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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Who is Smarter? - From My Window 7/20/22

Issue Date: July 20, 2022

Janie Thibodeau Martin

Trivia question: How many species of squirrels does Wisconsin have? Answer at the end.

We have a bird feeder which has proven squirrel-proof. It's a steel box with a hinged lid that latches shut; one side has a perch and dispensing slots for sunflowers. The perch is set to hold the weight of a songbird, but when something heavier lands or pulls on it, the dispensing slots close, preventing feeding. For years, we've enjoyed watching squirrels climb under, over and around the feeder trying to break in with no luck.

This morning, however, there was a serious breach of the feeder. I came in from outside to find the dogs in a frenzy of frustration. I slid open the patio door to let them out, watching to see what had them so upset. (Or "pupset" as we say.)

I was shocked when a red squirrel exploded out of the top of the feeder lid and fled for its life. When I looked to see how such a violation had occurred, the latch keeping the feeder closed, which is a squared-off U shape of metal pushed through two slots in the side of the feeder had been "jimmied" by pushing half of the "U" backwards inside the feeder, releasing the latching mechanism. The squirrel had then crawled inside, with the lid falling down behind it. A huge pile of seed shells inside indicated this was probably not its first visit to the "all you can eat or carry away" buffet.

Mike remedied this issue by putting a bolt through the latch so the squirrel can't push it backwards any more. But it got me thinking about this little evil genius, and feeling red squirrels might be smarter than the dozens of gray squirrels the feeder had foiled over the years.

I was fascinated to find out I was wrong. In many tests of problem solving conducted by wildlife researchers, grey squirrels are smarter than red squirrels. This led me down a rabbit hole of sources of on-line comparisons of the two squirrel cousins and squirrel biology.

Red squirrel life expectancy is three to six years, some live for ten. Gray squirrels live closer to six, but may reach 12. Gray squirrels are communal ?? they tend to live fairly peacefully in an area, sharing territories, food and sometimes nest together. (Gray squirrel chasing you see is usually related to mating, not territory.)

Red squirrels are territorial and more solitary. Anyone who has gotten too close to a red squirrel knows the angry barking and rattling warning sounds they make. One source said "red squirrels are among the most aggressively territorial animals on the planet."

This is why you often see red squirrels chasing the much bigger gray squirrels. The grays do not defend a territory and when a nutty red squirrel starts bothering them, they leave rather than fight. (Frankly, another indicator gray squirrels are smart.)

Gray squirrels prefer nuts like acorns, while red squirrels hoard the cones of coniferous trees like spruce, and feast on the seeds in the cones. Grey squirrels are much more common in cities because of their willingness to share the limited territories available, while red squirrels are the predominate species in evergreen forests. Red and gray squirrels can't interbreed, but color variations are common in both and black, mottled and white individuals occur fairly frequently. There are all-black gray squirrels on our land and my mother's.

We are fortunate to have these squirrel species on our land. We see the gray squirrels by the house in winter, and only red ones all summer long. I now wonder if that is because the evergreen seeds favored by the red squirrels are in short supply right now, so they conduct forays on the bird feeders. Squirrels are food sources for many avian and mammalian predators, and their habit of burying food helps propagate forests, so they are valuable to all of us.

Mike has fixed the vulnerability in our feeder although the dogs will be staring at the feeder for weeks now; hoping for another wild scene. Mike's attention is now the chipmunk villain who is entering our garage and stashing seeds inside the storage bag for a chair. He discovered this issue entering the garage with the dogs, and another crazy episode erupted as they identified the presence of a prey species, pursuing it under the shelving. Another "too smart for its own good" rodent. (All squirrels and chipmunks belong to the classification "Sciuridae," or rodent.)

I guess the question might be not which are smarter, red or gray squirrels; rather are the Martins smarter than the local rodents?

Update: Our sweet stray cat Moxie has found an excellent home in Marinette County with a dog buddy and kids to give her lots of attention. Thanks KK and family.

Squirrel species: Five: Eastern Grey; Northern and Southern Flying; Eastern Fox; and Red.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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