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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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? 👇👇👇
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