A North American red squirrel — its ear marked with colored wire and a radio collar around its neck — perches on an evergreen tree in the Canadian Yukon. (Ben Dantzer)
Columnist

The first rule of Squirrel Camp is: You must catch a lot of squirrels. The second rule is: You must catch them over and over again. The third rule is: You must come to know each squirrel as intimately as you know your own family.

And you must do it in the wilds of Canada’s Yukon, while living without electricity, running water or cellphones. Oh, and there are bears.

Squirrel Camp is not for the faint of heart.

The official name is the Kluane Red Squirrel Project (pronounced “cloo-AWE-nee”). The KRSP is a collaboration among the University of Alberta, McGill University, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Guelph and the University of Michigan.

“I think this is the longest-running study of individual squirrels anywhere,” said the University of Michigan’s Ben Dantzer , an animal behaviorist and a Squirrel Camp regular since 2006.

When I spoke to Dantzer, he was in the process of hiring for Squirrel Camp this summer. The compound is staffed year-round with anywhere from six to 20 researchers, many drawn from the ranks of undergraduates eager for their first taste of field work.


A color-coded, numbered tag unique to each red squirrel allows researchers from the Kluane Red Squirrel Project to track them. (Ryan Taylor)

“What I’ve been saying to people is that there are three major tasks,” Dantzer said. “We have these approximately 100-acre areas. Your job is to find out where all the squirrels are, capture them, then follow their reproduction.”

On a good day, each researcher will handle about 15 squirrels. They bait live traps with peanut butter (“Squirrels love peanut butter,” Dantzer said). When a squirrel is caught, it is placed in a little canvas bag, weighed, then palpated to see if there are any babies inside.

If the squirrel is an adult female, the researcher will check if it is lactating. If so, the researcher will go in search of the young.

“You climb those trees, access the babies, bring them down to the ground, then take an ear-tissue sample to figure out the father and determine the sex,” Dantzer said.

If the squirrel has been caught before, it will already have twists of colored electrical wire in its ears, along with tiny tags marked with unique numbers. The colored wire is useful, Dantzer said, because the squirrels are homebodies, staying in their territory.


In the wilds of the Canadian Yukon, Marta Thorpe, a student at the University of Guelph, uses an antenna to zero in on the location of a squirrel equipped with a radio collar. (Jack Robertson)

“If I’m walking through the forest in the Yukon and see a squirrel with blue wire over blue wire, I know where she lives,” he said. “I know what her history is. I know what stage of reproduction she should be at. I know who was her mother, grandmother, father, grandfather, great grandfather — all these details.”

All of this information — generation upon generation — is in a vast database that’s been compiled since Squirrel Camp opened in 1987. What Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees and Dian Fossey did with mountain gorillas, KRSP researchers do with squirrels.

Of course, the American red squirrel is smaller than a chimp or a gorilla. It’s bit smaller than an Eastern gray squirrel, too. Even so, it’s a mighty beast.

“Red squirrels are kind of like the badasses of Sciuridae,” Dantzer said. That’s the scientific name for the squirrel family, a category that encompasses nearly 300 different species, including squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, marmots and prairie dogs.

How tough are the red squirrels of the Yukon? Dantzer marvels at how a mother moves a pup from one nest to another, leaping through the trees while carrying the hairless baby — 30 or 40 percent of Mom’s body mass — in her mouth.

And squirrels have been known to hunt, kill and eat baby snowshoe hares.

“That’s pretty cool that they do that,” Dantzer said.

The primary diet of the North American red squirrel is less bloodthirsty: the cones from white spruce trees — lots and lots of them. Each squirrel collects around 20,000 spruce cones and stores them in a huge larder.

They need that many because cones are produced in a boom-and-bust fashion, with a huge crop coming every three or four years. A red squirrel cannot afford to be caught short.

“When they’re gathering the food, they’re working like elite athletes,” Dantzer said. “We view that as their Tour de France.”

The close observation that takes place at Squirrel Camp has led to the publication of nearly 100 scientific papers. They address such issues as the effect of climate change on squirrel reproduction, how squirrels defend their territory and what happens when a squirrel takes over the food hoard of a dead squirrel.

Said Dantzer: “We’re able to uncover what makes a squirrel a good squirrel.”

It's Squirrel Week!

All week in this space, I’ll be exploring squirrels — good and bad.

Tomorrow: The white squirrels of Franklin Square.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.