10 Neat Things About Squirrels
by Shauna Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

September 30, 2018

1. In the shadow of its tail.

The name squirrel comes from the Greek skiouros, which means shadow tail. Not all squirrels have bushy tails though; chipmunks, ground squirrels and prairie dogs all fit into this family and none of them have the big tail of the tree climbers we see. Of course, the ancient Greeks weren't thinking of these variations when they coined the word.

2. Tail with a purpose.

The bushy tail of a tree squirrel serves many purposes. It is used as protection from the rain, shielding the squirrel's body. When a squirrel is too hot, it pumps more blood into the tail to help it cool down. When it's in danger, it will flick the tail to warn other squirrels. When approaching a mate, the tail will quiver. And the tail is used for counterbalance as the squirrel runs through trees.

3. Reversible feet.

Tree squirrels are remarkable in that they climb down trees head first. They accomplish this by having hind feet that turn 180 degrees, allowing their claws to get purchase when the rest of the body is upside down. Your cat can't do that!

4. What they eat.

Squirrels are herbivores but many will eat animals, like insects, baby birds and eggs, when there is little else on offer. The worst time of year is early spring, when the nuts they have stored start to sprout (they cannot digest cellulose) and fruits and fungi aren't yet available.

5. Peanuts and sunflower seeds.

These are readily eaten by squirrels but it turns out they aren't the best source of nutrients. When squirrels fill up on them, whether fed by humans or pilfered from bird feeders, they can end up with metabolic bone disease. Worse, if peanuts are unroasted they contain an inhibitor that prevents absorption of protein.

6. Colour.

What we see in Canada are mostly eastern grey squirrels, though they may be black, brown or even white. The black colour of grey squirrels is a recessive trait, like blue eyes (think back to high school biology), so while it seems they should be less common, they are more cold tolerant and very common in Canada. White squirrels, on the other hand, are rare, but there are a few in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park and a handful of cities and towns across North America.

7. Invasion of black squirrels.

Calgary didn't used to have eastern grey squirrels, but six black ones were gifted to the zoo by the Toronto Parks Department in 1929 then released by a flood at the zoo. Many of the squirrels in Calgary today are descended from these guys.

8. American red squirrels.

These are the smaller critters with auburn fur and whitish underbellies. They're being displaced by eastern greys in many places, but they don't give up without a fight. Nonethelss, grey squirrels are bigger and they carry a parapox virus which doesn't make them sick but can kill reds.

9. Tricky hoarders.

Squirrels store nuts in caches and they have excellent spatial memory for where those caches are located. Sometimes a bird will watch a squirrel hide a nut then go and retrieve it when the squirrel is gone. Sometimes a squirrel will pretend to hide a nut, miming the digging, placement and covering of food while actually concealing the nut in its mouth to fool any watching birds. While being protective of their own stashes, squirrels are not beyond raiding somebody else's. They will actually move food found in another squirrel's cache to one of their own.

10. Good mothers.

When you see a squirrel with patches of fur missing, don't assume it is unhealthy or mangy. Squirrel mothers line their dreys with materials like thistle down and moss and often tufts of their own fur to make the nest cozy for their little ones.

Shauna Dobbie Copyright Pegasus Publications Inc.

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