This is a common view from my kitchen sink – the bird table is right outside the window and the grey squirrels (Latin name Sciurus carolinensis) like to dangle from it to eat peanuts or sunflower seeds out of the bird feeders. Sometimes they just hug the feeder and suck, so they get through an awful lot of the birds’ food.
They are rodents and some people call them “tree rats” and I think the above picture shows that beneath all that fluff they have a skinny, ratty tail. I took a similar picture in June last year but it doesn’t show this so well…
The Latin name for the squirrels genus, Sciurus, comes from two Greek words, skia, meaning shadow, and oura, meaning tail, referring to a squirrel’s habit of sitting in the shadow of its tail. The carolinensis part of the grey squirrel’s name comes from North and South Carolina, where the species was first recorded.
Grey squirrels were introduced into England at the turn of the 19th/20th century and soon spread to Wales and lowland Scotland. They drove out the red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), which are smaller and less robust. The reds can’t cope as well with habitat loss and die if infected with Parapoxvirus, which greys can carry without harm to themselves. Grey squirrels are classed as pests in the UK and it is illegal to release one back into the wild if you trap one. It must be killed humanely.
The red squirrel survives only on islands of England and Wales such as Anglesey (north Wales) and Brownsea Island (in Poole Harbour, Dorset). There’s a very good map showing the reds’ decline on this Garden of Eaden blog post.
I see “our” grey squirrels every day, although I can’t claim to recognise them individually. I once had the idea of calling two of them Dangler and Catchpole because of their eating habits – one reached up from under the bird table instead of hanging around – but to be honest they all dangle now. There is one – and I think only one – that stands up like a meerkat with its little paws across its chest. It seems to do this to listen.
There must have been a change of personnel over the years, as I have watched the squirrels for so long. They live for about 12 or 13 years – although up to two decades in captivity. Does my garden count as captivity?
We always have two or three squirrels around. If we have four – or very occasionally five – I start to panic about being eaten out of house and home. I once found a dead squirrel, killed by a cat, but it didn’t seem to be one of our “regulars”.
Here are some pictures of our squirrels taken in various seasons over several years…
Although grey squirrels are said to be creatures of the dawn and dusk, ours are pretty active all day unless the weather is hot and they take a siesta. They also don’t hibernate, so we have no respite from them eating the birds’ peanuts.
I wrote a blog post in February 2011 when I noticed the squirrels stripping bark from the ash trees, for their nests. See it here. The damage exposes the pith of the branches and blue tits suck sap from the bare patches.
Grey squirrels build a nest or “drey” from dry leaves and twigs, in the fork of a tree or a hollow in a trunk, but the structures are not, I think, quite as big and wonderful as those of their red cousins. Males and females may share a nest when mating and get together in one nest to stay warm during winter cold spells. Apparently they may also settle in attics and cause damage by chewing electrical cables.
They breed twice a year, with litters usually born in February to March, and June to July. There are usually two to six in each litter and the young are weaned at seven weeks and ready to leave the nest at 10 weeks.
In summer there is always at least one squirrel (very clearly a mother) that I call Titty! I haven’t counted properly, but there are either six or eight teats.
I have never seen a baby squirrel alive – although one year I found a young one curled up and dead in the top of a drain vent in the yard, perhaps poisoned, or perhaps starved, having gone there to keep warm?
The grey squirrel is one of very few mammals that can go down a tree – or wall, or fence – head-first. It turns its feet around so the claws are pointing in the right direction to get a grip.
When one of the squirrels is literally “up the wall”, high up, it makes a loud staccato squawking noise that sound to me like an alarm call, but I may be wrong. Squirrels also twitch their tails a lot as a signal, but I can’t read their semaphore.
I get the impression that the squirrel doesn’t have very good eyesight, but the scientists say it has very good sight – which it clearly needs to leap from branch to branch. The eyes are high on the head, which gives a wide field of view so that the squirrel doesn’t need to turn its head or even move its eyes.
Maybe that’s why, when it pokes its nose at the kitchen window, I feel I am not getting eye contact with it – as it is looking steadily at a wide area, rather than examining my face…