Next Saturday, January 21, is Squirrel Appreciation Day. So in appreciation of my backyard squirrels (which I love watching) and all of their relatives, I did a little research. The first thing I discovered is that a squirrel is not just a squirrel – they vary greatly from the ones in the yard. There are, apparently, over 200 species of squirrels living all over the world except in Antarctica and Australia in a wide variety of habitats. They range in size from 5 inches from nose to tail (aptly named the pygmy squirrel) to one that is three feet long (also aptly named – the Indian giant squirrel). All are rodents and all have four front teeth that grow continuously throughout their lifetime because they wear down due to regular nibbling.
The squirrels that live in trees are the ones I associate with the word squirrel. They are well-adapted to a variety of habitats, including urban and suburban areas. Of course, they are good climbers. Tree squirrels eat nuts and seeds, but also eat flowers, berries, and even *gasp* baby birds! Some eat tree sap which is somewhat of a delicacy.
There are also ground squirrels. This includes marmots, chipmunks, woodchucks, and prairie dogs. These squirrels live in tunnel systems under the ground, usually in large colonies, and are the most social of all the types of squirrel. A few ground squirrel species even hibernate. They eat nuts and seeds too, as well as insects and small animals.
The third type of squirrel is the flying squirrel. They do not fly and flap in the traditional sense – they glide. These squirrels have a membrane between their front and rear legs. When they leap and splay their legs, the membrane acts like a parachute, allowing the squirrel to glide up to 150 feet between trees! Unlike ground and tree squirrels, flying squirrels are nocturnal.
It will also surprise no one that squirrels play an important role in the ecosystems in which they live. They are indeed prey animals. But tree and flying squirrels also propagate many different types of plants because they bury nuts and seeds. They also disperse fungal spores. And of course, the burrows of ground squirrels are important to their ecosystems. All squirrels should be be appreciated! Even this one on my window feeder.