ‘invade’; seldom do we see both red and grey squirrels in the same territory.

In nature, the females make the nests, called dreys, in trees, or if no trees are available, they will make leaf nests on the ground. Squirrels sometimes invade our homes and make nests in attics or in walls, and in general squirrels can be quite destructive to property. A group of squirrels is called a scurry. Baby squirrels are called kits or kittens, and are born as early as March, or as late as August. Usually, litters in August are second litters of older females. Litters average 2-4 kits.

A kit is born blind with no fur and weighs only 15 grams, which is not even half an ounce! Within a month it can start to see, and its fur has grown in, including the fluffy tail. At two months old, kits will begin to venture out of the nest and by three months they are more or less adults on their own.

Grey squirrels are part of the ecosystem. Squirrels hide or cache food. This activity helps to seed the forests as they don’t eat all they hide. It is a myth that they remember where they leave their caches, they smell them. They spread spores while munching fungi. Squirrels eat a variety of nuts, seeds, plants, and occasionally bugs and bird eggs. Squirrels in turn are eaten by foxes, coyotes, hawks, and even crows and ravens will eat baby squirrels, but not without a fight. I once witnessed a mother squirrel attack a large crow who was attempting to steal her baby. She leaped from a tree onto the crow and grabbed her baby. It was quite impressive!

According to animal folklore, squirrels are industrious; they are also symbols of taking things as they come, to be adaptable, so that we are ready for change, even at a moment’s notice. Certainly, the pandemic has kept us in constant change with new rules almost daily. On the other hand, a squirrel’s spirit is also about joy and laughter, and to be mindful of taking what each day has to offer. So, while time seems to drag on, let’s be a little bit more squirrel-minded and try not to think too much about time, instead, let’s take the time to enjoy whatever we might find in each and every day.

Sources: Hinterland Who’s Who – Eastern Grey Squirrel [online];
World Birds/Squirrel Symbolism [online]