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Eastern Grey Squirrel Facts, Concerns, and Observations

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A black form of the eastern grey squirrel eating a treat at the UBC Botanical Garden

A black form of the eastern grey squirrel eating a treat at the UBC Botanical Garden

An Introduced Species in British Columbia

Squirrels are interesting animals to observe. Though for many people they may be the most frequently seen wild mammal, they keep some aspects of their life hidden from the general public. Where I live in southwestern British Columbia, the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is most commonly seen. The species is native to the eastern part of Canada and the United States but has been introduced to my area, where it does well.

The squirrels that I see may be grey or black, despite the name of the species. Occasionally, the animal may be white. The animals nearest to my home are most often black. The species is common in my area and is found in parks and in other areas with trees. The animals may also visit gardens, including botanical ones, as the photo above shows.

The squirrels in my neighbourhood are quite confident around humans but won’t let people get close to them. In Vancouver’s popular Stanley Park, however, I’ve seen the species approach humans for food handouts. The animal in the photo above was calmly eating what appears to be a corn cob outside a building at the entrance of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. The animals in my area can be entertaining as well as interesting to observe. In some parts of British Columbia the species is considered to be a nuisance, however.

British Columbia is Canada’s most westerly province. Readers may wonder why British Columbia is sometimes abbreviated B.C. and at other times BC. The official recommendation from the provincial government is that the first format should be used unless an organization is being referenced.

Classification and Geographic Range

Squirrels belong to the class Mammalia, as we do, but they belong to the order Rodentia while we we belong to the order Primates. Squirrels are classified in the family Sciuridae within the order Rodentia. This family contains marmots, groundhogs, chipmunks, and prairie dogs as well as squirrels. The family also contains flying squirrels. Despite their name, these animals glide rather than fly. One species of flying squirrel is native to B.C. Some people believe that it should be divided into two species.

The eastern grey or gray squirrel was given its species name (carolinensis) because it was first discovered in North and South Carolina in the United States. The scientific name is useful in identifying the animal because it’s sometimes referred to as simply a grey squirrel. It‘s now common in parts of British Columbia after escaping from captivity. It‘s also found in Britain and continental Europe. It became a wild animal in Britain when zoo animals were accidentally released in the nineteenth century. In Europe, animals were imported as pets and escaped.

Natural range of the eastern grey squirrel in North America

Natural range of the eastern grey squirrel in North America

Location of the Squirrel in British Columbia

According to the BC SPCA, eastern grey squirrels were introduced to Stanley Park in 1909 and to southern Vancouver Island in 1966. Stanley Park has an area of just over 1,000 acres and is very popular with tourists and local people. It’s located by the ocean and contains forest as well as cultivated areas and other attractions.

On the lower mainland (as the region containing Vancouver and the surrounding areas is called), the squirrels have spread from their introduced area but are still found in cities. They do need trees and patches of natural or semi-natural areas, but these are widely distributed in Vancouver and the cities that surround it. These cities are joined together, forming a large group. The entire collection is sometimes known as Greater or Metro Vancouver. I live in this area and see the squirrels frequently, though not in large numbers.

Physical Features of Eastern Grey Squirrels

An adult eastern grey squirrel is often twice as big as the native red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). The animal’s legs are (obviously) used for locomotion, but its front paws have another function. They are used for grasping and manipulating objects, as shown in the photo below. The animal is also a very capable climber and runner. According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF), it can run at up to 25km an hour.

The animal has a large and bushy tail that has several important functions in the life of the animal. It acts as a rudder when the animal jumps, indicates the animal’s mood to other members of the species, can distract a predator as it waves, and keeps the squirrel warm.

Like us, the squirrels have incisors, premolars, and molars in their mouth, but they lack the canine teeth that we possess. Their incisors are worn down by gnawing, but fortunately the teeth grow continuously.

The species has been introduced to England, where this animal was photographed.

The species has been introduced to England, where this animal was photographed.

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Readers should note the information below refers to the squirrel’s behaviour in its natural habitat in eastern Canada. Some of the behaviour may be modified in the introduced western Canadian population.

Diet and Behaviour

The animal has an omnivorous diet. It eats fruits, nuts, seeds, and some buds. It also eats insects, caterpillars, and at least in eastern Canada, an “occasional meal of bird eggs and young birds.” It may also visit bird feeders and help itself to bird food.

The squirrels don’t hibernate. They bury some of their food for future use. They find the buried food with their sense of smell. Even snow on the ground doesn’t distract them from discovering the food that they hid.

The animal produces a variety of vocalizations to match its mood and situation. It may vocalize when a problem occurs by giving alarm calls. Though each animal maintains a territory, the territories sometimes overlap. A squirrel may chase another one, as I have seen, but fights are rare.

In eastern Canada, the animal can sometimes be a pest when it interferes with human property. The CWF website makes the comment shown below. I imagine its applicability depends on how annoying the squirrels are in a particular area. The animals are trying to survive, even when they are annoying, but their needs may conflict with ours.

Grey squirrels can become a nuisance when they invade an attic, cause damage around the house, dig up bulbs in gardens or drive birds away from feeders. This is surely offset, however, by the pleasure they give to numerous city dwellers, campers, and everyone who enjoys the outdoors.

— Canadian Wildlife Federation (in reference to the population in eastern Canada)

Reproduction of the Species

In eastern Canada, the squirrel breeds twice a year. The first breeding event happens in January and February and the second in June and July. The female gives a distinct call from the top of a tree to attract males. The CWF describes this call as “duck-like”. The female then moves through the trees with the males following. She allows the male that shows that he is dominant to mate with her. Then she is left alone to produce and rear her offspring.

A nest called a drey is often created in a tree from twigs and plants. Sometimes however, as shown in the video above, the drey is created in a hollow log or trunk. The litter that’s produced may contain both grey and black individuals.

Gestation lasts for forty to forty-four days. The youngsters develop quickly after birth and are ready to leave the nest by twelve weeks. Lifespan in captivity may be as long as twenty years. In the more dangerous but more natural wild habitat, it may be no longer than six years.

The drey of an eastern grey squirrel in London, UK

The drey of an eastern grey squirrel in London, UK

They are sometimes called “invasive” or “alien”, but research in B.C. shows grey squirrels are just better adapted to cities than the native squirrels. Native squirrels prefer forest habitat and move out when urban development moves in.

— BC SPCA (with respect to the eastern grey squirrel)

Harmless or Invasive in British Columbia?

The SPCA’s Opinion

Opposing opinions have appeared about the effects of the eastern grey squirrel on the province. As the BC SPCA quote above implies, the squirrel can be successful here. In addition, according to them it may not be appropriate to classify the species as invasive in some parts of its British Columbian range. The BC SPCA reference below says that the native squirrels who once lived in the area would have moved out whether or not the visitors had appeared due to the construction of cities.

Opposing Opinions

Not everyone agrees with the SPCA’s opinion about the introduced squirrels, even with respect to Greater Vancouver, where the animals don’t seem to be as problematic as they are on Vancouver Island. The island is a large land mass to the west of the mainland and is the location of Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.

The Government of British Columbia says that the squirrels “may pose a threat to native plants and animals; native American red squirrel, certain bird species, and Garry Oak Ecosystems” on Vancouver Island. They also say that the animals “have caused damage to homes, gardens, and depleted local nut harvests” on the island.

The Squirrelpox Virus

The eastern grey squirrel has often been linked to infection by the squirrelpox (or squirrel pox) virus. It is capable of carrying the virus, though it rarely gets sick from the infection. Unfortunately, the virus does make other types of squirrels sick if they become infected. It’s often fatal for red squirrels. The virus hasn’t been found in British Columbian eastern grey squirrels, however. I hope this situation doesn’t change.

Dealing With the Population Humanely

AnimalKind is an organization linked to the BC SPCA. They give practical suggestions for dealing with the squirrels and preventing harm to them. They suggest the following steps for protecting the animals.

  • Never feed the squirrels, even in winter. They can find enough food for themselves.
  • Prevent accidental feeding. Cover garbage and compost containers securely. Make sure bird feeders are inaccessible. (There are ways to protect bird feeders from squirrels, though some quick research may be necessary to discover how to do this.)
  • Protect entries to the home, such as chimneys. The squirrels sometimes build the nest for their babies in chimneys. (Once again, research should reveal how to do this.) Trim trees whose branches cover or come close to rooftops.
  • If removal of squirrels is necessary, try to choose a company that does this humanely without harming the animals. This step is sometimes controversial ibecause it moves the problematic animals to other areas. If the new area is far away from civilization, it may work, however.

The Government of British Columbia is investigating the use of a hormone that suppresses reproduction in the species. This may be better solution than killing squirrels.

A black version of the squirrel carrying what appears to be a peanut

A black version of the squirrel carrying what appears to be a peanut

Observing Wild Animals Safely

I love observing wildlife, assuming it’s not likely to attack me, and look for animals on all my nature walks. The process is always interesting. There are some important points to consider during the activity, however.

It’s advisable not to touch a wild animal unless one is an expert in their nature and knows about any necessary precautions to take. Even if the animal is not likely to physically attack us, precautions may be necessary. If the animal is injured and needs help, contacting the local SPCA or an equivalent organization could be useful.

Some species of mammals carry viruses and bacteria that can infect us, since we are also mammals. Even if the microbes don’t affect us, we may transmit them to our pets or to other animals that we care for. The safety precautions described in this section apply to wild squirrels as well as other animals.

Part of the trail near my home with a squirrel beside the nearest tree

Part of the trail near my home with a squirrel beside the nearest tree

The Squirrels in My Neighbourhood

One thing that is nice about my neighbourhood is that although there are lots of houses, there are also patches of wild or semi-wild land. There are also larger areas of wild habitat nearby. Near my home, there is a network of urban trails. The wide trails are bordered by natural or semi-natural areas that attract animals.

I often see one or more black squirrels in my walks along the urban trails in my neighbourhood. I see grey animals in other places, but the black animals seem to like the trail. They also seem to deal with traffic on the roads between the sections of the trail well.

I watched one individual recently who seemed to be looking for a safe place to cross the road at the end of the trail so that he or she could investigate someone’s garden. The squirrel turned around multiple times when they saw an approaching car. They crossed the road when there was a clear space and ran into the hedge surrounding a garden.

I have seen squirrels cross the road safely before, but the one described above seemed to be very alertly assessing the situation. He or she may have seen me watching them and perhaps noticed that I was trying to help them to cross the road safely by my behaviour and voice. It was probably handling the situation by itself, however. Some people who have studied the species say that it’s more intelligent than many people realize.

 A grey version of the eastern grey squirrel that had unfortunately recently died

A grey version of the eastern grey squirrel that had unfortunately recently died

My Discovery of a Grey Form of the Squirrel

I see dead birds and small dead mammals quite during my nature walks, but not dead squirrels. Strangely, not long after I watched the squirrel with apparent road sense that I described above, I found the dead animal shown above on the sidewalk by a school. Its body was in good condition as though it had recently died. The animal is a grey version of the eastern grey squirrel.

The location of the squirrel’s body might sound strange, but there is a small park with trees behind the school. In addition, there are wilder areas around a nearby golf course. It’s possible that the squirrel had extended his or her explorations from these areas. From what I have observed, the animals are experts in travelling between potentially dangerous and considerably safer areas in my neighbourhood. Unfortunately, this animal above died of an unknown cause while doing so,

An Interesting Species

I enjoy watching my local squirrels. I never feed them, and I’m glad to see that they don’t let me get too close to them. The photo at the start of this article showed a more confident squirrel but was taken with a telephoto lens. Most of the squirrels nearer my home are less confident, which is probably better for their safety, The one that was crossing the road didn’t seem to mind getting nearer to me, however. I would be sad if the animals disappeared from my neighbourhood. They are interesting and enjoyable to observe.

References

  • Information about the grey squirrel in its natural range from the Canadian Wildlife Federation
  • Squirrels in British Columbia from the British Columbian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA)
  • Dealing with squirrels from AnimalKind
  • The eastern grey squirrel on Vancouver Island from the Government of British Columbia
  • Alien species alert from the Government of British Columbia

© 2022 Linda Crampton

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