Like many people, I too had thought of squirrels as chatty little pests, merely there to eat my birdseed and drop berries on my lawn. However, that view changed when I spent four months last summer working at a remote research camp dedicated to studying those very animals. The Kluane Red Squirrel Project, or “Squirrel Camp,” as it is so aptly termed, was a magical place of rigorous ecological science wrapped up in an eccentric, colourful shell.
Spending every day in the Yukon boreal forest both surrounded by and actively studying squirrels ultimately fostered a great fondness and appreciation for these common rodents. They all have their own unique personalities, and can be quite quirky and funny.
Some of these humorous behaviours were on full display when I returned home from camp to find a juvenile squirrel that had taken up residence in my own backyard. Back and forth it dashed from my mountain ash tree to the fence, leaping to the bird feeder that had just been installed. This little squirrel, having only been born a few months prior, was hastily preparing for its first winter. It was caching the berries in the feeder, which is stockpiling food to eat at a later time.
Although North American red squirrels rely predominantly on white spruce cones, they also collect berries, mushrooms, and sometimes even dead animals. They typically store their cache in middens – those characteristic piles of spruce cone bracts, often studded with entry holes, that are common throughout this region.
A typical squirrel midden, with stashed spruce cones underground
In urban areas, where there are less spruce forests, the squirrels get creative and find other means for food storage. Caching food occurs throughout the spring and summer, but really ramps up in the fall. Squirrels and other wildlife rely on these food caches for survival throughout the winter, so it is important to leave them be - even if they do happen to be in your new bird feeder!
Mountain ash, basswood, and chokecherries collected by my resident squirrel
While squirrels and other “pest” species are often overlooked, they too are a natural component of Alberta’s ecosystems. They are part of a larger, complex community and have intimate relationships with other organisms (such as predators, insects, and decomposers) that rely on their role in the system.
Unfortunately, with rapid urbanization and industrial expansion, the biggest threat to most wildlife and plant species is habitat loss. Combined with people’s propensity for caring more for the animals that we like, parts of the overall system become removed and threatened.
Because formal conservation efforts tend to be focussed on high priority concerns, such as invasive species management and charismatic megafauna like caribou, we often neglect to preserve the ecosystems in our own backyards. Of course, triaging the greatest environmental problems is undoubtedly important; but, as everyday citizens, we have the power and opportunity to make our own backyards and spaces more naturally diverse.
Generally speaking, the more complex your space is, the healthier and more resilient it will be. A greater variety of plants and trees, a mixture of grass and bare soil or mulch, and a mix of both sunny and shady areas can provide habitat for urban or rural wildlife. Artificial habitat enhancements such as bee hotels and bird nest boxes can also help alleviate some of the impacts from urban displacement.
Although we might not care as much about squirrels as we do beautiful birds or interesting mammals, and may even find them a nuisance, they are in fact an integral part of our native ecosystems. In an effort to build healthier spaces and mitigate human-caused habitat loss, we need to encourage a little more tolerance and consideration of these species, and take a more holistic approach to managing our ecosystems - even if they are just in our backyards.
By Nikki Paskar, EALT volunteer and former intern