The Grey Rapscallion

Fat Boy raids the birdfeeder

Fat Boy raids the birdfeeder

There is one visitor to my garden that never ceases to fill me with admiration for his agility, his opportunism and his sheer bald-faced cheek. Other people might complain that he’s just a ‘rat with a fluffy tail’, that he’s ‘a foreign invader’ and that he steals all their expensive bird-food. Technically, all of this is true – the chap I’m talking about is a rodent (and so are rats), he is originally from the USA, and he is an adept pilferer. But I like him. Ladies and gentlemen, the grey squirrel will always be welcome in my garden.

Take yesterday, for example. I was looking out of the window to see if the combination of pouring rain and sun would conjure up a rainbow (it did).

Aforementioned rainbow (double rainbow in fact!)

Aforementioned rainbow (double rainbow in fact!)

As I headed back to the kitchen, I noticed a rustling in the hornbeam tree in the garden. A grey squirrel was working his way down the branch to where the bird feeder was hanging from a green metal hook about eighteen inches long. I recognised him as the local squirrel Godfather. I’ve christened him ‘Fat Boy’. This might seem unkind but is really a compliment on his plump good looks and spirit of derring-do.

Fat Boy hung on to the branch with his toes and then stretched and stretched until he was hanging upside down like an Olympic gymnast. Then, he turned himself the right way up and hugged the bird feeder amorously. He started to stuff his cheek pouches with expensive premium sunflower seeds (thirty-four pounds for twelve kilos, since you ask). Something must have distracted him, because he then slipped off the feeder, leapt into the bird bath with a mighty splash, and disappeared back up the tree.

Fat Boy, about to fall into a bird bath

Fat Boy, about to fall into a bird bath

This winter has been very mild, but in 2012  we had lots of snow. I made sure that the bird table was topped up, and just as well, because it soon became clear that I had a four-legged visitor. As I stood by the window one lunchtime, I watched as a squirrel tried to climb up the wooden post that forms the base. He would get so far, and then slide back down, but he was not deterred. After half a dozen attempts, he managed to get to the top, and then to reach out a paw to grab the edge of the bird table. He swung there for a second, then managed to get another foot on, and finally hauled up his back end. Then, he sat there, stuffing his face with as much seed and suet pellets and mealworms as he could. The snow was falling, and it looked to me as if he was using his big fluffy grey and chestnut tail as an umbrella, changing the angle so that it always faced into the wind. I couldn’t begrudge him a full stomach when it was so cold and food was so hard to come by.

A squirrel takes advantage of the bird table in the snowy winter of 2012

A squirrel takes advantage of the bird table in the snowy winter of 2012

During the nineteenth century, there were a series of grey squirrel releases in London. Between 1905 and 1907, for example, over a hundred were released in Regents Park. Soon, the grey squirrel was everywhere in the south-east. The well loved red squirrel was becoming rarer and rarer, and of course, the grey squirrel was blamed. However, there is good evidence that two things were more responsible for the demise of the red squirrel: firstly the destruction of the mixed coniferous forest that the red squirrel always favoured, and secondly the advent of squirrel pox. The grey squirrel has good immunity to this disease, but the red squirrel does not. Many naturalists believe that the grey squirrel merely moved in to the niches left by the disappearance of the red squirrel. Furthermore, grey squirrels are more adaptable, and can live in much more degraded habitat than the red squirrel.

In parkland, grey squirrels can proliferate to incredible numbers. I remember a walk in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh with my mother. The squirrels came from all directions as soon as we sat down, perching on the bench beside us with their hopeful little faces, scuttling out from under hedges and sitting up on their haunches whilst surveying us for signs of potential generosity. What they really like are peanuts, preferably still in their shells, and they reach out with cold, scratchy paws to take whatever we offered. The need to feed animals seems to be deeply engrained in us as humans: who hasn’t fed ducks, or pigeons, or even squirrels? They bring us in touch with other lives,  give us a chance to be kind, and to feel part of a greater world outside our own homes and families.  As far as I’m concerned, any creature that can not only survive but thrive in our parks and gardens is welcome to ransack the contents of my birdfeeders. When I created a wildlife garden, I chose not to be too picky about which wildlife turned up.

10 thoughts on “The Grey Rapscallion

  1. Libby Hall

    Lovely!! For many years I fed squirrels in my garden – with a box feeder on a tree designed to let them lift the lid and take out peanuts in their shell. (The lid being heavy supposedly stops Jays and other similar birds taking whole peanuts and enthusiastically stuffing them down their fledglings throats.) I loved having the squirrels as part of the rich wildlife in my garden. I loved watching their wild antics flying from tree to tree and drinking from the pond.

    But now, tragically, I no longer have that pleasure. New neighbours began trying to trap and poison the squirrels because they didn’t want them to in any way disrupt their gardens. I felt I was luring the squirrels to their deaths and so I stopped feeding them. I love the plants in my garden, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to care more about a plant than an animal.. Fauna before Flora that’s my garden! (Happily the squirrels seem to be surviving in our highway of large trees. And they are probably digging up more bulbs than ever now that the don’t have my steady supply of peanuts.)

    Reply
  2. Bug Woman Post author

    Hi Libby,

    I’m glad that the squirrels are still thriving, in spite of your neighbours’ attempts to commit Squirrelicide! Of course, trying to poison and trap them is completely pointless – other squirrels will just move into the vacated territories. It’s the same when people try to get rid of magpies and crows by killing them. It just doesn’t work, and of course it causes suffering to the animals, and to the people who love them. We can either work with nature, or try to tame her, and in my experience, nature always wins in the end.

    Reply
  3. Naomi Racz

    I agree – I love watching the grey squirrels’ acrobatics in my mum’s back garden! I had always thought that grey squirrels were responsible for the demise of the red squirrel, so it’s interesting to read that that might not be the case.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I think that the situation with red vs grey squirrels is very interesting, and it certainly varies from one part of the country to another. In his book on London’s Natural History, Richard Fitter describes how the red squirrels in London had had a drastic drop in numbers at the turn of the last century, probably due to squirrel pox. Combine that with the loss of so much woodland, and it’s a recipe for disaster for them, especially as they are not so robust or so adaptable as the grey squirrels. My guess is that if the grey squirrel hadn’t been introduced, we’d have no squirrels in our parks and gardens, rather than red ones….

      Reply
  4. Dave

    The problem we find with squirrels is that they really go for the birdbox we have on a tree. Attacking the wood around the entrance hole and, several times when there is a nest we find a squirrel sitting on top the birdbox. Last year the next was abandoned, not sure if it was the attention of a squirrel or some other problem.
    You may be interested in the following site http://www.mybitoftheplanet.com
    Been reading this site for a few years, detail for a single garden is fascinating.
    Look forward to the next post.
    Dave

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yep, they’re certainly fond of eggs, and even baby birds. I have heard of people reinforcing their birdboxes with metal, which helps keep out the woodpeckers as well, but then the birds will abandon the box if there is too much harrassment, even if the predators can’t break in. Squirrels are certainly no angels….and thanks for the blog reference. I’m off to have a look!

      Reply
  5. David Brake

    Not that I wish to out myself as anti-squirrelist but can you shed light on why “During the nineteenth century, there were a series of grey squirrel releases in London”? What was it that those releasing them wished to accomplish? Did they agree with you that they were cute?

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Good question – in Fitter’s book he describes the motive as ‘hard to discover’. I do note that at least two of the people who released them were American citizens – a Mr G.S. Page of Middlesex who released 5 squirrels in Bushy, and another American who let a hundred grey squirrels run free out in Kingston, so maybe there was an element of homesickness there. On the other hand, ninety-one squirrels were released actually in London Zoo and Regent’s Park by the authorities at the time. Maybe, with the drastic drop in population of the red squirrels it was felt that there was something missing?

      As usual though, when humans release creatures from another part of the world into a habitat there are unforeseen circumstances. I am reminded of the man in America in the nineteenth century who wanted to release all the birds that appeared in Shakespeare’s plays. Hence, all the billions of starlings in North America….

      Reply
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