You read that right, Squirrel Appreciation Day, an annual celebration of our furry backyard friends. Since its inception in 2001, every 21st of January has been set aside as a day to say thank you to the cute little guys we all know (some might say all too) well.
There are more than 260 species of squirrel all over the world, and 22 here in Canada. But some of the critters that scientists call squirrels may not necessarily be what you and I would automatically think of. Technically, a squirrel is anything belonging to the Sciuridae family which includes tree squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels, marmots, prairie dogs, and ground squirrels. What exactly makes a squirrel a squirrel is quite technical, but generally they are linked by a similar skull structure, four large front teeth that grow throughout their entire lives, and tails that are about as long as their bodies. The squirrels we are probably most familiar with here in Canada are tree squirrels, which are especially adapted for climbing with their flexible ankles and long fingers.
Some squirrels, like the African Pygmy Squirrel, are tiny and cute, and only grow to be about 7 cm long. Others, like the Indian Giant Squirrel, are absolutely humongous, reaching a total length of about one metre! Not only that, but the Indian Giant Squirrel has some of the coolest colours you will ever see on any mammal from blues to purples. Seriously, Google these guys, they’re really neat!
The squirrels we have here in Canada are not quite as cool as the Indian Giant Squirrel, but they’re still up there. One of our more charismatic and perhaps most famous squirrel residents is Wiarton Willie, a groundhog who predicts the winter forecast for us every Groundhog Day. Groundhogs, also known as Woodchucks (you know the poem) are one of Canada’s largest squirrel species, and are the largest squirrels found in Ontario.
One of the most common and easily recognizable squirrels in Ontario is the Eastern Grey Squirrel. These squirrels can be grey or black, with the black individuals often being mistaken for a different species entirely. Eastern Grey Squirrels can live anywhere from deciduous forests to urban backyards, and munch on everything from tree nuts to insects.
Grey Squirrels also play a critical role in ensuring our forests remain healthy and survive for the long term by literally planting trees! Because these squirrels are active throughout the winter, they have to store food away for when availability is scarce. In order to protect their food from thieves, they bury their stores in the soil at various locations throughout their territory. But because the stores are so spread out, it is not uncommon for the squirrels to forget exactly where they put them all. The buried seeds that are forgotten, which is usually at least 5% per squirrel, and there are A LOT of squirrels, are left to germinate in the soil, and are frequently able to sprout into new trees! This practice of burying seeds, called caching, has been found to be particularly important for the dispersal of oak trees in North America.
And if that wasn’t enough to inspire your appreciation of squirrels, here are a few more crazy cool facts about the little dudes:
- A squirrel’s front teeth, called incisors, grow throughout their entire lives, so they never get run down by their constant chewing. Even cooler than that, the tissue at the front of the teeth is much tougher and therefore slower to wear down than the tissue at the back of the teeth, so the teeth always stay sharp.
- Squirrels are incredible gymnasts. I’m sure we’ve all seen the lengths squirrels are willing to go to get to food, especially to reach bird feeders. The acrobatics they pull off in the process of chasing food are very impressive and some people (actually more people than you would think) have even taken the time to challenge their backyard squirrels by setting up obstacle courses (click on link) for them.
- The average lifespan of a Grey Squirrel is only about 5 months, with only about 25% of Grey Squirrels living to be more than one year old.
- Squirrels are good swimmers. Many North American species including the Eastern Grey Squirrel having been observed swimming across lakes and rivers.
- The largest squirrel found in Canada is the Hoary Marmot. This species can be up to 80 cm long and weigh as much as 13 pounds!
So show the squirrels some love this Squirrel Appreciation Day. Say hello, give them a smile, and maybe let them hang out on your bird feeder… just this once.
Written by Siena Smith, Conservation Technician
University Of Richmond. “Researchers Tackle The Nutty Truth On Acorns And Squirrels.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 November 1998. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981126102802.htm>.