McCallum: Squirrels

Sep 25, 2018

Lately it seems like everyone’s got a squirrel story. Newspapers, radio and the internet have been buzzing about the exploding population of Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray squirrel.

And we’ve learned it was bumper crop of nuts, berries, seeds and pine cones last fall that caused their numbers to skyrocket. Nature’s equation is simple: more food, bigger families.

So now Vermont roads are littered with flattened squirrel bodies - even on short drives. In fact, the other day I tallied up thirty-seven between two exits on the interstate without ever giving it my full attention. I’m told that squirrels can run up to ten miles an hour, but they’re still no match for the cars they seem to launch themselves toward at times like furry kamikazes.

Turns out that what we humans see as indecisiveness as they race back and forth across a lane of traffic, is actually their defense for eluding prey. That zig-zag tactic works well with foxes and hawks, but not so much with speeding vehicles. So while this season’s squirrel population may be enormous, the culling has begun along our roadsides.

And that may be welcome news for Vermont farmers, since those same squirrels have been invading many a field and orchard, leaving teeth marks in squash, melons, pumpkins and fruit before moving on, damaging but not destroying crops.

My own blueberry patch usually produces enough buckets of berries every summer to give away, but this year marauding squirrels, left me with only one measly cup. It was humbling to have to go out and buy blueberries for the first time in twenty-five years.

But even so, I have to admire my squirrel neighbors’ gymnastic skills as they turn on a dime, zoom up trees, scale walls and tunnel beneath even the most fortified garden fences. And they hold an important place in the natural world - spreading seeds that result in forest regeneration and serving as dinner for coyotes, raccoons and other predators.

Even some humans are said to find squirrels tasty - with the right preparation and seasoning - but whether baked, stewed or fried, don’t expect to find any on my supper table.