I get that question frequently, for obvious reasons. Not only is the attrition.org mascot a demented angry squirrel named Lazlo, but I seemingly have a serious fixation on squirrels if you read my Twitter stream. For over two years, I have been feeding squirrels that made their way up to my balcony, some that come from a block away across a large parking lot. As a break from work, I will go to Denver’s City Park and feed the squirrels there. While part of my obsession of squirrels is sincere, part of it is for show because it is fun.
The core of the squirrel fandom comes from reading about and observing them. While some people see them as pests, in reality they are a great animal that exhibits traits our society could use more of. Sure, some of their traits are amusing and suggest they aren’t bright animals. For example, it is sometimes reported as ‘fact’ that squirrels forget where they bury half of their nuts. For every ‘fact’ such as this, you can find research that will contradict this in both directions. Quite simply, there are too many factors at play to really gauge this (e.g. other squirrels finding a stash, re-caching, wet conditions letting smell find a cache and dry conditions forcing them to use memory, etc). There is still debate if squirrels use their memory, smell, or a combination of both to remember where their caches are. Regardless of the answer to that question, in reality, squirrels demonstrate great intelligence in many ways; enough to keep people glued to Youtube watching their cleverness.
Turning to relative experts on squirrels, we see examples that set them apart. As summarized in this NYTimes article:
In their book “Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide,” Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell of the Smithsonian Institution described the safe-pedestrian approach of a gray squirrel eager to traverse a busy avenue near the White House. The squirrel waited on the grass near a crosswalk until people began to cross the street, said the authors, “and then it crossed the street behind them.”
Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, the Steele team showed that when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”
Squirrels don’t only learn from us humans, they have demonstrated that they even learn from each other. You call it crime, they call it survival! Still think squirrels are stupid? Consider that squirrels masturbate to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. This is the tip of the iceberg! Even casual behavior can have unexpected consequences. Some 30,000 years ago, squirrels buried fruit seeds in the Siberian permafrost, that were only recently found and regenerated into flowering plants, described as “the most ancient plant material to have been brought back to life“.
Finally, in the theme of cleverness, consider what a squirrel can figure out to get to a safe and renewable food supply:
For some reason, humans will frequently consider squirrels a pest while feeding and watching boring birds. Sure, they are colorful, but yawn! In fact, some people will go to great lengths to try to keep squirrels out of the bird food. Despite that, squirrels are dedicated and tenacious, which can also be provide amusement for us because we know they will move on to another food source if needed:
Like many animals, including humans, squirrels can be extremely fierce and protective if their young are threatened, or even when predators try to descend on their fallen comrade.
In summary, squirrels are cute, fun to watch, have great tails, and are intelligent little creatures. They exhibit many great traits like cleverness and have been around as long as, if not longer than, us humans. Honestly, what’s not to like?
Would you like to know more?
- Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide
- Squirrels at My Window: Life With a Remarkable Gang of Urban Squirrels
Finally, if you don’t accept my reasons or like squirrels, here is some advice for you!
Until then, I guess squirrels are my spirit animal.