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Squirrels Are Rodents from The Sciuridae Family
The most essential of squirrel facts relate to its biological classification. A squirrel is a small to medium sized rodent, and is a member of the Sciuridae family. This family includes ground squirrels, tree squirrels, flying squirrels, marmots, chipmunks and prairie dogs. However, for most of us, when we say “squirrel” we generally mean tree squirrels, which are the most common in Europe and the USA. These are defined by their habitat rather than physiological preconditions, since they mainly dwell in trees. Within the world of tree squirrels, the most well-known genus is Sciurus, which includes the red squirrel, and also the common eastern gray squirrel of North America, which was introduced to Britain in 1876. Squirrels are indigenous to Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa, and they have been introduced to Australia.
Squirrels Are Highly Adaptable
If we were to collect only tree squirrel facts, we might say that the natural habitat for these rodents would be woodlands. However, squirrels are incredibly adaptable, and can settle in many conditions. Squirrels are found in almost every environment on the planet. But on a more mundane level, we could all probably cite some squirrel facts relating to their inventive integration into human environments. Since squirrels are diurnal (active in the day) and not particularly afraid of humans, it is common to see squirrels in urban and cultivated areas, for example foraging in trash cans and birdfeeders.
Squirrels Have Been Around for at Least 35 Million Years
The oldest squirrel fossil ever found is the Hesperopetes, which dates back to the late Eocene period. Among rodents, these were most closely related to the mountain beaver and the dormouse.
Squirrels Come in All Shapes and Sizes
Squirrel facts relating to different species indicate that there are wide variations in the physiology of squirrels. This is hardly surprising, since there are around 285 different species. They generally have large eyes, slim bodies and bushy tails. Their hind limbs are longer than the forelimbs, and their paws each have four or five toes. The fur coat of a squirrel, however, can come in many different shades, and while normally soft and silky, it varies in thickness. Size is also very variable. The African pygmy squirrel, for example, is usually 2.7-4 inches (7-10 cm) long. The Alpine marmot, on the other hand, can range from 21-29 inches (53-73cm) in length, and the Indian giant squirrel can grow to an enormous 3 feet, or 91 cm, in length!
Squirrels Don’t Just Eat Nuts
When we think of basic squirrel facts, most of us will conjure up the classic image of a squirrel and his trusty nut. It is true that squirrels store their food for winter, but these clever creatures actually eat a wide variety of plant life, including green vegetation, buds, conifer cones, seeds, fruits and fungi.
However, there are some interesting squirrel facts relating to diet, since squirrels are not in fact just herbivores. These opportunistic creatures have been observed feeding on insects, smaller rodents, small birds, lizards, young snakes and eggs. One species, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, is even more predatory. They have been observed, for example, capturing young chickens!
Squirrels Are Pregnant for 3-6 Weeks
Squirrels have 1-2 breeding periods each year which, for the common eastern gray squirrel, usually occurs once in late winter/early spring, and once in the summer/fall. Squirrels do not mate for life. A female squirrel will become receptive for less than a single day during the mating season. There are some astonishing squirrel facts relating to her physiological changes in this period − the scent she gives off at this time can attract males from up to 1640 feet, or 500m away! Male squirrels then compete to mate with her, and the most powerful earns the right to copulate first.
After this, the males depart and the female squirrel gives birth after around 3-6 weeks. Squirrels build nests of twigs and leaves, which can have a diameter of up to 12 inches (30cm). This is where the squirrel kittens are born, toothless, blind and naked. They are weaned at around 6-10 weeks and, if they survive their first year, reach sexual maturity at the end of this period. Not many will live this long though. One of the saddest squirrel facts is that most will die in the first year of their lives. Those that do survive usually have a 5-10 year life span.
Squirrels Can Damage Trees
In North America, certain squirrels have adapted to their surroundings by eating seeds almost exclusively. They live on a diet of conifer cones, either feeding on the seeds immediately or laying them down in secret larders, which are moist to prevent the seeds from germinating. This, of course, means that the trees cannot reproduce. However, a 1995 study suggested that the trees have evolved to offer some resistance to squirrels. In the Rocky Mountains, where there are high populations of red squirrels, the tree cones were found to have more resin, and thicker seed coats. This helps to protect the cone from the squirrels’ claws and teeth!
The Word “Squirrel” Is Anglo-Norman in Origin
There are a lot of squirrel facts pertaining to the history of names which this creature has been given. Since squirrels are active in daylight and so are commonly seen by humans, perhaps it is unsurprising that there is a rich etymology of different names for them. In Anglo Saxon Britain, the word for squirrel in Old English was ācweorna, which may be linked to the word āc, meaning oak. By the time that Middle English had developed, the word had mutated to become aquerne. It was then replaced by the Old French escurel, which comes from the Latin sciurus. The Latin word came originally from the Ancient Greek skiouros, meaning shadow-tailed. Clearly, the word “squirrel” has a long and complex history!
The Decline of the Red Squirrel Is Blamed on the Eastern Gray
If you asked people in Great Britain for squirrel facts, they would probably tell you that invasive gray squirrels have killed off “our red squirrels.” Such is the strength of this common opinion in modern culture, that gray squirrels are considered by many as a pest, and are legally classified as vermin.
The gray squirrel is native to North America, and was first introduced to Great Britain in 1876, when a group of them were released in Henbury Park, Cheshire. The Victorian society at the time were very fond of foreign and exotic animals, and did not realize that introducing new species might negatively affect the ecosystem. The gray squirrel population soon exploded. This was damaging for red squirrels partly because of the competition for resources. But gray squirrels also carry the squirrel parapoxvirus, which is deadly to red squirrels but does not affect the gray host. Nowadays, the red squirrel is protected, but there are believed to be fewer than 140,000 in the whole of Great Britain. They are mainly found in Scotland, the Isle of Wight, the Lake District and Northumberland.
Squirrels Are Inventive When Threatened
There are many fascinating squirrel facts about what happens when a squirrel senses danger. The first thing it will do is to stand perfectly still. If grounded, the squirrel will then run to a nearby tree. Squirrels tend to follow erratic paths when they run, in order to disorientate predators. If it is already in a tree when it senses danger, a squirrel will circle around the trunk.
In California, there are some mind-blowing squirrel facts relating to the battle between squirrels and rattlesnakes. A rattlesnake will use infrared to sense their prey. However, it is only worth using the energy to strike if the snake is sure it will be surprising the prey, since, in the case of a squirrel, its excellent reflexes help it to evade attack. Because of this, if a squirrel spots a rattlesnake nearby, it raises its tail and floods it with blood. This presents a clear signal to the snake, and informs it that it has been noticed. The element of surprise is gone, and it isn’t worth the snake’s effort to strike to squirrel.
Red Squirrels like Their Mushrooms Dried
There are some extraordinary squirrel facts relating to their more unusual eating habits. Certain kinds of squirrel, for example, are mushroom fans. And it’s not all about storing food stuff in trees. Red squirrels have been observed collecting fungi, and then hanging the specimens in the open air to dry out. This clever homemade mushroom jerky keeps better over the winter months. It also helps to keep insects out of their food stores.
Scientist Robert Lishak Can Speak “Squirrel”
There are plenty of interesting squirrel facts documenting how these little creatures communicate. They are capable of a range of vocalizations, as well as scent marking and using their tails as signaling devices.
When it comes to the vocal sounds they make, scientist Robert Lishak believes he has cracked the code of their language. He used software to depict the squirrels’ barks as spectrogram lines, measuring their duration and frequency. The vocalizations of these squirrels has been recorded using onomatopoeia, for example the calls “kuk kuk kuk”, “quaa quaa” and “muk muk”. According to Lishak and his team, a series of “kuks” indicates that a predator has been seen.
Olney, Illinois Is the World’s “White Squirrel Capital”
There are several populations of the rare and beautiful white squirrel in America, the largest of which is found in the city of Olney, Illinois. The city are extremely proud of their local squirrels, and are very protective of them. Laws have been passed giving the squirrels right of way on the streets, and there is a $750 dollar fine for running one over. Dogs must also be kept on a leash, and cats cannot roam freely. Each year, a squirrel count is held in the fall. There were once up to 1,000 white squirrels in Olney, but this number has fallen dramatically, to around 200.
Squirrels Know How to Fake It
There are many squirrel facts attesting to their intelligent and ingenuity. One such fact concerns their ability to play pretend. Squirrels have been observed performing fake food burials to trick potential thieves. This diverts competitors, such as birds and other squirrels, into digging into the fake burial store, while the real goods are hidden elsewhere.
In California, squirrels have also adopted a canny disguise to throw off predators. If a squirrel finds a dead rattlesnake, it will chew its skin and then lick itself. The leaves the squirrel with a dangerous smelling snake-like scent, which tricks other animals into staying away from the squirrel’s burrows.
The Original Brunswick Stew Contained Squirrel
In certain areas of the USA, squirrel meat is considered a form of wild game. There are many squirrel recipes which include squirrel meat, such as Brunswick stew. Squirrel is also considered a good substitute for rabbit or chicken. The meat is low in fat, but still high in cholesterol.
In Great Britain, squirrels have not typically been consumed, and the notion of “squirrel-eating” is often scorned. However, in recent years, wild squirrel is having something of a boom in British restaurants. It is considered a fashionable and novelty meat product. It can also be marketed as a useful environmental act, which helps to protect the endangered red squirrels.
In Norse Mythology, the Squirrel Is Known as a Gossip
In Old Norse literature, the red squirrel Ratatoskr has an important task. He lives in the sacred tree Yggdrasil, a magnificent Yew that connects the heavens with the realms of men. The tree Yggdrasil is home to several mystical creatures, such as the wyrm (dragon) Níðhöggr who lives under the roots, and the unnamed eagle who lives in the branches. Perhaps because of observable squirrel facts relating to their agility and speed, the Norse people imagined Ratatosky was a messenger, who would run messages up and down the trunk between the creatures. He also liked to spread mischievous gossip.
Squirrel Nutkin Is Not the Only Squirrel in Children’s Books
Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin is probably the world’s most famous squirrel, with his impertinent personality and Potter’s beautiful illustrations of him. But there are many squirrel facts which make them popular in children’s literature more generally, from their cute looks to their secretive and ingenious behavior. Other famous squirrels in popular culture include C.S. Lewis’ Pattertwig in Prince Caspian, Brian Jacque’s Jess Squirrel in the Redwall Series, and Miss Suzy in Miriam Young’s 1964 book, Miss Suzy. Squirrels also feature in many films and cartoons for children, including Scrat in Ice Age and Sandy Cheeks from SpongeBob SquarePants.
The Flying Squirrel Can Glide for up to 295 Feet
Some of the most spectacular of squirrel facts relate to the flying squirrel. They don’t really fly, but glide on the air using a furry membrane called Patagia which stretches between their wrists and ankles. This serves as a kind of parachute to help keep them airborne for their ambitious leaps between trees. Flying squirrels have been observed gliding for distances of up to 295 ft, or 90 meters! There are also able to make 180 degree turns while they glide, and use their thick paws to cushion the landing.
Squirrels Have Been Arrested for Espionage
In 2007, it was reported that Iranian police had taken 14 squirrels into custody. The squirrels were found close to the border, and were allegedly kitted out with various spyware. The official Iranian news service reported that the squirrels were suspected of working for foreign agencies to collect information. Cue plenty of “this is nuts” puns from bemused Western media in response to these bizarre squirrel facts!
The People of Longview, Washington Really Love Their Squirrels
In 1963, in Longview, Washington, there were a number of fatal squirrel accidents as the creatures tried to cross a busy highway. A local man built a bridge especially for the squirrels over the highway, and it was soon nicknamed “Nutty Narrows.” The 60 ft (18 m) long bridge was a success, and over the years the town has become nuts about squirrels! A Squirrel Fest is held annually in the town nowadays, and the bridge has been fitted with a live webcam. Three more bridges have also been installed to help the local squirrels go about their business safely.
Squirrel Facts – Facts about Squirrels Summary
There are many fascinating squirrel facts relating to these ingenious little creatures. Squirrels are small to medium sized rodents. Of the some 285 species, many live in trees, but squirrels are capable of living in almost every habitat on earth. Squirrels subsist on a range of nuts, seeds, and fruits, along with insects, eggs, snakes and birds, depending on the species. They famously store food for winter in secret larders. Squirrels are very adaptable, and can thrive even in modern urban environments.