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NatureSpeak Articles

Squirrels (locals and immigrants)

There was a time, before the dawn of environmental consciousness, when it was both fashionable and socially applauded to wear "real fur." The dried pelt of a squirrel fetched 15 cents from the fur-buyer who visited our ranch a couple times each winter, and the proceeds kept me in pocket money and .22 shells.

In later years I have tried to atone for the transgressions of my youth by befriending the squirrels that visit our cabin. But, unlike one of my Whistler neighbours who discovered, too late, that much of the insulation in his crawl-space had been removed or rearranged, I draw the line at shared accommodation.

Four species of arboreal squirrels reside in B.C. The Red Squirrel ( Tamiasciurus hudsonicus ) and introduced Grey Squirrel ( Sciurus carolinensis ) have not discovered Whistler – yet. Our local residents, the hyperactive Douglas' squirrel ( Tamiasciurus douglasii ), and the nocturnal Northern Flying Squirrel ( Glaucomys sabrinus ) are abundant in both the surrounding forest and the suburbs where they are attracted to bird feeders – the Douglas' by day and the Flying Squirrels by night.

Here at Whistler the Douglas' squirrel, distinguished from the red squirrel by its orange belly, is near the northern limit of its narrow coastal range. In contrast the white-bellied red squirrel ranges across North America from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes but curiously does not overlap the Lower Mainland domain of the Douglas'.

Both red and Douglas' squirrels are at home in the evergreen forest where they feed mainly on conifer seeds supplemented by mushrooms, buds, catkins, ferns and, in the case of the more carnivorous red squirrel, bird eggs, nestlings, and mice. In the Fall, when the conifer seeds are ripe, a squirrel may cut the entire crop from a tree, gather up the fallen cones and carry them off for later use. They do not hibernate but, in winter, spend less time in the trees and more in their labyrinth of tunnels under the snow where the summer's harvest of cones and dried mushrooms is cached in a midden of discarded bracts and cone scales.

While able to fend for themselves in the wild, squirrels adapt quickly to suburbia where bird-feeders and warm attics provide an easier life. For many years the Douglas' squirrel occupied that urban niche in Vancouver but they are gradually being displaced by the Eastern Grey. In 1914, three or four pairs of grey squirrels were released in Stanley Park. By 1954 there were 45. Today they number in the thousands and have spread throughout greater Vancouver. Though the Douglas' squirrel is a feisty, aggressive little fighter that can usually bluff the much larger Eastern immigrants, it is not able to compete for the peanuts and birdseed that sustain urban squirrels for much of the year. So far the Eastern Greys have not arrived in Whistler but it is just a matter of time before they hitch a ride and discover another urban niche.

Written by: Jack Souther


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