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Squirrel Stuff


If you've read The Runaway Dragon, you know that some of the guardsmen Meg brings on her quest drink the water from a stream in the Enchanted Forest with unfortunate results. Here's some information about what their squirrelly lives might be like after their transformation.


Shade Tails

Squirrels belong to the order Rodentia or "gnawing mammals," from the Latin word rodere, "to gnaw." Their incisors (long front teeth) grow all the time, as much as 6 inches each year. Rodents must gnaw a lot to keep their incisors from getting too long.
 
Other examples of rodents are beavers, muskrats, gophers, gerbils, hamsters, rats, and mice.
 
The squirrel family is called Sciuridae. There are more than 365 different kinds of squirrels in three large categories: tree squirrels, flying squirrels, and ground squirrels. We're focusing on tree squirrels here, but prairie dogs, chipmunks, and marmots are in the exact same family.
 
The word "squirrel" comes from the Greek word skiouros, a combination of skia or "shade" and oura or "tail." In fact, the famous philosopher Aristotle used the term, meaning "shadow tail" or "shade tail." The later Latin term was sciurus, followed by the Old French word escurel and the Anglo-Norman variation esquirel. Eventually the English wound up with skuyrell, which became our modern word.
 
The original name may sound poetic, but it's also scientific: squirrels really do use their bushy tails as parasols when it's sunny and hot!



Red, White, and Gray

The eight kinds of tree squirrels in the United States are Western gray, Eastern gray, Arizona gray, Eastern fox, Apache fox, Red, Tassel-eared, and Chickaree.
 
The coloring of tree squirrels matches the bark of the trees where they live, at least historically: gray squirrels are originally from hardwood forests where the tree bark is mostly gray, while red squirrels are from pine forests where the bark is red.
 
Red squirrels have ear plumes, tufts of fur on top of their ears.
 
Some squirrels' fur changes color for the winter, and it grows thicker to provide additional warmth.
 
The gray squirrel most of us know best is about 15 inches long, with a tail that's another 13 inches long. It weighs about 2 pounds.
 
The gray squirrel has no gray hairs in its fur. Instead, brown, black, and white hairs mix together for a gray look.
 
Some rare squirrels are white (albino). There's a town in Illinois called Olney that is famous for its white squirrels, which are protected there by law. Olney is known as "The White Squirrel Capital of the World."
 
The world's largest squirrel, the Indian Giant Squirrel, has a body that is 3 feet long. It lives in India and Malaysia, where it likes to raid the banana plantations.
 
The world's smallest squirrel is only 5 inches long, including the tail. That's about the length of a child's hand. It's called the Pygmy Squirrel and lives in Africa. It weighs less than an ounce, and its fur is brownish green!
 
There are no tree squirrels in Australia or Antarctica.



A Nutty Menu

Squirrels eat lots of nuts. They also eat new buds and shoots in the spring, as well as mushrooms and fungus. Other favorite foods include apples, cherries, rose hips, berries, corn, and the inner bark of trees.
 
Squirrels are mostly herbivores, but they've been known to occasionally eat beetles, salamanders, frogs, caterpillars, moths, grubs, insects, birds' eggs, small birds, and even the discarded antlers of deer.
 
Squirrels tear open pinecones to eat the seeds inside. I've seen pinecones in Sequoia National Park that looked like apple cores after people eat them. I suspect these were gnawed by squirrels.
 
For a sweet treat, squirrels will scratch maple bark to eat the sap (the same thing we use to make maple syrup for our pancakes).
 
Squirrels like people food, but it's bad for them—and that includes salted peanuts. If city squirrels look thin and scraggly, it's because they've been eating junk food, things like leftover pizza, stale hot dog buns, and chips out of trashcans.



What's in the Fridge?

Squirrels store food on their bodies in fat caches. They also bury food to eat later.
 
Gray squirrels bury just one nut in each hole, about 1 inch deep.
 
In contrast, red squirrels stash as many as 150 pinecones in a nice damp place that acts like a fridge, for example, tucked under a rotting log or next to a stream. These stashes are called larders or middens.
 
Red squirrels even dry mushrooms by hanging them on tree branches for a few days.
 
Just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, squirrels can pick out a rotten nut, probably by its weight and smell.
 
Squirrels have a very good sense of smell. They're even able to smell buried nuts and bulbs under the ground.
 
Squirrels lick nuts or rub them on their faces sometimes before burying them, probably because it's easier for them to find that smell later.
 
Squirrels usually remember the basic area where they've buried a nut. Then they sniff around to narrow it down to the right spot. They find the nuts again about 80% of the time.
 
As for that other 20%, squirrels are accidental tree planters. Each spring, some of the nuts they've buried and forgotten sprout and grow.
 
Some crows have learned that if they watch for squirrels burying nuts, they can dig them up after the squirrels leave.



Squirrels Have Moves

Kind of like frogs, squirrels have bulging eyes high on their heads, which help them watch out for predators. The eyes' yellow color acts like sunglasses.
 
Squirrels have multiple whiskers to help them sense movements like branches vibrating or the wind blowing, also to navigate as they travel through treetops. These vibrissae are usually placed above and below the eyes, on the noses, and under the chins, but fox squirrels also have some on their forearms.
 
Squirrels' front paws are like little hands with long, sharp claws, allowing them to get a good grip on tree bark. The soft pads on their feet also help.
 
When a squirrel goes down a tree headfirst, its hind legs rotate so that the feet go backwards, helping them to hold on.
 
Squirrels can use their clever feet to climb things like drainpipes, brick walls, and buildings.
 
A squirrel's tail helps it balance, whether while running or leaping. The tail also offers shade in the summer and warmth in the winter.
 
Like wolves and cats, squirrels use their tails to communicate with other squirrels, indicating whether they are angry, scared, curious, or willing to mate.
 
A squirrel can leap 8 feet straight across to another tree or up to 15 feet downward from a high branch on one tree to a lower branch on a second tree. It can also jump 4 feet upwards.
 
On the ground, squirrels run in a zigzag pattern, always staying close to trees. This is helpful when avoiding animal predators, but not when avoiding cars.
 
If you walk around a tree trunk with a squirrel on it, the squirrel will circle, too, staying on the opposite side
 
Another trick squirrels have for avoiding predators is to freeze flat against the tree trunk.
 
Rough tree bark is easier for a squirrel to grip than smooth bark. If you look close, you can see small scratch marks on smoother tree trunks where squirrels claws have slipped briefly.



Squirrel Stew

Predators that eat squirrels include raccoons, owls, foxes, hawks, skunks, cats, coyotes, opossums, snakes, and even snapping turtles, as well as weasels and their cousins, pine martens and fishers.
 
Another squirrel predator is the human hunter. In the American pioneer days, squirrel stew, pie, and dumplings were common foods. Some people still eat squirrels, especially in the Southern part of the United States. But the American Heart Association says that squirrel meat is high in cholesterol!
 
Cars kill a lot of squirrels, too.
 
Squirrels sometimes chew on power lines, even causing power outages. Squirrels walking on the wires can also cause short circuits. The squirrel is electrocuted when this happens. The NASDAQ stock market computers have crashed twice because of squirrels short circuiting the wires!
 
Squirrels are famous for raiding bird feeders and digging up the flower bulbs and seeds that homeowners plant in their yards. Many people consider them pests.
 
Squirrels can live as long as 10 years, but most last only 1-2 years due to predators and accidents.



Drey For Sale

A squirrel's nest is called a drey. It looks like a bird's nest, only it's bigger and is shaped like a ball.
 
Dreys are never built at the very tops of trees because hawks may attack them.
 
Squirrels always build dreys in trees close to other trees so that they will have escape routes.
 
In winter dreys can get too cold, so squirrels prefer dens made in holes in tree trunks, where they may curl up together in a heap to keep each other warm. Sometimes squirrels make dens by finding holes made by woodpeckers and enlarging them.
 
A winter drey is built with an outer wall made of lots of leaves and twigs woven together, then an inner chamber lined with soft things like straw, moss, feathers, bark, and fur. A winter drey is built in a spot where it will get maximum sunlight for warmth.
 
In summer dreys are lighter, more like platforms (or kids' treehouses!). They are placed in spots where the leaves above them will provide lots of shade, and far enough out on branches to catch the breeze.
 
Squirrels usually have more than one drey. That way, if a predator attacks one home or if it gets a lot of fleas in it, they have a backup or two.
 
Gray squirrels don't just build nests in trees. Sometimes they nest in people's attics, basements, cars, or even barbecue grills.



Catch Me, Cutie!

Girl squirrels pick their mates by having a bunch of male squirrels chase them. The male squirrel who wins the wild race—which features dangerous jumping, climbing and acrobatics along with noisy chattering—gets the girl!
 
Female squirrels are single parents. The male squirrels don't help them raise their young.
 
Young squirrels have to practice things like finding and opening nuts, racing along branches without falling off, burying nuts properly, and building nests.
 
While learning about nuts, baby squirrels will try to crack anything the size and shape of a nut, even rocks. They aren't very good at recognizing rotten or empty nuts, either, but they get better at it with practice.
 
To a young squirrel, a pinecone is a toy to play with and roll around. Young squirrels also play games resembling hide-and-seek and tag, which helps them learn survival skills.
 
Squirrels give an alarm call that sounds like a little bark. They also learn to recognize the alarm calls of birds.



Bonus Facts

Sometimes hundreds or thousands of gray squirrels suddenly migrate together to find new territory. In 1968, some 20 million squirrels migrated from 8 Eastern states. Unlike settled squirrels, migrating squirrels aren't at all careful as they cross roads and even swim rivers. While migrating, many are killed by cars, predators, drowning, and other mishaps.
 
Squirrels have scent glands in the corners of their mouths.
 
Like humans, squirrels can be right- or left-handed.
 
Squirrels occasionally eat dirt, possibly for minerals that may help neutralize plant toxins. They also take dust baths.
 
In Norse mythology, a troublemaking squirrel named Ratatosk is said to scurry up and down the sacred world tree, Yggdrasil, carrying messages or rather gossip between the eagle at the top and the dragon Nidhogg at the bottom.
 
Check out Melanie Watt's very cute picture books about a squirrel character, starting with Scaredy Squirrel.



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