Squirrels are either the adorable, fluffy-tailed creatures you love to pet or the greedy and incredibly crafty rodents that pillage your backyard before your own eyes. Some people are genuine in their love and admiration for squirrels’ acrobatic abilities and wits, while others – especially bird-feeders – have only turned pro-squirrel after giving up trying to defeat them at the feeder.
Whichever side of the barricade you’re on, there’s no denying that squirrels have a significant social, economic, and environmental impact – whether beneficial or detrimental. In this article, we’ll examine some of the ways squirrels benefit the environment, and next week we’ll discuss some of the situations when squirrels’ presence is no longer desirable – or downright detrimental to humans and the environment.
Thanks to their food-hoarding behavior, tree squirrels help plant baby oak trees by burying healthy seeds to eat later and forgetting about them. Along with some birds and a few other animals, squirrels act similar to flower pollinators for numerous native species of oak across eastern North America, and are some of the most important creatures involved in second-growth oak forest regeneration.
If you think of squirrels as cute and innocent little creatures, you’d probably baulk at the idea of eating their meat or wearing their fur as a garment. But game hunters in the UK and some regions of the US can barely keep up with the demand for gray squirrel meat, whose sweetness and nutty-ness make it a delicacy for many. Their soft and silky fur also makes for a wide variety of caps, bags, hoods, and even parkas.
Flying squirrels, common in Canada, Alaska, and North-Western America, are especially fond of truffles, the mycelial fruit of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus with a great importance for both gourmands and forest ecosystems, due to their antioxidant, antimicrobial, and immunosuppressor properties. The squirrel’s role in the symbiotic relationship between hypogenous fungi and plants is simple: they eat the fungi and produce fecal pellets, which contain fungal spores, yeast, and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, all essential components to trees’ growth and health. The excrements are then dispersed throughout the forest and allow the production of new colonies of fungi as spores germinate.
Most squirrels are vegetarians, with a diet consisting primarily of nuts, seeds, flower buds, herbaceous plants, roots, fruit, and fungi. However, they will not say no to juicy insects and frogs, and they’ll often grab eggs and nestlings from small birds’ nests in order to make a meal. In turn, they are an important source of food for many predators, including weasels, coyotes, American minks, Canada lynx, red-tailed hawks, red foxes, and bobcats.
Squirrels are considered humans’ closest (emotional, if not physical) connection to wildlife, providing fascinating insight into their lives and habitat. For many, they are delightfully ingenious animals, playful and clever; they also have a great sense of smell and the ability to learn from observing others. Their amazing acrobatic antics that include jumps, falls, swings, and climbs are an entertaining show for many park and college campus visitors, and they are often featured in books and artwork. Some people cannot resist their shiny eyes and wiggly noses and are even willing to keep them as pets (although in many countries it’s still illegal).
Compared to all other wildlife humans often come into contact with in their yards, parks, and on campuses – be it skunks, raccoons, possums, or Canadian geese – squirrels are definitely the most entertaining, least ugly, and most approachable of all. Whether they spiral down a tree trunk or scamper across the lawn, squirrels attract more attention and affection than any other wildlife – and that’s really worthy of our admiration and respect.
About the Author
Daniel Mackie, co-owner of Greenleaf Pest Control, is a Toronto pest control expert well-known as an industry go-to guy, an innovator of safe, effective pest control solutions, and is a regular guest on HGTV. Mackie, along with business partner Sandy Costa, were the first pest control professionals in Canada to use detection dogs and thermal remediation for the successful eradication of bed bugs. In his free time, he is an avid gardener.