The audacity of squirrels

Curtis Young, of North Pole Films, composed a video of local suburban wildlife. Black-capped chickadees flutter about like pixies in and out of the shot, the origins and destinations of individuals indiscernable. Chickadees are charismatic, fascinating and different.

There’s a mood shift at the end, a change in subject matter. How do you react?

I love this video because the music changes almost as if to signal the squirrel’s arrival and intention to eat just as the chickadees before it had eaten, only … more connivingly. Because it’s a squirrel.

Squirrels are creatures of repetition. Each morning in August, just before approximately 7:45a.m., a squirrel would scuttle over our roof and into the white spruce surrounding our cabin. Clunk-roll, clunk-roll, clunk-roll. My roommate and I would wake up. Clunk-roll, clunk-roll, clunk-roll. Down came the meticulously-plucked green spruce cones, disgusting as any other raw fruit.

Every day, a clunk-roll alarm clock. The cones littered our back deck.

These cones turned rusty and swelled open after a couple of days, like flowers blooming. The squirrel would then collect its crop.

Spruce cones on my deck, Sept. 20.

Squirrels exemplify doggedly-obscene work ethic in the face of winter. They fulfill their daily duties alongside us. Yet, they are somehow oblivious to our own lives. They ignore that things up high in sheds should remain shelved, that dog food isn’t part of their natural diet, and that there’s definitely a closer side of the road when escaping from oncoming traffic. Last year, a rogue squirrel shut down power across the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus.

The neighborhood red squirrel and its cousins, genus Sciurus, are ubiquitous across North America. The squirrel is nearly a global phenomenon. They seep into our daily Twitter life as broadcasted background noise.

If you click below, you can see this chatter visualized.

UAF Geophysical Institute science writer Ned Rozell wrote a number of articles explaining these creatures.

Have you ever seen a map of Alaska divided up into quadrats? Imagine Fairbanks divided up into squares like these. Instead of large swaths of land, each of these squares covers a squirrel’s territory. No one can enter the square of a non-relative. Fairbanks isn’t a Sciurus hive – it’s squirrel suburbia.

They signal their territories with clicking calls – “Stay away from my cache, I’m here.” Squirrels stash their worldly possessions in “middens,” channeled mounds of spruce cone scales.

This midden becomes the squirrel’s savings account. It keep everything it finds in there, even psychotropic mushrooms.

Young squirrels can inherit middens, Rozell went on to explain. Mothers either keep two middens at once (the college savings plan) or move and leave their children with the old territory (the giving-away-the-old-car approach).

We found this squirrel in the Brooks Range in 2010, after following the familiar cries of "get off my lawn!" Photo courtesy Teresa Craighero.

This animal’s life is based on work, savings and future generations. They’re a background society. We don’t find them annoying just because they’re pests, but because we notice them. Their similarity to our own lives stands out.

Think about it. When’s the last time you really thought about Alaska’s flying squirrels? There’s just as many of them here as red squirrels. Difference is, flying squirrels are active at night. We lose that connection, and no longer notice them.

Challenge: Listen to the heartbeat of your community — it can be way more interesting than squirrel chatter at times. Earlier I linked a nationwide Twitter search on squirrels. You can also map every tweet coming out of the Fairbanks community.


4 thoughts on “The audacity of squirrels

  1. Dulcistella says:

    Very nice video, but you know I love squirrels 🙂


  2. I was definitely sitting at city council earlier wondering what you would post about next. I am quite pleased that it is squirrels! (Also, tweet maps are interesting. Do they work for all tweets, or only those from users who have made their location public?)

    • Thanks, Molly! Feel free to suggest post ideas, too. I would guess they would need to be from users who have made their location public. I mentioned squirrels on my account and it never made it on a map… it’s possible this is also a subset of all tweets, maybe those that are cached in a certain way or stored on particular server.

  3. The cones are pretty.

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