Squirrels: Unstoppable, insatiable, acrobatic

“Red Squirrel,” Hans Hoffmann, 1578

“Red Squirrel,” Hans Hoffmann, 1578

The next time you sit down to a breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup you can thank that wily squirrel. Legend has it that a young Iroquois boy saw a squirrel licking something running down the side of a tree. As curious youngsters will do, he decided he would try it. Lo and behold, the maple syrup industry had begun.

I have several bird feeders on my deck which attract a plethora of squirrels. I have long since given up on the latest “guaranteed squirrel-proof feeder.” I have tried them all. There was The Spinner, which cost over a hundred dollars (a gift from my daughter), which claimed to offer “hours of entertainment” in the form of watching it throw squirrels off into space. There was also The Squirrel Slammer, Squirrel Stumper and the mother of them all, guaranteed to baffle the most pesky hoarders, The Squirrel Be Gone. I have finally decided my dog Ponder and I can use the exercise, chasing them off the deck. But we both understand it’s a losing battle.

I am on a first-name basis with every employee at the feed store. They roll out the red carpet when they see me coming. They repackage the 50 lbs. black oil (my seed of choice) into two bags, so I can handle them. They eagerly tout their latest and most expensive squirrel-proof money-back super-deluxe guaranteed-to-work-feeder, which I politely decline.


According to Wikipedia, the word squirrel comes from two Greek words, skia, meaning shadow, and oura, meaning tail. This name alludes to the squirrel’s habit of sitting in the shadow of its tail.

Love them or hate them, squirrels are one of the few wild mammals with most people have had an interaction. Unlike most of our mammals, they’re diurnal. Their gathering and storing behavior, a very good habit (especially this year), guarantees their survival in even the worst of winters. Squirrels bury seeds and nuts in the ground and are considered extremely important to the growth of forests.

These small mammals are notorious but talented pests that take their antics right out of The Circus Book of Acrobatics. They can traverse any obstacle course planned to keep them out. They can leap 20 feet and turn their ankles 180 degrees, which allows them to face any direction while climbing and descend trees headfirst. They can navigate clotheslines, electric cables, downspouts, and most any device produced by man to keep them away.

I may not be able to keep squirrels out of my yard, but at least the amount of damage they can do is limited. In other places, squirrel incursions are a matter of national security. In Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base, there are over 150 nuclear missiles. They are protected by very sensitive motion sensors that trigger when anything breaches the fences around the silos. Well, it turns out squirrels don’t have much respect for this sort of thing. They caused thousands of false alerts, damaged wiring and foundations. The military tried a combination of chain mesh and steel fabric underground to prevent burrowing. The determined rodents chewed their way through it. Several other materials were tried, but they still got through. After many failures, engineers finally figured out a combination that seemed to work — a sheer slick plastic above-ground fence and a solid metal sheeting below. The squirrels are being kept out — for now.

There are places that celebrate the squirrel. In 1963, a kindhearted squirrel lover in Longview, Washington built a squirrel safety bridge over a busy highway. It was named Nutty Narrows. The city holds an annual Squirrel Fest, including ceremonies, parades, dinners, socials and entertainment. The town has since built three more safety crossing bridges and it is likely more will go up in the future.

One of my favorite fictional characters is the squirrel, Scrat, from the movie “Ice Age,” the sabre-toothed squirrel obsessed with collecting acorns, constantly putting his life in danger to obtain and defend them. This ever-hungry varmint spends all of his time chasing that elusive giant acorn and is beset with one calamity after another. His goal is to eat or bury it, but fate always gets in the way.

When the movie first came out, some paleontologists said the character looked a bit too ridiculous. Shortly afterward in Argentina, a fossil skull was discovered that very nearly matched his fictional shape. Their theory was that this ancient saber-tooth squirrel subsisted mainly on insects.

Now that would suit me just fine. I would invite those squirrels to my deck. I have lots of insects in the summer, particularly mosquitoes. They could spend their days lounging around, clearing the air of those pesky bugs that are more of a problem than any squirrel — because they eat seeds and not me.

Barbara Buono’s column appears monthly.