Humans tend to enjoy activities and tasks that they do well. Engaged in a task on the roof of our side porch this week, I found myself, definitely not enjoying myself. I was attempting to re-glaze a window and found the work very frustrating. I’d only ever done this once before and had to watch a video for a quick refresher. Now the memory of that first also frustrating time came back to me. Glazing windows is more of an art than a chore, and I did not have the right finesse. As I stood there applying and reapplying glazing compound to the wood, I tried to focus on the delightful warmth of the sun on my back. The same sun I avoided in July and August because it drained my energy was now waking muscles already resigned to cold winter mornings. I soon found myself hearing a squirrel in the tree above breaking open a walnut, and the sound became like a song stuck in my head. Walnuts are plentiful on our property and no other nut would cause him to gnaw and scrape so incessantly, with so much determination. Is that all I needed to get my task done? Determination. I thought to myself how I could just get someone else to do this task for me, but what about that squirrel? What if he couldn’t crack that nut?
Of course in a broad sense, he’d starve. Evolution selects for squirrels that can feed themselves. But I got to thinking about other tasks in a squirrel’s life: nest building, food storage, predator avoidance, and I wondered if squirrels cooperate with each other.
We have three species of squirrels at Halcyon: the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), and a flying squirrel (family Sciuridae – I have no idea if it is the northern or southern flying squirrel). All three species of squirrels are native to Virginia.
The flying squirrel does not really fly; it glides with flaps of skin called patagium that stretch between its wrists and ankles. The only time I’ve seen a flying squirrel was when I rescued one that had gotten in the house and barricaded itself in the baseboard electric heater to hide from our cats. Luckily the heater was not on. With a little perseverance and quick reflexes at the right moment, I managed to trap it in a large Tupperware bowl. As I released it, I had a chance to brush against the softest animal fur I’ve ever touched. I hope as I merge better with the rhythms of Halcyon, I see more of the flying squirrels that live here.
The gray and fox squirrel are much more ubiquitous, though I must admit I tend to think they are all gray squirrels. I guess I haven’t taken the time to notice them, to notice details. The details are important because they are hard to tell apart. Both squirrels are grayish in color with black and red in their fur. The gray squirrel is smaller and spends more time in trees. It has a white belly. It is crepuscular in habit, being most active at dawn and dusk.
In contrast, the fox squirrel is larger, and has a reddish belly. It spends more time on the ground and it is strictly diurnal. Walnut trees are particularly favored. That means Halcyon is practically paradise for the fox squirrel (If we wanted to change Halcyon’s name, a good replacement would be Walnut Acres).
I still admit to not being good at telling gray and fox squirrels apart. Often the ones scampering about on the ground during the middle of the day (hence diurnal) have white bellies and are therefore, gray squirrels. Apparently you can tell from their incisors, and while I’d like to become more observant, I have no real desire to get that close to a squirrel’s face.
So do squirrels cooperate with each other? Squirrels will warn the whole neighborhood if there is a predator about and they share their nests, but the only other information I could find about cooperation came from a pest control website stating that gray squirrels will cooperate by sharing as many as 50 nest sites and by pelting dogs and cats with nuts.
The sentence about a single squirrel having access to as many as 50 nests intrigues me, but since I can’t find any other similar claims, I am also skeptical. I am not an expert on squirrels or squirrels as pests. Perhaps I should be since there is a squirrel that seeks shelter in the wall space behind my closet every winter. However, I think that pest control companies tend to exaggerate, sometimes, the problems associated with wildlife as pests in order to make their living. As for pelting a dog or cat with nuts, I must really be doing a poor job of observation on my property if I’ve never seen this at Halcyon. We’ve two dogs who love to chase squirrels, three cats, and a lot of squirrels. Besides, evolutionarily it does not make sense that squirrels would waste their food pelting an animal stuck on the ground barking or waiting for them.
Perhaps the squirrels’ method of caching food for future use allows for cooperation, at least as a side effect. Studies have shown that an individual squirrel is capable of remembering its own cache sites and will preferentially find and eat its own food stores. But that same individual will periodically take food from another squirrel’s cache also, and these caches are found by sense of smell. I imagine a squirrel that is not too good at caching or remembering, could still survive using its sense of smell. Of course, it still has to crack that nut.
So my question about cooperation remains unanswered. In general species do cooperate, at least when resources are plenty, or the species might die out. I was wondering about more specific cooperation, sharing of tasks one individual might just be miserable doing, like glazing windows. We can’t be good at everything. I think I’d rather put more practice time into observing nature than glazing windows. Thankfully, I’ve only eight panes to go on the glazing, and hopefully, over 120 seasons of observing at Halcyon.