A Transatlantic Tail – Grey Squirrel

I grew up in the United Kingdom. We don’t have many chances to engage with mammals in the wild there. Centuries of being shot on sight have understandably made the natives somewhat skittish. Fortunately for nature loving children there is one mammal that is bold, confident, active in daylight, cute, and best of all, is delighted to take food from your hand. That mammal is the divisive Eastern Grey Squirrel.

As a kid I loved seeing squirrels, and I took any opportunity to feed them. Some of my earliest memories of childhood holidays include hand feeding squirrels on sunflower seeds. Mum stood back, Dad showed us how to do it without getting bitten and my Nan squealed every time one of them got a little too close to her legs. Wonderful memories!

20170630-untitled (23 of 46)
Eastern Grey Squirrel

The Grey squirrel is the largest of Britain’s squirrels with a body length of up to 30 cm (11.8 inches). I have noticed that the urban squirrel appears to grow considerably larger, or maybe just fatter, than their country cousins. The squirrel has a trade mark bushy tail that makes us judge it against an entirely different set of standards to its close relative, the rat. This tail gives up to an additional 25 cm (9.8 inches) to the squirrel’s length.

This brush-tailed nut nibbler is common in British woodlands, but it is their presence in town parks and gardens that brings them together with humans. Grey squirrels understand that where there are people there is trash, and where there is trash there is food. Supplementing their natural nutty diet with discarded junk food, and being regular raiders of bird feeders, these animals thrive around people.

With a bushy tail and an engaging personality, Squirrels are charming animals and should be loved by all, but they are not. In fact, there are many naturalists who would cheerfully exterminate them entirely from Britain’s landscape.

20170630-untitled (20 of 46)
This British squirrel raided a picnic basket in a country park

So, what is the problem?

Why are these adorable little rodents so divisive? The problem is that they are not native to Great Britain. This alone should not be the cause of such hatred, as many of Britain’s mammals, such as Brown hares, rabbits and the Edible door mouse are non-native. Not only are Grey squirrels invasive, they have taken over from Britain’s Red squirrels. The bigger, more aggressive Greys arrived in Britain from the East coast of America. They were introduced in the 1870s by English ‘gentlemen’ who thought that the Eastern Grey squirrel was a suitably exotic addition to their estates. The problem lies in what the squirrels brought with them; Squirrel Pox. It is this hidden passenger, which the Red squirrel had no immunity to, that caused the rapid decline of the Reds, and not just the aggressive nature of the Grey as previously thought.

20170329-squirrel-2
An Eastern Grey Squirrel in San Francisco

Fast forward circa 40 years and I now find myself living on the East Coast of North America. I am now the invasive species in the home of the Eastern Grey squirrel. Fall was upon us and the parks and gardens of New Jersey were in full Halloween decor. Some of the pumpkin patches were looking a little worse for wear. I was sat on one of the enormous orange globes when I was startled by a real Halloween fright. A prodigious rodent burst from a hole in the pumpkin alongside me, scrambling up a tree in a whirlwind of tail and claws. I swallowed my heart back down and caught my breath. My initial terror of the unexpected rodent action gave way to astonishment; the rodent was black. A squirrel that was jet black!

20171215-untitled (4 of 33)
A black phase Grey Squirrel is striking against the New York snow

Sure enough, a little research revealed that the Eastern Grey has a black morph and that black morph is very common in the parks of New York and New Jersey. I have found the New York Botanical Gardens a particularly happy hunting ground for the this unusual colour phase.

DSC_0992
A blonde flecked black morph in the New York Botanical Gardens

It gets cold in the North East of the United States. Really cold! Winter temperatures of minus 10 to minus 20 degrees Celsius (14 to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) are not uncommon in winter. Studies have shown that in temperatures of minus 10 the Eastern Grey Squirrel’s black morph shows an 18% reduction in heat loss compared to the Grey. This may explain why I seem to see it more active in the winter, and in larger numbers in Canada’s southern province of Ontario.

20171215-untitled (10 of 33)
Eastern Grey Squirrels – Grey and Black phases together in New York

Back in Great Britain for a family visit I took my young son to walk the Gruffalo Trail in one of my old childhood haunts, Thorndon Country Park in Essex. This mixed evergreen and deciduous woodland is a hive of squirrel activity. These forest dwellers are noticeably smaller and more timid than New Jersey’s arrogant playground marauders that I watch mining for crumbs in unattended strollers. I can’t resist snapping some shots, and it occurred to me that I haven’t photographed a British squirrel since I was a very small child. Why do we so often look past our common wildlife? If squirrels were an endangered species I would hunt the forests of the land for a shot!

20170630-untitled (35 of 46)
A woodland Grey Squirrel in Essex, England
20170630-untitled (3 of 46)
An English forest squirrel enjoying nature’s bounty

Love them or hate them, the Eastern Grey squirrel is part of our daily lives. They have made themselves successful in the city parks and gardens of North America and taken over the forests of Britain as well as the city parks. In a world that we have created that is heartbreakingly devoid of wildlife, the Grey squirrel is here to stay. We cannot undo our reckless tampering of the planet’s ecosystem, so I for one intend to keep enjoying the company of these audacious little survivors.

 

 Join the conversation below. If you are reading this in a land invaded by Grey squirrels what are your thoughts on the matter? Should they be exterminated? What about their North American homeland, how do you feel about them?  👇👇👇

Connect others with wildlife by sharing this post on social media and, if you enjoyed this post, please follow Incidental Naturalist.

31 Comments

Add yours →

  1. I love grey squirrels! 🙂 They’re such charismatic animals and as you say one of the first creatures that we can really get close to as a child. I once saw a black squirrel in Hitchin (Hertfordshire) and it turns out there’s a small population of sooty looking squirrels that have made that town their home – looking forward to spotting a red squirrel soon!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh that is very interesting, Lucy. I didn’t realise that the black Grey had established a colony in the UK. I have only seen one European Red and that was in Ireland. I’ve seen a few North American Reds in Canada. Less tufty on the ears.

      Like

  2. Very interesting article. I loved it and often wondered what the difference was with the black squirrels.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I go to a university in Vancouver, BC, and our school is so populated with squirrels that we even have a Facebook page dedicated to them. Google tells me that we have a mix of red, grey, and Douglas. Huh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is fascinating — I’ve never seen a grey squirrel in the U.K., so I had no idea they were such a problem. But even here in the northern U.S. where they’re native they’re still unwanted in some places, because they really can be destructive (they chew electrical wires and such). I think they’re wonderful, though, and marvel at their agility, adaptability, and antics. Your photos are exceptional, by the way!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey Heide, thanks for your very kind words! It is true that there isn’t much that a squirrel can’t chew through, but I’m sure they think the same about us humans pests chain-sawing their forests down. I agree, they are wonderful!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, indeed … more than once I’ve been horrified to see a tree taken down that has several “squirrel condos” in it. Fortunately they have a lot less furniture to replace than humans do, and are much more adaptable too. 🙂 Thank you again for this charming and fascinating post!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with your views on the greys in the U.K. – I spent an afternoon in a photographic bird hide recently and found the other photographers attempting to shoe any appearance of squirrel away. It wasn’t until after they departed the hide that I took my best and most endearing shots of the afternoon (and a squirrel got a good, undisturbed fill of food as well). They are not as striking as the native reds for me but often have a lot more personality, and it seems harsh to blame them for the decline of the reds when there is nothing intentional about their impact.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment regarding the Grey in Britain. It is a tough situation. I’d love to see our forests hopping with Red squirrels and I applaud the efforts to bring them back. I hope we can find a time when there is room for both on our cramped little island, rather than speeding towards a concrete reality where there is room for neither.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I use to find grey squirrels rather cute, and loved taking pictures of them until this summer when they took a turn at my window boxes. Each time my Gerber Daisys bloomed they would bite the heads off and just leave them. They destroyed my flowers this year, so now I’m very annoyed by them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry about your Daisy’s. I wonder why they did that. There must have been a reason. Maybe the sap is sweet and they enjoyed licking it. I hope you can forgive them. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not sure why they did it. I have other gardeners also complaining about the behavior of squirrels, something we never noticed in years pass. In my case the squirrels were probably attracted to the backyard for the bird seeds, so I had to change the type of seeds I put out for the birds, so that my unwanted visitors would come less frequently. I have forgiven them at this point. Lol!! I hope it last till next summer….God willing!!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What gorgeous photos! Such detail! Oh I am envious. The squirrels have been taunting me. I’m in Vancouver, and often see both grey and black squirrels. I walk in a nearby forest every day and see squirrels every day but never seem to be prepared enough or fast enough to photograph them. Just today a black one posed on a log but by the time I got my camera sorted it had gone of course. The ones here are quite skittish. My sister lives in Montreal and has photographed a white one in the snow. I asked her if it was a winter coat but she said no, there’s a white squirrel (or more than one) living on Mt Royal. I’m hoping to photograph them when I got there for a visit over Christmas.
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, a white squirrel. I’m the snow. Now that would be a striking photograph! They are quick for sure. You might need to make a plan to go out with purpose to photograph the speedy little scamps. I have had to delete many a photo of half a blurred jumping squirrel. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  8. David thanks for this treatise on the grey squirrel. I must say, no disrespect to the grey, that I am taken by the classy jet black squirrel in your beautiful photos. That is one cute rodent!

    And talking of squirrels and your fright when sitting on the pumpkin, you may appreciate my recent encounter with an entirely different squirrel, a couple of weeks back, in our home in Sri Lanka. Hearing the dogs bark and a shuffling sound on the roof, I got up in the middle of the night to see what was happening. The flashlight pointed skywards, I saw, something undeterminate! A large furry tail, perhaps double the length of a fox’s bushy tail, was hanging from the ceiling inside the house. Could not see the body that went with the tail until the strange animal turned around to give me a direct stare! The size of a mid sized dog, it was neither a cat, nor anything else I could recognize. The next day I described my encounter to our Sri Lankan neighbor who readily explained by pointing to the tall trees around our house… that there was HIS habitat! And after looking online at photos of exotic Sri Lankan animals, I discovered that Sri Lanka is home to something called the GIANT SQUIRREL.

    So think of your cute grey squirrel from your childhood, or the more recent black squirrel, and imagine blowing up the entire animals from ear to tail about 500%!!!! Talk about SCARY!

    They are I found out, not much of a nuisance to humans, but that these giant squirrels wreak havoc in the country’s large coconut groves as they are particularly fond of coconuts which they have no problem opening.

    I urge you to go check the out – these giant squirrels are quite a sight!

    Thanks for introducing me to the beautiful black squirrel. My squirrel universe is expanding!

    Ben

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Ben,
      Yep, black squirrel really is striking. I love seeing them.
      Haha, thanks for sharing your giant squirrel story. A friend of mine spent a year living in India and sent me a photo of a giant squirrel. I don’t think she ever recovered. There are some things that you can’t un-see and a squirrel the size of a dog is one of those things. I would love to see one! If you have a big nut, you need a big squirrel to crack it, and a coconut is indeed a big nut!
      You can never have too many squirrels in your universe!
      David

      Like

  9. Sarebear's Writing Spot November 8, 2018 — 9:08 am

    Squirrels are awesome. Now I know why I would see the occasional black squirrel in the winter where I grew up in Southern Ontario, Canada!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. There are red squirrels in North Eastern USA, as well. Not very much loved for their habit of invading attics, along with flying squirrels.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The picture of that black squirrel is wonderful, David! I had no idea – love the color morph (and makes sense it would save the grey squirrel some heat in winter:). I’ve always loved squirrels, too. Any animal that can survive and thrive human urban expansion has my respect and actual gratitude. They’re an important reminder that we share the environment and that we’re all inextricably woven into that environment together. Nothing operates in true isolation. We all affect one another. – Thanks for another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. We have a family of 3 Grey squirrels on our university campus in Liverpool UK.
    Everyone adores them, students are always stopping to take photos of them.
    They always come running to us to be fed, by hand,they are just the most adorable creatures. They make my day 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Heartening to heat that in a world of dwindling and endangered animal species, atleast one is thriving despite all odds. Nice pics by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. We don’t have squirrels in Australia but we have urban possums. Though they are natives they are equally disliked by many, just like their human counterparts. So far the invaders of this land have failed to eradicate this darling native animal – not for lack of trying though they are supposed to be protected. Less sympathy for the human kind – the invaders had to pretend they never existed so that they can justify taking over their land.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I lived in Australia and was delighted to encounter a few possums. They are beautiful animals! The human surely should be at the top of the damaging invasive species list, and yet we do not feature. If we talked about humans in the way we talk about other trans-located creatures then the world would be horrified. I’m not suggesting that we should, but maybe we should be a little less aggressive towards other “invasive” creatures and understand that we cannot freeze constantly evolving eco-systems in a time that suits us.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: