Show squirrels some love on their special day: Squirrel Appreciation Day

  • A thick fur coat is essential winter attire for squirrels. This Eastern gray squirrel was out and about during the polar vortex last year when few other animals ventured out in the open.

    A thick fur coat is essential winter attire for squirrels. This Eastern gray squirrel was out and about during the polar vortex last year when few other animals ventured out in the open. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

 
Posted1/20/2020 6:00 AM

The much-hyped holidays of December leave many people in a funk come January. If you're one of those suffering from the January blahs, never fear. There's a special day to look forward to: Squirrel Appreciation Day! This big holiday is Tuesday, Jan. 21.

A thick fur coat is essential winter attire for squirrels. This Eastern gray squirrel was out and about during the polar vortex last year when few other animals ventured out in the open.
A thick fur coat is essential winter attire for squirrels. This Eastern gray squirrel was out and about during the polar vortex last year when few other animals ventured out in the open. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

In case you're wondering why on earth there's a day for squirrels, well, the squirrels probably scratch their heads over Black Friday and Casimir Pulaski Day. I say, what the heck, Squirrel Appreciation Day is a great excuse to walk in the woods to observe these native mammals, or just look out the window for a while. We might be surprised -- and cheered -- by what we see.

The squirrels we're most familiar with are tree squirrels. These are just a part of a larger family of rodents called the Sciuridae. There are more than 270 species in this family, including the gray squirrel and its compatriot, the fox squirrel. The chipmunk and flying squirrels, inspiration for so many lovable cartoon characters, are also in the squirrel family. So too are woodchucks and prairie dogs. Squirrel species are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. (Unfortunately, squirrels were introduced to Australia the 1880s, adding to the disruption of the beleaguered ecosystems Down Under. Gray squirrels also made their way to Europe, where they are ecological pests.)

Tree squirrels

Let's zero in on the squirrels native to Illinois. Our tree squirrels come in a bunch of colors and have more confusing names than you can shake a stick at. The Eastern gray squirrel is the common bushy-tailed squirrel of woods, parks, and suburban yards. Its coat has an overall gray cast, but if you look closely at a gray squirrel pelt, you'll see a mix of black, gray and brown, tipped with white.

A fresh snowfall is great for tracking squirrels. In this photo, you can see the hind feet ahead of the front feet. That's because a squirrel places its front feet on the ground first, and then puts its back feet down ahead of the front feet. Any guesses about which direction this squirrel was headed?
A fresh snowfall is great for tracking squirrels. In this photo, you can see the hind feet ahead of the front feet. That's because a squirrel places its front feet on the ground first, and then puts its back feet down ahead of the front feet. Any guesses about which direction this squirrel was headed? - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Some gray squirrels are white. They are either leucistic, with a partial loss of pigmentation, or, more rarely, albinistic, with complete loss of pigment and telltale pink eyes. Then, there's a black morph (form) of the Eastern gray squirrel. These black "grays" exhibit melanism, meaning that black pigmentation is dominant. There are pockets of melanistic populations in northeastern Illinois. Many are quite handsome in their jet-black coats, especially in the snow -- but they're still gray squirrels. Confusing?

It gets even more befuddling with our second native tree squirrel, the fox squirrel. Its pelage is reddish-brown, suggestive of a red fox. Its scientific name, however, is Sciurus niger -- which means "black squirrel." To further confound things, the fox squirrel is sometimes mistakenly called a red squirrel due to its reddish coat. But the real red squirrel is a different species. That feisty squirrel has a more northern and eastern range.

Do they really remember where they hide their acorns? Research shows that squirrels do not remember each cache. Random rummaging in the woods turns up enough nuts for them to survive. These tracks in the snow indicate that a squirrel got lucky!
Do they really remember where they hide their acorns? Research shows that squirrels do not remember each cache. Random rummaging in the woods turns up enough nuts for them to survive. These tracks in the snow indicate that a squirrel got lucky! - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Our third tree squirrel is the Southern flying squirrel. Lots of people are surprised to learn that flying squirrels are common in our area. They're beautiful little critters, with soft, light-brown coats and big, endearing eyes. They're strictly nocturnal, so their shenanigans go largely unnoticed by humans. If you're lucky enough to spot them while you're out taking a night hike, you'll find their antics entertaining. They scramble up tree trunks, then take the proverbial flying leap to glide down to their food source. Sunflower seeds at bird feeders are favorite snacks for them, so if you use a flashlight, you might catch a glimpse of them near your feeders.

Ground squirrels

As for the more down-to-earth squirrels, our native ground squirrels comprise the Eastern chipmunk, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, the Franklin's ground squirrel, and the groundhog. These terra-firma squirrels, like the tree squirrels, are muddled by misnomers and mistaken identities. And sometimes they do climb trees.

The thirteen-liner is frequently (and disparagingly) called a gopher. Gophers are a different beast entirely. Plus, gophers don't live in northern Illinois. Then there's the groundhog, saddled with nicknames like whistle-pig and woodchuck, which raises the eternally unanswerable question about "how much wood … "

Chances are, you haven't seen a Franklin's ground squirrel. It has the distinction of being a threatened species in Illinois. The Franklin's requires dense, undisturbed prairie vegetation -- itself a rarity in the Prairie State. Back in the day, the Franklin's was common in the northern two-thirds of Illinois, but now the species is relegated to isolated areas of restored or remnant prairie.

The Eastern chipmunk spends the coldest parts of winter in a dormant state, in a burrow or other protected spot. Chipmunks are not true hibernators and may come out during the mild spells of winter.
The Eastern chipmunk spends the coldest parts of winter in a dormant state, in a burrow or other protected spot. Chipmunks are not true hibernators and may come out during the mild spells of winter. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

The Eastern chipmunk is a voracious little rodent that is generally considered cute until it excavates your flower garden. With noisy "chips" and "chuks," chipmunks alert others to any possible danger under the sun, although few threats are serious enough to interrupt their stuffing their cheeks. Like the other ground squirrels, the Eastern chipmunk has an internal cheek pouch for carrying groceries.

Appreciating their antics

So, what's to appreciate on Squirrel Appreciation Day? All of these native species! Sure, we dislike it when they hijack the bird feeders, and we certainly don't want them in our garages and attics. But, as author Don H. Corrigan so succinctly put it, "the ubiquity, resilience, spunk and spirit of squirrels" is what draws us to admire them.

A makeshift box provided temporary shelter for this Southern flying squirrel. These squirrels are rarely seen due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A makeshift box provided temporary shelter for this Southern flying squirrel. These squirrels are rarely seen due to their nocturnal lifestyle. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

By the way, if you're still looking for the perfect Squirrel Appreciation Day gift for that special person in your life, try Corrigan's 2019 book "Nuts About Squirrels: The Rodents That Conquered Popular Culture."

Have a merry Squirrel Appreciation Day!

Don't put all the decorations away too soon, because Groundhog Day is just around the corner.

• Valerie Blaine is a lifelong naturalist with deep roots in the Prairie State. She welcomes your comments, questions, and suggestions at natvblaine@gmail.com.

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