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21 January 2010 @ 09:03 pm
January 21: Squirrel Appreciation Day  

When I found out that today is Squirrel Appreciation Day, I knew I had to blog about it. It was founded in 2001 by Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina with an affinity for and a dedication to squirrels. Squirrel Appreciation Day can be celebrated in different ways from watching documentaries about squirrels on The National Geographic Channel or Animal Planet, to researching squirrels online, from watching them in your own backyard to putting out a special feeder for them.

I decided to celebrate by posting some of my favourite squirrel photos which highlight their fiesty personalities. Sometimes aggressive, sometimes playful, squirrels are entertaining, cute and remarkably tame creatures that liven up the woods, urban and green spaces all around us. Here in Ottawa two species can be easily found: the smaller Red Squirrel, and the Eastern Grey Squirrel which occurs in two colours, black and grey.

Baby Red Squirrel

The Eastern Grey Squirrel also has a rare reddish colour phase, and some individuals may also have a combination of colours such as black and red. These individuals are not related to the Red Squirrel. I was fortunate enough to find such an unusual squirrel at Strathcona Park in July 2008.

Eastern Grey Squirrel - black and red variant

I've also seen one Red Squirrel with an unusual mixture of colours at Jack Pine Trail in June 2009. I am not sure of the reason for this variation.

Unusual Red Squirrel

The Eastern Grey Squirrel's diet consists primarily of seeds and nuts. They also feed on buds of several types of hardwood trees, berries, apples, and other wild fruits. I often have as many as five different squirrels in my backyard feeding beneath my bird feeder or coming to my back door for the peanuts they so dearly love. Yes, I confess to feeding squirrels; after many battles in trying to keep them out of my bird feeder I decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em......or at least distract them with more attractive food!

Grey Squirrel with peanut

Is this the place that gives away free peanuts?

Waiting for peanuts

The grey squirrel will also take advantage of other foods that are available, even if it isn't meant for them. One day I went to see the feral cats at Parliament Hill and found a squirrel feeding right out of the cat dish!

So this is what cats eat...not bad, and certainly tastier than me!

The diet of the red squirrel is more varied than the diet of the grey sqirrel. Red Squirrels are omnivorous and opportunistic; while they, too, eat seeds, nuts and cones of conifers, buds, berries, mushrooms, and flowers, they will also prey on carrion, bird's eggs, nestlings, mice, voles, young rabbits, frogs, salamanders, and insects when the opportunity arises. A friend recently noticed a squirrel nest which had a deer leg dangling from it! The flesh will serve as a source of protein, and the bones will provide minerals and calcium, helping the squirrel to survive the winter. Despite their small size and cute appearance, red squirrels can be quite fierce!

Red Squirrel at the banquet

Searching for food in the bird feeder

Out on a limb looking for buds

The Eastern Grey Squirrel will breed twice each year, first in January or February and then in June or July. After a gestation period of 40 to 44 days, the squirrel will bear a litter of one to six young, although three is the average litter size. A litter may contain both black and grey individuals.

Newborn squirrels mature quickly. By the age of five weeks they will have developed fur and opened their eyes. By eight weeks they will venture out of the nest for short distances. At about 12 weeks the young will be almost the size of an adult and quite independent of their mother. I was fortunate to come across a young grey squirrel on one of my walks; he was thin and quite cute, with a tail that seemed twice as long its body!

Baby Eastern Grey Squirrel

In contrast, Red Squirrels bear just one litter per year in April or May. Gestation lasts from 35 to 38 days and the average litter consists of four or five young, though litters can range from two to seven.

Squirrels are fascinating to watch and, when used to being fed, can be quite tame. There is a thriving population of Eastern Grey Squirrels at Mud Lake that will run right up to people looking for food. They will not only follow you if you do have food, but once one even tried to climb up my leg to get to the bag of seed in my pocket! As a result, there are many fat squirrels at Mud Lake in the late summer and fall!

Grey Squirrel looking for handouts at Mud Lake

Red Squirrels often come up to me as well, but tend to keep a respectful distance. More often, though, they try to drive me off by a show of aggression. Long before I see them, I hear them chattering, clucking, and sputtering at me from the treetops. Once located, I see the tiny feet stamping and the tail flicking as though it's trying to show me how dangerous it is. Far from being frightening, I find these displays endearing.

Giving me the stare

While the Eastern Grey Squirrel and Red Squirrel are very common, Ontario is home to four other species of squirrel. Franklin's Ground Squirrel has a small range in northwest Ontario near the Manitoba border. The Eastern Fox Squirrel is extremely rare and is found only on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. Ontario also has two species of flying squirrel: Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel. The Southern Flying Squirrel is mainly associated with the Carolinian Forest of the south and is primarily active between dusk and dawn, making it difficult to observe. The Northern Flying Squirrel, also nocturnal, is found throughout northern Ontario where they are just as common as the Red Squirrel - but very seldom seen!

Although Squirrel Appreciation Day is over as of the date of this posting, I hope you will take a moment to watch the antics of these small, charming creatures and consider how much poorer the world would be without them.

(Anonymous) on February 6th, 2010 01:01 am (UTC)
I certainly appreciate these cute furry things on four legs with the bushy tails :-) Those baby red squirrels are especially cute. I've seen a number of them at Andrew Haydon Park.

Mercurial Georgia (G.S.Y.H.): Bloomgsyh on June 30th, 2012 12:15 am (UTC)
Adorable squirrels
D'awww, they are so tiny and round!