Environmental Almanac

In defense of the eastern gray squirrel [from the archive]

No matter the type of squirrel, the creatures tend to inspire extreme emotion in humans, both positive and negative.
Tight shot of a gray squirrel perched on the edge of a dumpster. It's holding a half-eaten pancake in its front paws.

Eastern gray squirrels are very well adapted for life on campus. Rob Kanter

There may be no small mammal more ubiquitous or visible across the state of Illinois than the tree squirrel. While we generally think of a small rodent with a fluffy tail scampering on trees and burying acorns when we think of the word “squirrel,” the biological family they belong to actually includes a variety of different rodents, such as chipmunks and marmots. Within the genus of the squirrels we see there are two species that occur commonly here: the fox squirrel and the eastern gray squirrel. While both are found throughout the state, most cities only have one type; they rarely coexist. 

No matter the type of squirrel, the creatures tend to inspire extreme emotion in humans, both positive and negative. Squirrels are common fixtures at college campuses throughout the country, and often serve as a point of unity for the student body. However, depending on the campus, this unity can be one of care and admiration, or one of fear of an overly-aggressive population. 

Here at UI, squirrels such as those I fed on the Quad tend to fall on the beloved side of this spectrum. The eastern gray squirrels on this campus have been a fixture for nearly 120 years. Prior to 1901, the campus population was much smaller. University President Andrew S. Draper, thinking that increasing the population would be entertaining and increase campus morale, initiated the purchase of a group of eastern gray squirrels from “the city” that were “not afraid of people.” 

Outside of Campustown, appreciation for Champaign-Urbana’s squirrels tends to be muted. Much of this can be attributed to their habit to use vehicle wiring to wear down their teeth.  According to Jean Mengelkoch, Associate Mammalogist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, this is because some types of wiring are covered in a soybean-based product that makes it extremely attractive to squirrels. Mengelkoch has experienced this unfortunate tendency twice in her own truck, and says that the misfortune has also befallen several university vehicles. 

As irritating as this may be, we ought to remind ourselves that it is only an expression of a squirrel’s natural behaviors, and not a calculated attempt to make our lives harder! In fact, navigating our built environment is probably far more inconvenient for squirrels overall than their wire-chewing is for us. 

While eastern gray squirrels can clearly survive and even thrive in urban and suburban landscapes, their natural habitat is mature temperate hardwood or mixed forests. Squirrels evolved for climbing in such environments, using razor-sharp claws and the rare ability to rotate their back ankles 180 degrees, which allows them to descend head first. It is through a stroke of evolutionary luck that the very physical characteristics that make it easy to scamper up, down, and across trees in a forest also enable squirrels to climb buildings and other obstacles we place in their way. 

Despite their heedless ways and the dangers posed to them by human traffic, squirrels are in no danger of extinction, or even decline. So, you might be asking yourself - why do squirrels deserve any more of your concern than a species that is actually threatened, can’t be seen almost any time you go outside, and doesn’t chew on car wires? 

The answer, simply, is that they don’t. 

But imagine a world where squirrels don’t exist, and ask yourself: wouldn’t such a world feel fundamentally different than this one?