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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Praise of the Ordinary

Why do so many people hate squirrels? People joke about ways to get rid of them. There are horrifying Youtube videos of squirrels being shot to death. Even some animal lovers have issues with the furry thieves that find so many ingenious ways to get at expensive birdseed. I remember the (admittedly lighthearted) “wanted” posters and mug shots of squirrels sold at Wild Birds Unlimited (my favorite store, now sadly defunct). Because I have just had the delight of watching a pair of the furry-tailed rodents chasing each other up and down the pine trees in our back yard, demonstrating a level of energy that I am unlikely ever to have again, I feel the need to put in a few words in defense of squirrels.

First, let me concede that squirrels and humans have sometimes been in competition for food. Early settlers in Ohio described how masses of squirrels could take hours to pass through the trees overhead; one (probably tall) tale recorded by the Ohio Historical Society asserted that an “army” of squirrels took nearly a month. Squirrels raided the cornfields on which these early settlers depended, and farmers in the mid-1800’s had to submit squirrel pelts when they paid their taxes. If most of us still lived at this basic subsistence level, I could understand the antipathy, but most of us in the US have the privilege of more than enough to eat, generally readily available and not wrested from the ground by the sweat of our brows. So let us consider the common eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

These rodents were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 19th century. Once killing them was no longer the price of property ownership, they began a comeback, but the world they came back to was not the world of their ancestors prior to white settlement of eastern North America. The gray squirrel evolved in the eastern hardwood forest, that blanket of tree cover that once spread (almost) uninterrupted from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Given that such forest density is not compatible with most agriculture, clearing of the forest accompanied the increase in the numbers of humans. One might expect that such habitat loss, especially combined with extensive hunting, would be the death knell for a species, but such was not the case for the gray squirrel.

It was the case for the only other species that, as far as I know, existed in greater numbers than the gray squirrel. The Smithsonian Institution posits that passenger pigeons once composed more than twenty-five percent of all the birds in North America, numbering in the billions. The Europeans who came to these shores marveled at the size of the flocks, estimating them at over a mile wide and 300 miles long in the early 1800’s. Because the pigeons existed in such great numbers, they were exploited as cheap food for slaves and were killed in almost unimaginable numbers, often as many as 50,000 in a single day’s hunt in a single roosting or nesting area. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914. I for one am glad that the gray squirrel escaped such a fate.

Our world would be seriously diminished without the presence of squirrels. While I don’t ever intend to hunt them myself, squirrels are an important food source for bobcats, foxes, hawks, owls, and eagles, and I don’t want to imagine a world without sightings of such creatures. Many of us in urban and suburban areas are used to thinking of trees as things that we plant, ordering them from nurseries where they are specially tended and sent out for special events like Arbor Day, but the truth is that wild forests are partially planted by squirrels. Because squirrels are so industrious about storing nuts and seeds in numbers that even they cannot consume, they make much forest regeneration possible. Think of that the next time you see an oak, walnut, or hickory tree.

Besides, I admire the squirrels’ persistence. These creatures with brains the size of the walnuts they eat have managed to make our human habits work for them. When the hardwood forest shrank, they moved into our neighborhoods and made themselves at home. When wild nuts became less common, they found that sunflower seed feeders work at least as well as oak trees as food sources. When we put up baffles and “squirrel-proof” birdfeeders, they figure out new ways to get at the seed they want (providing many hours of wildlife-watching amusement for some of us). When we attempt to move them to new places, they often find their way back, sometimes swimming distances as great as two miles, with their furry tails held up out of the water. The only human habit they can’t adapt to is cars, as the numbers of dead squirrels on our roads attests.

I admit it—I enjoy and encourage the presence of squirrels. No other common animal is as smile-provoking as a furry-tailed rodent running up and down a tree, or sitting upright using its little hands to give itself a major case of seed mumps. Today, I praise this “ordinary” animal for its extraordinary ability to brighten a winter’s day.

1 comment:

David said...

I love squirrels. :) I don't mind sharing some birdseed with them. The birds seem to get their share.

Thanks for the history lesson; I'm sure when fighting for survival one would likely view wildlife differently.