Invasion of the Grey Squirrel – a Done Deal!

Am I a “bad person” for putting our corn logs for the squirrels – who happen to be the invasive eastern grey squirrels?  People keep telling me that, but so far they haven’t convinced me.

Here’s a list of reasons for shunning grey squirrels (my apologies if I have forgotten one) – and what I think.

1)     They don’t belong here, and they are displacing native species. – OK, they DON’T belong here, but I don’t think they are significantly displacing native species. According to a recent study by Emily Gonzales, a grad student at UBC,

“In the five years that I have been studying squirrels, I could not find anything but anecdotal evidence that Eastern Grey squirrels are displacing native squirrels in BC. All three species have coexisted in Stanley Park for over 90 years. Distribution data throughout the GVRD shows that native and non-native squirrels coexist in municipalities where native squirrels have their preferred habitat and sufficient resources.”  — http://www.geog.ubc.ca/richmond/city/squirrels.htm

You should also note that the native red squirrels like coniferous forest, not deciduous ones, and don’t like urbanized areas.  The grey squirrels here are inhabiting a deciduous forest in an increasingly urbanized area.

2)     They damage trees (including garry oaks) by stripping the bark. —  This may be true in some places, but not here.  My suspicion is that this only happens where there are no other food – bark can hardly be a preferred food source.  I CAN attest to the fact that they eat tree buds in early spring when there is little else.  In my area, the preferred buds seem to be cottonwood – we see squirrels 100 feet or more up in the tops of cottonwoods when the buds are breaking in the spring.  ONCE I saw a squirrel eating the buds of garry oaks, but the tree showed no sign of problems later.  Obviously there could be a problem if there are too many squirrels.

3)     They dig up bulbs and eat them in people’s gardens – I’m sure this is true, especially in urbanized areas where there is little other food available.  But should a species be subject to eradication because they try to survive in urbanized areas?  I do NOT think this is justification for eliminating a species, even an invasive one.  My experience is that given a nearby natural area with natural food sources, there is only very minimal damage done to gardens.    I have LOTS of bulbs, and if any have been dug and eaten by squirrels, I haven’t noticed.

4)     They prevent the germination of garry oak acorns by biting through the germ so they can’t sprout. – Again, this may be sometimes true, but I have been providing oak seedlings to a friend who want to establish garry oaks on his land because of all the oaks sprouting in my garden from acorns buried by squirrels.  (Also walnut and hazelnut seedlings keep appearing even though the nearest source of these is across the street.)

5)     Squirrels get in attics, etc. and cause damage – Well so they do.  When I lived in Logan Lake the NATIVE red squirrel who’s territory we were in had litters in the attic of our garage one year, and the walls of our shed another year.  This is rodent behaviour not specific to grey squirrels.

6)     They get in bird feeders – OK, aren’t we getting a little picky here?  Of course they do – and so do other kinds of squirrels.  And why should that be cause for hunting them, anyway?  I buy squirrel logs made of compressed sweet corn and put them out.  The problems with the bird feeder went way down when I started that – although an occasional one decides it’s a challenge to get into the “squirrel-proof” feeder.  The corn logs seem to be considered mostly “starvation food” by the squirrels anyway – as long as they have natural food they prefer that.

How about some points in favour of grey squirrels?

1)     Since they live in deciduous forests where the native squirrels don’t, they are providing a prey species for owls, eagles, ravens, etc.  In my area the bald eagles are likely in trouble because of the failure of the salmon runs – don’t you think a nice juicy squirrel would be appreciated?  It might stop them from hunting great blue herons.  (Don’t laugh — I saw three eagles chasing an adult heron one day.)

2)     If we can adjust our prejudices, they are a food source – lots of places consider squirrel to be a species for hunting. 

3)     I think they PLANT garry oak acorns and that encourages them to germinate.  Certainly if I didn’t prevent it, I would have a forest of oak seedlings in my yard by now.  I have left three that I think my yard can support, but the rest I give away.

I think grey squirrels are getting a bad rap for the same reason as NATIVE deer, crows, raccoons, coyotes and all the other species who are learning to adapt to urban areas – they bother people by competing for the same resources.  Why should we be eradicating species just because they interfere with our comforts?  We have removed their food sources, and are now complaining because they are turning to “starvation food” such as tree bark.

And ultimately it comes down to “it’s a done deal”.  I do not believe it is possible to get rid of the grey squirrels, so we should be putting our efforts into figuring out how best to live with them.  We shouldn’t be being cruel to an animal just because its distant ancestors came from some other part of the globe.

Speaking of that – We Europeans are the worst invaders in North America.  What we did to the native peoples – and the environment and native species — is far worse than anything the grey squirrels can do.  Aren’t we being a little hypocritical to say that species that are not native should be eradicated?

OK – I’m done my rant — now you can have your say!

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