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Scott: These bushytailed critters provide endless fascination

May 11, 2013

When I’m asked to name my favorite game animal — which I was recently — I develop an embarrassing tendency to equivocate. The whitetail deer and the cottontail rabbit are undeniably strong contenders. I became a one-hit addict the first time I went deer hunting, and my zeal for everything connected to the sport hasn’t diminished over the ensuing 48 years. But on the other hand, my ongoing love affair with beagles has reignited a lust for rabbit hunting that had lain dormant since I was a teenager.


But what if favorite and pure unadulterated fascination were equivalent? With alternations only to punctuation, Webster’s third possible definition of the verb fascinate is “to hold the attention of by being very interesting, delightful, charming or captivating.” Under that set of criteria, my favorite game animal has to be the squirrel.


Missouri is home to two squirrel species that are classified as game animals, the fox squirrel and the eastern grey squirrel. I am, to say the very least, an avid squirrel hunter. That’s partly because Missouri’s squirrel season is longer than that of any other edible game species, but it’s mostly because the combination of woodcraft and marksmanship needed for consistent success fully meet my personal definition of the term “very interesting.”


But the truth of my eagerness to hunt — and to eat — squirrels notwithstanding, I don’t have to be armed to be fascinated by them. In fact — and I realize this is a hard concept for non-hunters, let alone anti-hunters to grasp — I guarantee myself the opportunity to have daily interactions with squirrels by keeping a feeder filled with corn in my backyard.


Watching the activity around the feeder has always been “delightful, charming or captivating,” but it’s also taken on a comical aspect since a beagle named Happy joined our household. Happy, whom I’m guessing had never before lived in close proximity to squirrels, became instantly obsessed with them. It only took the squirrels a few days to decide that it was safe to ignore a barking beagle, but it took Happy several months and a lot of effort on my part to reach the same conclusion. Now that she and the squirrels are nose-to-nose buddies, she barks at any blackbird that dares to raid the feeder. Beagles!


People with minds as inquisitive as mine don’t need the presence of an actual squirrel to be fascinated by them. For us, reading about the bushytailed critters is intriguing.


For example, while researching this column I learned that adult fox squirrels can reach weights slightly in excess of two pounds and are the largest tree squirrel in North America. Their size, coupled with their skill at defending themselves with tooth and claw, makes them relatively safe from predators and gives them the potential to reach ages in excess of 10 years. (That may be why it’s so hard to cut the gravy made from an old squirrel.)


The rub is that very few fox squirrels live long enough to reach adulthood. Female fox squirrels bear two litters per year with most births occurring in mid-March and July. Baby fox squirrels are weaned at eight to 10 weeks of age and may not be self-sufficient until 12 weeks. They’re extremely vulnerable to tree-climbing predators including raccoons, possums and snakes prior to leaving the nest. Hawks, bobcats and foxes leave a heavy toll in the first few weeks afterward.


A fox squirrel’s primary diet includes both hard and soft mast, grains and fruit. They occasionally eat bird eggs and insects.


Adult eastern grey squirrels weigh about a pound. Despite their relatively small size, they’re aggressive enough not only to discourage predation but also to dominate other squirrel species that share the same habitat. The eastern grey squirrel’s more omnivorous diet, which can include frogs, rodents and birds in addition to the plant matter eaten by other squirrel species, also gives them a competitive edge.


Most eastern grey squirrels are born either in late February or late June. They’re also very vulnerable to predation while nest-bound but are on their own at 10 weeks.


Please pardon my irrepressible feeling of sweet revenge, but eastern grey squirrels have been introduced to Australia, South Africa and several European countries. With the exception of Australia, which managed to extirpate the species, and South Africa, where geography has contained the animals, the results have mirrored those of exotic species introduced to North America.


Another almost unbelievable example of don’t-we-ever-learn is the introduction of Eastern grey squirrels to the west coast of the United States, which was already occupied by the Western grey squirrel. As a result of direct competition for habitat and to the spread of a disease carried by Eastern grey squirrels with no ill effects but which is fatal to Western grey squirrels, the native squirrel species may well become extinct.


If space permitted, I could go on and on. I am, you see, fascinated by squirrels.