January 21st is National Squirrel Appreciation Day and you may be wondering what there is to appreciate about these fuzzy-tailed rodents. Squirrels are easily the most frequently spotted mammal in urban settings, thanks to their uncanny ability to adapt and thrive within a fragmented habitat. Anyone who has gone to battle with a squirrel over access to a bird feeder can attest to the animal’s persistence and ingenuity. This month we celebrate all that is unique and honorable in these often overlooked and frequently maligned animals.
The most common squirrels occurring in Kentucky are the Eastern gray squirrel, the Eastern fox squirrel, and the Southern flying squirrel. True to their names, the fox squirrel has a distinctive reddish coloration quite similar to the red fox, and gray squirrels are a characteristic gray color. Southern flying squirrels are nocturnal, and therefore are much rarely observed in the wild. They are smaller than gray squirrels and are easily identified by the long flaps of skin between their front and back legs. Although not true flyers, flying squirrels are able to glide up to 150 feet using these flaps, giving the illusion of flight to anyone lucky enough to spot one. The record for the longest glide ever measured was over 300 ft.
Squirrels provide urban inhabitants a perfect opportunity to study animal behavior and cycles—that is, if you pay attention. Gray squirrels are very common in neighborhoods and are often one of the first wild animals observed by children living in urban areas.
Squirrels exhibit many interesting behavioral adaptations and can be admired for their agility and intelligence. Tree squirrels are well-suited for life in the forest canopy and travel with ease from tree to tree using specially adapted hind feet that can rotate 180 degrees. Squirrels rarely fall and are quick to recover if they do.
Squirrels are always alert to danger and will often considerately warn their neighbors of approaching predators. Keep an eye on the squirrel tail, which communicates everything from danger to social greetings. A fluffy tail indicates disturbance but a flicking tail is a warning signal. A squirrel with a shivering tail is nervous, but if you witness a tail waving side to side the squirrel is offering a friendly greeting. When threatened, squirrels will sit on their back feet in a boxing position and produce loud stress calls.
The Eastern Deciduous forests of Kentucky provide the ideal habitat for squirrels, with oak, hickory and walnut trees providing abundant acorns and nuts. Hoarders by nature, Eastern gray squirrels bury these prizes in numerous caches throughout their range in order to ensure they have enough sustenance to make it through the winter. Squirrels go to elaborate lengths to protect their caches and will often pretend to bury food if they feel they are being watched, in order to fool any would-be thieves. They also spend time moving caches from place to place. Squirrels have keen spatial memory that, combined with smell, allows them to locate and recover 90-95% of their caches. On the rare occasion that a stash is forgotten, a tree may grow in its place.
In the winter, squirrels leave behind their summer nests of leaves and twigs and look for sturdier homes such as hollowed out logs and tree cavities months. In the cold squirrels reduce their activity and typically spend less than three hours a day foraging. Despite the frigid temperatures in our area, you are likely still to see or hear these resourceful rodents heading back for food stashed months ago in preparation.
To learn more about squirrels and share in their celebration, visit The Parklands of Floyds Fork on Saturday January 18th. Drop-in between 10:00 and 2:00 at the PNC Achievement Center in Beckley Creek Park for an “Exsquirelsion” to look for squirrels in their native habitat. Second Chances Wildlife Rescue will be bringing flying squirrels so participants may get a close look at these fascinating nocturnal animals. This event is free and open to the public, but please RSVP. To learn about this and other upcoming events at The Parklands, visit theparklands.org/events.