From time immemorial, the squirrel, of the Sciuridae family, has managed to win over everyone’s heart, especially children’s. To our great delight, Walt Disney has even created the charming squirrels, “Chip ’n’ Dale”, and has given life to the famous “screwball squirrel”, Tex Avery.
The squirrel is an arboreal creature. A forked tree, an abandoned bird’s nest and a cavity in the bark suffice for it to start building its winter nest, which is made up of twigs, leaves and moss. In summer, however, it makes do with only a platform of twigs as its nest. It hardly settles above 9 m (30 ft) from the ground so as to be well protected from the winds. Being a diurnal animal, the squirrel sleeps only at night, alone or accompanied.
During the mating season, which lasts from December till September, the female squirrel gives out little shrill cries to attract the male, and this often results in a frantic race through the foliage that is indeed fit to be compared to the Tex Avery’s standard! They mate once or twice a year. After 38 days of gestation, the female finally gives birth to a litter of four or five pink, naked, blind and deaf little beings. In 9 to 12 months, during which they feed at their mother’s breasts, they will reach adulthood and will be self-sufficient.
As the squirrel does not hibernate, it seizes this opportunity to pile up, in different places, a whole stock of acorns, conifer seeds, mushrooms, insects and snails and even, some pilfered birds' eggs... As such, the heap of stored food weighs at least 125kg! Most of the time, however, it is quite impossible for the squirrel to remember where it has hidden away its provisions once the north wind starts to blow. It does not matter; for if it manages to find most of its supply with the help of its keen sense of smell, the forgotten seeds will contribute towards reforestation.
Its beautiful russet summer-coat darkens and shimmers with dark-gray glints, small tufts of hair starts to sprout at the top of its ears, its tail and fur coat flesh out; there’s no doubt about it, the winter season is quickly approaching.
The word squirrel, comes from “Skiouros” in Greek, derived from “skia” which means shady, and from “oura” which means tail. In short, a squirrel is the one who “sits in the shadow of its tail”! Its magnificent tufted tail, nearly as big as its body, can easily reach 20cm. Its tail serves mainly as a swinging aid, a parachute but also as a parasol or an umbrella depending on the weather. It also helps in warming and protecting its small body from the cold.
However, our “Sciurus vulgaris” lives in dread of many predators. The squirrel’s cries resonate nervously and it wags its tail on seeing a weasel, a lynx or an owl. It’d better clear off immediately if an eagle or its worst enemy, the mink, is nearby. Though its life expectancy ranges up to about 10 years, many squirrels succumb to predators at the end of 4 or 5 years, unless they meet with fate under the wheels of a car or collapse under a hunter’s bullets...
Being a territorial and non-migrant creature, the squirrel proceeds to mark out its territory by urinating on its nest and the surrounding branches or by secreting from the glands around its muzzle. The red squirrel can be found in Europe and Asia, especially in conifer forests.
It may be either a squirrel from our old picture books and cartoons or a squirrel from the forests and wooded gardens, nevertheless, this small rodent, gifted with a pleasant and likeable portrait, prompts us to love and protect it rather than kill or hunt it down for its flesh. Though at times, it can eat some fledglings or nibbles at cables or canvas, the squirrel remains our friend!
Text: © Valérie Claro • Photos: © F.Bettex / Mysterra