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Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis
Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Suborder: Sciuromorpha
Family: Sciuridae

Many, see the article Sciuridae.


Several species of squirrels have melanistic phases. In large parts of USA and Canada the most common variety seen in urban areas is the melanistic form of the Eastern Grey Squirrel

File:Lightmatter wild squirrel.jpg

A Fox Squirrel eating a nut

A squirrel is one of many small or medium-sized rodents in the family Sciuridae. In the English-speaking world, squirrel commonly refers to members of this family's genera Sciurus and Tamiasciurus, which are tree squirrels with large bushy tails, indigenous to Asia, the Americas and Europe. Similar genera are found in Africa. The Sciuridae family also includes flying squirrels, as well as ground squirrels such as the chipmunks, prairie dogs, and woodchucks. Members of the family Anomaluridae are sometimes misleadingly referred to as "scaly-tailed flying squirrels" although they are not closely related to the true squirrels.

In United States and Canada, common squirrels include the Fox Squirrel (S. niger); the Western Gray Squirrel (S. griseus); the Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii); the American Red Squirrel T. hudsonicus; and the Eastern Grey Squirrel (S. carolinensis), of which the "Black Squirrel" is a variant. In Europe the Red Squirrel or Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is the most common native species, although the Eastern Grey Squirrel (S. carolinensis) has been introduced in some countries and has displaced the red in many areas, including most of Britain.


The word squirrel, first attested in 1327, comes via Anglo-Norman esquirel from the Old French escurel, the reflex of a Latin word sciurus which was itself borrowed from Greek.[1] The word itself comes from the Greek word σκιουρος, skiouros, which means shadow-tailed, because they use their tail to shade their whole body.

The native Old English word, 'ācweorna', survived only into Middle English (as aquerna) before being replaced.[1] The Old English word is of Common Germanic origin, with cognates such as German Eichhorn/Eichhörnchen and Norwegian ekorn.


Unlike rabbits or deer, squirrels cannot digest cellulose and must rely on foods rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fat. In temperate regions early spring is the hardest time of year for squirrels, since buried nuts begin to sprout and are no longer available for the squirrel to eat, and new food sources have not become available yet. During these times squirrels rely heavily on the buds of trees. Squirrels' diet consists primarily of a wide variety of plant food, including nuts, seeds, conifer cones, fruits, fungi and green vegetation. However some squirrels also consume meat, especially when faced with hunger.[2] Squirrels have been known to eat insects, eggs, small birds, young snakes and smaller rodents.

Ground and tree squirrels are typically diurnal, while flying squirrels tend to be nocturnal—except for lactating flying squirrels and their offspring, which have a period of diurnality during the summer.[3]

Predatory behavior by various species of ground squirrels, particularly the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, has been noted.[4] Bailey, for example, observed a thirteen-lined ground squirrel preying upon a young chicken.[5] Wistrand reported seeing this same species eating a freshly killed snake.[6] Whitaker examined the stomachs of 139 thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and found bird flesh in four of the specimens and the remains of a short-tailed shrew in one;[7] Bradley, examining white-tailed antelope squirrels' stomachs, found at least 10% of his 609 specimens' stomachs contained some type of vertebrate—mostly lizards and rodents.[8] Morgart (1985) observed a white-tailed antelope squirrel capturing and eating a silky pocket mouse.[9]

Relationship with humans

File:Eleanor Roosevelt with Soong Mei-ling.jpg

Eleanor Roosevelt in squirrel fur coat

Squirrels are generally clever and persistent animals. In residential neighborhoods, they are notorious for eating out of bird feeders, digging in planting pots and flower beds to pull out bulbs which they chew on or to either bury or recover seeds and nuts and for inhabiting sheltered areas including attics and basements. Squirrels use their keen sense of smell to locate buried nuts and can dig extensive holes in the process. Birds, especially crows, often watch a squirrel bury a nut, then dig it up as soon as the squirrel leaves. Although expert climbers, and primarily arboreal, squirrels also thrive in urban environments, where they get used to humans. Their intelligence makes them suitable as pets.

As pests

Squirrels are sometimes considered pests because of their propensity to chew on various edible and inedible objects. This characteristic trait aids in maintaining sharp teeth, and because their teeth grow continuously, prevents over-growth. Homeowners in areas with a heavy squirrel population must keep attics and basements carefully sealed to prevent property damage caused by nesting squirrels. A squirrel nest is called a "drey". Some homeowners resort to more interesting ways of dealing with this problem, such as collecting and planting fur from pets such as domestic cats and dogs in attics. This fur will indicate to nesting squirrels that a potential predator roams and will encourage evacuation. Fake owls and scarecrows are generally ignored by the animals, and the best way to prevent chewing on an object is to coat it with something to make it undesirable: for instance a soft cloth or chili pepper paste or powder. Squirrel trapping is also practised to remove them from residential areas. However, otherwise squirrels are safe neighbors that pose almost zero risk of transmitting rabies.[10]


This iron bird feeder is advertised as being "squirrel proof and bear resistant"

Squirrels are often the cause of power outages. They can readily climb a power pole and crawl across a power line. The animals will climb onto transformers or capacitors looking for food. If they touch a high voltage conductor and a grounded portion of the device at the same time, they are then electrocuted and cause a short circuit that shuts down equipment. Squirrels have brought down the high-tech NASDAQ stock market twice and were responsible for a spate of power outages at the University of Alabama.[11] To sharpen their teeth they will often chew on tree branches or even the occasional live power line. Rubber plates (squirrel guards) are sometimes used to prevent access to these facilities.

Squirrels are blamed for economic losses to homeowners, nut growers, forest managers in addition to damage to electric transmission lines. These losses include direct damage to property, repairs, lost revenue and public relations. While dollar costs of these losses are sometimes calculated for isolated incidents, there is no tracking system to determine the total extent of the losses.[12]

Squirrels are also responsible for burrowing into sensitive earthworks such as dams and levees, causing a loss of structural integrity which requires diligent maintenance and prevention. Squirrel burrowing activity has sometimes resulted in catastrophic failures of these structures.[13]

As pets

Squirrels can be trained to be hand-fed. Because they are able to cache surplus food, they take as much food as is available. Squirrels living in parks and campuses in cities have learned that humans are typically a ready source of food. Urban squirrels have learned to get a lot of food from generous humans. A commonly given food is peanuts, but recent studies show that raw peanuts contain a trypsin inhibitor that prevents the absorption of protein in the intestines. Therefore offering peanuts that have been roasted is the better option.[14] However, wildlife rehabilitators in the field have noted that neither raw nor roasted peanuts nor sunflower seeds are healthy for squirrels, because they are deficient in several essential nutrients. This type of deficiency has been found to cause Metabolic Bone Disease, a somewhat common ailment found in malnourished squirrels.[15][16]

Squirrels are occasionally kept as household pets, provided they are selected young enough and are hand raised in a proper fashion. They can be taught to do tricks, and are said to be as intelligent as dogs in their ability to learn behaviors. Pet squirrels are usually kept without cages, but large cage and a balanced diet with good variety will keep a pet squirrel healthy and happy. The pet owner must beware of "spring fever" at which time a female pet squirrel will become very defensive of her cage, considering it her nest, and will become somewhat aggressive to defend the area.[17]

As food

Squirrel meat is considered a favored meat in certain regions of the United States[18] where it can be listed as wild game.[19] This is evidenced by extensive recipes for its preparation found in cookbooks, including older copies of The Joy of Cooking. Squirrel meat can be exchanged for rabbit or chicken in recipes, though it can have a gamey taste. Unlike the healthfulness of most game meat, the American Heart Association has found squirrels to be high in cholesterol.[20]

In the U.S.

In many areas of the U.S., particularly areas of the American South, squirrels are hunted for food.[21] Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee mentioned his experiences eating squirrel during the South Carolina primary, saying that "When I was in college, we used to take a popcorn popper, because that was the only thing they would let us use in the dorm, and we would fry squirrels in a popcorn popper in the dorm room." He later told Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert that squirrel constitutes "a Southern delicacy".[22] The Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe of New Jesery considered squirrel as an inherent tradition.[23][24]

In the U.K.

For most of the history of the United Kingdom, squirrel has been a meat not commonly eaten, and even scorned by many.[25]

But in the early 21st century, wild squirrel has become a more popular meat to cook with,[26] showing up in restaurants and shops more often in Britain as a fashionable alternative meat.[25] Specifically, U.K. citizens are cooking with the invasive gray squirrel, which is being praised for its low fat content and the fact that it comes from free range sources.[26] Additionally, the novelty of a meat considered unusual or special has added to the spread of squirrel consumption.[25] Due to the difficulty of a clean kill and other factors, the majority of squirrel eaten in the U.K. is acquired from professional hunters, trappers, and gamekeepers.[25]

Some British are eating the gray squirrel as a direct attempt to help the native red squirrel, which has been dwindling since the introduction of the gray squirrel in the 19th century.[25] This factor was marketed by a national "Save Our Squirrels" campaign that used the slogan, “Save a red, eat a gray!”[25]

In culture

Despite periodic complaints about the animal as a pest, general public opinion towards the animal is favorable, thanks to its agreeable appearance, intelligence and its eating styles and habits. Squirrels are popular characters in many forms of media, such as the literary works of Beatrix Potter, Brian Jacques' Redwall series (including Jess Squirrel and numerous other squirrels), Pattertwig in C. S. Lewis' Prince Caspian, Michael Tod's Woodstock Saga of novels featuring squirrel communities in the style of Watership Down, and the Starwife and her subjects from Robin Jarvis's Deptford novels. Squirrels are also popular characters in cartoons, such as Scrat from Ice Age, Slappy Squirrel of the Animaniacs, Sandy Cheeks from SpongeBob SquarePants, Hammy from Over the Hedge, Benny in The Wild, Rodney from Squirrel Boy, Secret Squirrel, Screwy Squirrel, Nutty from Happy Tree Friends, and Rocky, Bullwinkle's adventuring partner. Grace from the webcomic El Goonish Shive is often pictured as an anthropomorphic squirrel, since it is her most natural and favored form. Video games such as Rare's Conker series starring Conker the Squirrel, as well as Ocean Software's Mr. Nutz. There is even a squirrel-themed super-heroine, Squirrel Girl.


Albino squirrel at the University of North Texas

Albino squirrels

The Albino Squirrel Preservation Society was founded at the University of Texas at Austin in 2001, and its sister chapter at University of North Texas (UNT) petitioned for an election to name their albino squirrel as the university's secondary mascot. The student body narrowly rejected the call.[27] University of Louisville in Kentucky also has a documented population of albino squirrels.

Olney, Illinois, known as the "White Squirrel Capital of the World," is home of the world's largest known albino-squirrel colony. These squirrels have the right of way on all streets in the town, and are featured on uniform patches of the local police department. Kenton, Tennessee is home to about 200 albino squirrels. There are also albino squirrels on the main campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Brevard, North Carolina and Marionville, Missouri have a substantial population of white (not albino) squirrels. Western Kentucky University has a locally famous population of white squirrels. Exeter, Ontario in Canada is known for having non-albino white squirrels, believed to be the result of a genetic mutation in the early 20th century. Black Squirrels with white tips on their tails are being noticed throughout Toronto, Ontario. White squirrels are also commonly seen in Dayton, Ohio and on the campus of Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. The snow belt in Western and Central New York (Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse) also has a significant white squirrel population[How to reference and link to summary or text].

File:Red squirrel feeding at sunset.jpg

Red squirrel at feeding tray in the lake district.

Red and grey squirrels in the UK

A decline of the red squirrel and the rise of the eastern grey squirrel has been widely remarked upon in British popular culture. It is mostly regarded as the invading greys driving out the native red species.[28] Evidence also shows that grey squirrels are vectors of the Squirrel parapoxvirus for which no vaccine is presently available and which is deadly to red squirrels but does not seem to affect the host.[29] Currently the red squirrel only resides in a few isolated areas of the UK, notably in Scotland, and in England Formby, the Lake District, Brownsea Island, and the Isle of Wight. Special measures are in place to contain and remove any infiltration of grey squirrels into these areas.

Under British law, the eastern grey squirrel is regarded as vermin, and at one point it was illegal to release any into the wild; any caught had to be either destroyed or kept captive. In 2008 the law was altered, allowing those with the proper license to release captured grey squirrels.[30]


See also

  • Squirrel fishing
  • Twiggy the Water-Skiing Squirrel


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  2. Tree Squirrels. The Humane Society of the United States. URL accessed on 2009-01-09.
  3. Törmälä, Timo, Vuorinen, Hannu; Hokkanen, Heikki (1980). Timing of circadian activity in the flying squirrel in central Finland. Acta Theriologica 25 (32-42): 461–474.
  4. Friggens, M. (2002). Carnivory on Desert Cottontails by Texas Antelope Ground Squirrels. The Southwestern Naturalist 47 (1): 132–133.
  5. Bailey, B. (1923). Meat-eating propensities of some rodents of Minnesota. Journal of Mammalogy 4: 129.
  6. Wistrand, E.H. (1972). Predation on a Snake by Spermophilus tridecemlineatus. American Midland Naturalist 88 (2): 511–512.
  7. Whitaker, J.O. (1972). Food and external parasites of Spermophilus tridecemlineatus in Vigo County, Indiana. Journal of Mammalogy 53 (3): 644–648.
  8. Bradley, W. G. (1968). Food habits of the antelope ground squirrel in southern Nevada. Journal Of Mammalogy 49 (1): 14–21.
  9. Morgart, J.R. (May 1985). Carnivorous behavior by a white-tailed antelope ground squirrel Ammospermophilus leucurus. The Southwestern Naturalist 30 (2): 304–305.
  11. K. Muston. Getting Squirrely. Daily Kos:. URL accessed on 2008-02-07.
  12. Tree Squirrels - University of Georgia
  13. (2006). Levee Safety Program: Burrowing Animals. Santa Clara Valley Water District. URL accessed on 2008-02-07.
  14. Jon Gottshall. Jon's World o' Squirrels. Jon's World o' Squirrels. URL accessed on 2007-02-07.
  15. Susan Saliga. Backyard Squirrel Feeding Tips. Wisconsin Squirrel Connection. URL accessed on 2007-02-07.
  16. Sara Rowe. Squirrel Tales: Care Instructions For Infant Squirrels. Squirreltales. URL accessed on 2007-02-07.
  19. It tasted like chicken. Retrieved December 19, 2008.
  20. Davidson, Alan (1999). "Squirrel". Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 750. ISBN 0192115790. 
  21. Kurlanksy, Mark. The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food--Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, when the Nation's Food was Seasonal. Penguin, 2009, p. 112
  22. 'Meet the Press' transcript for Feb. 10, 2008. Retrieved December 19, 2008.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 includeonly>Speiler, Marlena. "Saving a Squirrel by Eating One", The New York Times, January 6, 2009. Retrieved on 2009-01-16.
  26. 26.0 26.1 First, catch your squirrel...
  27. (Fall 2006). 'Baby' is no more. North Texan 56 (3).
  28. The Grey/Red Debate. Save our Squirrels. Red Alert North England. URL accessed on 2008-02-07.
  29. BBC. Virus threatens UK's red squirrels. URL accessed on 2008-05-30.
  30. Malvern, Jack Captured squirrels live to nibble again. The Times. URL accessed on 2009-06-07.

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