October is Squirrel Awareness Month, so let’s celebrate by learning more about them. Many people see Eastern Grey Squirrels as pests – critters that eat all of their birdseed, hang out around urban trash cans searching for pizza crusts, critters that make homes in walls of houses, or garden pests – but squirrels are so much more than that! They are vital members of the ecosystem and are super cute to boot.
Squirrels (Scuirus carolinensis) have an important place on the food chain. They impact the levels below them by feeding on plants and even insects! They are some of the best Oak seed disperses (acorns), but they also love other nut producing trees like hickories, walnuts, and beeches. Similar to a hungry tween/teenager, juvenile squirrels are in their growing phase and need a lot of protein to make them strong and dexterous so they will often eat insects that they can catch and then switch back to their cache of seeds in the winter. These seeds and nuts are high in calories which helps to keep them well-fed during the winter.
Not only do they impact the balance of the level below them, but they also impact the ones above them – the predators. They provide food for a wide range of predatory animals like hawks, owls, fox, snakes, coyote, and even some weasels!
Squirrels have many incredible adaptations that help protect them from predators (although predators have adaptations that help them to catch sneaky prey). Their amazing agility makes them hard to catch. If a hungry fox is chasing them, squirrels will run in a zig-zag pattern to throw the fox off and if they need to, they can jump 5-6 feet straight up off of the ground, launching them away from the fox and into the safety of the nearest tree.
Prey species also have unique cranial structure. Their eyes are located on the front of their face and, like squirrels, have large, almost bulbous eyes that are somewhat angled upward. The position and size of the eyes allows the prey to be able to scan the skies for hungry hawks all while being able to monitor if something is sneaking up next to them. Humans and other predators have eyes that are more attuned to movement, and the squirrels know this! If they are afraid that something is watching them, they will either dart off in that zig-zag pattern or freeze. Their grey fur blends in with the forest canopy that they love and a predator will have a hard time seeing them if they aren’t moving!
By creating a wildlife habitat in your backyard, you’ll create a safe space for all of life! The squirrels can thrive and happily eat the nuts that trees drop and have nesting space OUTSIDE of your walls. Backyard habitats also encourage predatory species, like hawks, to help you manage the squirrel population if they get too out of control. By emulating nature, we can help to keep balance in populations!
Love these cute squirrel images and want to celebrate Squirrel Awareness Month? Bring them inside (without having chewed wires or drywall!) with art!