Last weekend I was sitting with my 2-year-old grandson looking out the window at a squirrel nibbling on a shriveled plum from the neighbor’s tree. In all my years of writing this column, I have never written about squirrels. Many people think of squirrels as cute little furry creatures that dart about collecting nuts in the fall. Others think of them as nasty, pestiferous rodents.
Before we decide who is right, let us learn a little about them. There are four native squirrel species in the state: the western gray, Douglas’, red and flying squirrels. All of our native squirrels in Washington are protected by law and may not be hunted or trapped. In fact, the western gray squirrel is on Washington’s list of protected species, and efforts are being taken to protect its habitat.
The non-native eastern gray, eastern fox and California ground squirrels are not considered desirable species. They are not protected and may be hunted if you have a valid hunting license. However, if they are live-trapped, they may not be released anywhere in the state other than on the property where they were caught.
The eastern gray squirrel is the most common tree squirrel in local urban areas. It is native to eastern North America and was brought here intentionally in the early 1900s and repeatedly released in parks, on school campuses and in residential areas. It is my guess that easterners who had settled here missed these supposedly engaging creatures. However, not everyone agrees.
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The eastern gray squirrel has worked its way onto the list of the Top 100 Invasive Species of the World. Why? From a human standpoint, eastern gray squirrels are a nuisance outside of their native habitat. They have been known to dig in lawns and gardens, chew on electrical wiring and power lines, gnaw holes in siding, build nests in attics and chimneys, and damage attic insulation. They are also known to steal fruit and nuts off garden trees, dig up flower bulbs, raid bird feeders, gnaw off tree twigs, eat bird eggs and young nestlings, and strip bark off trees to mark their territory or to feed on the tissues beneath.
From a native habitat standpoint, it is thought that eastern gray squirrels may be out-competing native squirrels and wild turkeys for food and habitat, but others attribute the decline of native wildlife to the loss of habitat due to development. In Europe, scientists indicate that they carry squirrel pox, a disease that is deadly to their native red squirrels. In addition, they eat nine times as much food as native squirrels.
While much effort is spent keeping squirrels away from bird feeders and nut trees, some admirers actually have squirrel feeding stations. This can result in the more squirrels nesting in nearby trees and structures. Plus, it may increase the transmission of disease among the squirrels.
Hand feeding squirrels that seem tame is also ill advised because it encourages them to become braver and more aggressive around humans. When I was in college, a fellow student regularly hand fed parts of his peanut butter sandwich to a squirrel visiting the lab. One day the emboldened squirrel wanted more of the sandwich and bit his finger. Ouch!
So while I did enjoy watching that squirrel outside the window, I will not be celebrating on Jan. 21, the day designated as Squirrel Appreciation Day by a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina. Even with their fuzzy tail and endearing ways, squirrels are wild rodents. Outside of their native region, the eastern gray squirrel has become a real pest.
Learn much more about native and non-native tree squirrels and their management at: wdfw.wa.gov/living/tree_squirrels.html#conflicts.
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.