By Andrea McDowell, originally published March 2, 2011
Why these small animals rule our parks
Of all the wild critters universally beloved by children, the one you have the greatest chance of seeing in the winter time is the squirrel. They run, they play, they chatter, they stand adorably on their hind paws with their front paws held in front of their bellies like small furry beggars. They’re small and easily won over with a couple of peanuts. They’re also a lot tougher than they look, remaining active and outdoors throughout a Canadian winter. This might have something to do with all that black fur.
Until I met folks from various parts of the western and southern States, it never occurred to me that black squirrels might be unusual. In Toronto black squirrels are dominant by far, and remaining squirrels are grey; both belong to the same species, the Eastern Grey Squirrel. Black squirrels are actually grey squirrels, but they’re considered a significant enough variation to have their own name: melanized grey squirrels. Black squirrels are most common in the northern parts of their range, throughout eastern and central Canada. Why the black fur? While no one knows for sure, in the 1970s scientists were able to show that black squirrels conserved significantly more heat in the wintertime than grey squirrels did.
Unlike larger mammals, they don’t need large patches of undisturbed habitat and they are, patently, not afraid of people (or at least not for long-studies demonstrate that a squirrel’s response to the approach of humans will depend on the amount of human activity in that neighbourhood); they flourish in city parks and backyards. Squirrels also lie, which might help them survive their larger primate neighbours: when in the presence of conspecifics (relatives and other squirrels) or humans digging around in their food-hiding spots, squirrels dig and fill holes without food in them to frustrate any attempts at finding their food caches. Not bad for an animal with a brain smaller than a pea. And thanks to all the nuts they find, bury and then forget about, they plant a lot of trees.
Squirrels are also the subject of one of my favourite poems, by Canadian poet Ann Carson in her book Men in the Off Hours:
A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.
High on the frozen branches I saw a squirrel jump and skid.
Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced
down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed
in stiff recoil-or is it just that everything sounds wrong today?
He wiped his small cold lips with one hand.
Do you fear the same things as
I fear? I countered, looking up.
His empire of branches slid against the air.
The night of hooks?
The man blade left open on the stair?
Not enough spin on it, said my true love
when he left in our fifth year.
The squirrel bounced down a branch
and caught a peg of tears.
The way to hold on is
*If you’re interested in grey squirrels, there’s a wealth of information available at this link, and anyone looking for information on any wildlife species in Canada should make the Hinterland Who’s Who their first stop.
Cooper, Christopher A, Allison J. Neff, David P. Poon & Gregory R. Smith. “Behavioral Responses of Eastern Gray Squirrels in Suburban Habitats Differing in Human Activity Levels.” Northeastern Naturalist, 15(4): 619-625.
Innes, S. and D.M. Lavigne. “Comparative energetics of coat colour polymorphs in the eastern grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis.” Canadian Journal of Zoology (57): 585-592.
Steele, Michael A et al. “Cache protection strategies of a scatter-hoarding rodent: do tree squirrels engage in behavrioural deception?” Animal Behaviour, 2008 (75): 705-714.
Andrea McDowell coordinates environmental approvals and studies for wind energy projects by day and writes about environmental issues by night. This leaves twilight for hiking all over Southern Ontario’s conservation areas, parks and trails, taking photographs and cataloguing whatever she finds there at her blog Zoopolis (http://blog1.andreamcdowell.com). She has contributed to This Magazine, Spacing, Corporate Knights, Brain, Child and Rabble.ca. Send your questions or comments about natural heritage for possible use here to: firstname.lastname@example.org