With their bushy tails, death-defying leaps between trees and insatiable appetite for nuts, squirrels are one of nature’s most lovable creatures. But beneath the cute exterior, they are also a fascinating species with complex lives and some surprising abilities.
For example, squirrel-watchers have found out that they are gourmet chefs, of a sort. Along with nuts, squirrels love to hoard edible mushrooms, which they “hang” out to dry in between tree branches, creating a kind of jerky which lasts through the winter.
They also know a thing or two about gardening. Squirrels will eat nuts that germinate quickly (and hence spoil over winter) first, and leave seeds with longer gestation until they really need them.
The forests also owe a major debt to their squirrel populations. When they forage for nuts, squirrels disperse seeds like acorns far and wide, helping tree colonies to expand and survive. In fact, it’s reckoned that squirrels plant more trees every year than mankind does. That’s how busy they are.
And they are sanitary too. Just like us, squirrels know the value of brushing their teeth in the morning, using twigs to remove dirt from their teeth (which, after all, they rely on to penetrate tough acorn skins).
But there’s a darker side to squirrels – at least of you ask British red squirrels. In the 19th century, American gray squirrels were introduced to Victorian gardens as an exotic addition. But they brought a virus known as parapoxvirus, which decimated the native red squirrel population. Nowadays, you will struggle to find red squirrels in British woods, with just over 100,000 surviving.
Still, they are master survivalists. For instance, squirrels are ace at evading predators. When threatened, they run in complex zig-zag patterns that are hard to follow. They also have incredible reflexes. Their response rate is so quick that even rattlesnakes rarely bother to attack them, knowing that their attacks will most likely just result in wasted energy.
So, next time you are walking in the woods, salute your local squirrels: they are more complicated and impressive than many people think.