In the urban game park, nut-gatherers rule

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 11:41 PM

Joel Brown lives in Oak Park, Ill., which is sort of the Chevy Chase of Chicago. Or the McLean. Or the University Park. That is, it's a leafy, older suburb full of the sort of people who like to live in leafy, older suburbs. What it - what they - are also full of is Sciurus carolinensis. The squirrel. The Eastern gray squirrel, to be exact.

These squirrels gambol. They frolic. They chitter, chatter and chirrup, twitching their tails as if they were furry lariats. But they didn't always.

"My house is over 100 years old," Joel told me the other day when I called him up. "Turn back the clock 100 years ago, and there were no squirrels [in Oak Park]. None."

Joel is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, an evolutionary ecologist and a squirrel expert. Although he has studied snow leopards, rhinos and other exotic forms of wildlife, there's a special place in his heart for the simple nut-gatherer of our parks and back yards. One reason is that squirrels can tell us a lot about ourselves.

For example: How come there weren't any squirrels in Oak Park a century ago?

"One, they tasted good," Joel explained. "Second, there were no rules or regulations about discharging firearms. Third, in my house we grow a garden for fun now. It seems like a healthy activity, and we can pretend the tomatoes taste better than the tomatoes we get at the store. But a hundred years ago, heck, most people grew gardens in the back yard not as recreation but as income supplement. Squirrels were a threat to that."

As human life has changed, so too has the squirrel's. "They really are a reflection of our socioeconomic circumstances," Joel said.

Charismatic megafauna, squirrels are not. And Joel says they usually get short shrift when it comes to research. Part of the problem is the compartmentalized way we think of nature.

"Nature is national parks in pristine environments, and that's where nature happens," is the way Joel characterized this blinkered viewpoint. On the other side are the places where humans live, from which nature has been banished. "To a certain extent, many of our backyard species, squirrels included, are sort of tainted by association," Joel said.

But he's got news: "A lot of us realized that our pristine environments aren't nearly as pristine as we thought they were, what with pollution and minor land use. And, wow, our urban areas and residential areas aren't nearly as sterile as we thought. . . . We live in an urban game park. And squirrels, at least in the East and Midwest, I would suggest, are probably the most conspicuous part of that urban game park. Everybody has a squirrel story."

I had contacted Joel with my own squirrel story, asking about a tailless squirrel I see from time to time in my back yard. Is it true, as a reader wrote to me, that he would grow his tail back?

No, said the squirrel scientist. Mammals are not able to grow back a tail, the way some lizards can after losing it to a predator. Once a squirrel loses its tail, it's gone for good. But they do grow a fairly stiff ball of scar tissue, which, on gray squirrels, will sprout a fluffy white ball. "That ball of scar tissue can extend a half to three-quarters of an inch, giving the illusion that he got his tail back," Joel said.

Joel often hears from people who have a tailless squirrel in their neighborhood, usually nicknamed Stub, he said. One day they don't see Stub anymore, and they call Joel asking where he could have gone. Then, after a few years, they call back to say that Stub has returned.

You guessed it: It's a different Stub. Squirrels tend to live only about two or three years, Joel said. Right now, females in the Washington area are either pregnant or have just given birth. Most will have another litter in June or July. Fewer than 50 percent will survive till next winter.

"Nature is a dynamical system," Joel said. "Your Stub was created. Stub is going to be around for who knows how long, then he'll be gone. But your [squirrel] population will remain. People sometimes think of squirrels as tame or domesticated. No. They are absolutely wild animals. They're born, they live, they die in our neighborhoods. We are their habitat."

Everybody has a squirrel story. Send me yours.

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