We’ve been watching the squirrels gathering nuts and scampering up and down the oak tree in the backyard. Their amazing acrobatics are a continual source of entertainment. Having had the unpleasant experience of sharing my attic with them, I know these rodents can be destructive and unbelievably persistent. But in the yard, I can appreciate their death-defying leaps and sneaky attacks on the bird feeder.
The word squirrel comes from the ancient Greek words skia meaning shadow and oura meaning tail. Translated, a squirrel is an animal that sits in the shadow of its own tail. As a squirrel watcher, it is their tails that have always fascinated me. Beautiful and bushy (except during July when they look more like a rat’s tail during the annual molt), a squirrel’s tail serves many functions.
- It provides balance as squirrels race up and down and leap between tree branches.
- It allows them to perform their daring tightrope walks across telephone lines and narrow fence tops.
- It regulates heat, serving as an umbrella to provide shade on hot, sunny days and becoming a warm, fuzzy blanket on cold, winter nights.
- Flicked side to side it distracts predators. If caught, it conveniently breaks off, providing a last chance to escape.
- It acts as a rudder when a squirrel is forced into water. Actually, they’re quite good swimmers, even though it may not be their favorite sport.
Exhibiting excellent muscle control, a squirrel can twist his tail in any direction and make it bush out or lie flat. Squirrels have a host of defensive mechanisms with the tail doing its part. Watch a startled squirrel. First he will freeze, hoping to blend with his environment and become less noticeable. He’ll then scamper up the nearest tree, keeping the trunk between himself and the predator. Once safe himself, the squirrel will make an alarm call, chattering his teeth and making clucking sounds to warn his mates of approaching danger. Bushing his tail and jerking it quickly back and forth to warn other squirrels, he’ll perch on a tree branch, chittering invective down upon his nemesis, trying to warn off the predator.
The best time to catch squirrels at play is two to three hours after sunrise and again two hours before sunset. They spend their afternoons snoozing and rarely leave their nests at night. If there’s not enough squirrel action in your own backyard, click here to watch some amazing videos of these acrobatic fuzzballs in action. My favorite is the little guy who filches a Baby Ruth from inside a candy machine. Amazing!