Some of my earliest and most fond memories have me sitting beneath a tree in some autumn colored forest in the hills of Appalachia — Winchester .410 shotgun laid across my lap and with great concentration, my 10-year-old eyes studying every branch within sight.
Back in those days, my one prayer was to spot that elusive gray squirrel.
Within ten seconds of locating the fast moving tree dweller, you could rest assured that the tranquil Virginia forest would come to life as the sound of a gunpowder explosion would rip through the woods. Such a disturbance would send everything running for shelter as every bird in the forest would begin squawking.
In the event that I was lucky enough to have connected with the gray squirrel, I would spend the evening gutting, skinning, cutting the meat and cleaning the tiny animal — the heads would be saved for Mr. Moore, the 85-year-old man who lived up the hill from us; he would eat the brain… That was something I could never do – too disgusting.
Of course to my “city-slicker” cousins who lived in Virginia Beach and Columbia, South Carolina, the fact that I enjoyed eating squirrel legs was gross enough — in their mind, there was absolutely no difference than if I had harvested and eaten a rat!
Because of these fond memories of hunting gray squirrels, I have often found myself playing the ironic role as a conservationist of this incredible species — recognizing the great value they offer to a forest. In honor of the Eastern Gray Squirrel, below are five interesting facts you may not have known about them:ir value to
1.) Gray Squirrels Can Live to Be 20 Years Old
Though Eastern Gray Squirrels are confronted with a multitude of predators on a daily basis, they have been known to live to be over 20-years-old in captivity.These squirrels can live to be 20 years old in captivity, but in the wild live much shorter lives due to predation and the challenges of their habitat.
Unfortunately, the threat of predators compounded with the challenges of surviving in the wild lead to considerably shorter life expectancies for the vast majority of Eastern Gray Squirrels.
2.) Eastern Gray Squirrels Have Become an Invasive Species throughout Europe
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Eastern Gray Squirrels were found solely in the eastern portion of the United States and Canada– with a great concentration in the Appalachian Mountains.
Regrettably, many early explorers shipped gray squirrels to Europe as exotic pets and in the centuries ahead, the Eastern Gray Squirrel has become a conservation nightmare for leaders in Europe.
The squirrels spread rapidly across England and then became established in both Wales and parts of southern Scotland. On mainland Britain, it has almost entirely displaced the populations of native red squirrels. The European Union has expressed concern the Gray Squirrel will displace the red squirrel from parts of the European continent.
In the United Kingdom, if a “grey squirrel” (eastern gray squirrel) is trapped, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is illegal to release it or to allow it to escape into the wild; instead, it should be “humanely destroyed.”
3.) When Food is Scarce, Gray Squirrels Eat Meat
As a lifetime eater of squirrel meat, this is one point I’d rather just skip!
On rare occasions when their usual food sources are scarce, Eastern Gray Squirrels prey upon insects, frogs, small rodents including other squirrels, and small birds, and bird eggs.
Squirrels also enjoy gnawing on bones, antlers, and turtle shells – likely as a source of minerals scarce in their normal diet.
4.) Eastern Gray Squirrels are One of the Most Social Animals in the Forest
Of all the animals in the Appalachian forest, Eastern Gray Squirrels are among the smartest and most social creatures you will cross paths with.
The species showcases a varied repertoire of vocalizations, including a squeak similar to that of a mouse, a low-pitched noise, a chatter, and a raspy “mehr mehr mehr”. Other methods of communication include tail-flicking and other gestures such as changing facial expressions and flicking their tails.
Eastern Gray Squirrels also make a “kuk” or “quaa” call to ward off and warn other squirrels about predators, as well as to announce when a predator is leaving the area.
Squirrel mothers and their babies also make an affectionate coo-purring sound that biologists call the “muk-muk” sound — this is used as a contact sound between a mother and her kits and in adulthood, by the male when he courts the female during mating season.
The use of vocal and visual communication has been shown to vary by location, based on elements such as noise pollution and the amount of open space… Leading some biologists to believe that the language of Eastern Gray Squirrels may include geographic-specific dialects.
5.) Eastern Gray Squirrels Are Great Deceivers
Turns out that not only are Eastern Gray Squirrels some of the most socially active animals in the woods, but they are also among the top liars in the forest!
Eastern Gray Squirrels are known to use deceptive behavior in order to prevent other animals from retrieving cached food. They will pretend to bury an object if they feel that they are being watched. They do this by preparing the spot as usual, for instance digging a hole or widening a crack, miming the placement of the food, while actually concealing it in their mouths, and then covering up the “cache” as if they had deposited the object. They also hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees (if their rival is not arboreal). Such a complex repertoire suggests that the behaviors are not innate, and imply
Such a complex repertoire suggests that the behaviors are not innate, and imply a theory of mind thinking.
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