This picture was taken through my screened back door. That’s a gray squirrel going to town on a pumpkin. This wasn’t the first time gray squirrels have overturned small pumpkins in my backyard and feasted on them in preparation for when their chubby little bodies will stay put in their winter nests to conserve body heat. However, I have noticed an uptick in the number of gray squirrels loitering in my urban brick yard.
To learn why, I turned to Steve Sullivan at the Chicago Academy of Sciences who runs Project Squirrel, a citizen science project that asks volunteers to count the number of squirrels in their urban neighborhoods and report their findings. The goal is to understand the urban biology for two types of tree squirrels: gray and fox squirrels.
When I told Steve about the pumpkin-eating gray squirrel, he wasn’t surprised. Here’s Steve’s explanation:
Several reporters called me last fall, including some from Pennsylvania, about unusually large aggregations of gray squirrels. It seems many places in and around Philadelphia had good acorn crops that attracted urban squirrels and helped them survive the winter. The acorn crop was even better in many places this year. Squirrels will rely on the nuts they have cached this fall but, since the populations are a bit higher than usual, squirrels will also be looking for other food sources from pumpkin and corn to garbage and bark. If their food sources drop too low in the winter, they will eat bark as a last resort—it doesn’t really supply enough energy but if they can make it until the sap is flowing in the trees again, they may live another year.
The increase in urban squirrels sure makes it easy for me to spot them and report my findings to Project Squirrel. Why not give it a shot yourself? If you catch a squirrel doing something cool, consider taking a picture or video and sharing it the Sci4Cits audience on the video gallery or on your own member blog. I can see it now: “Squirrel Week on Sci4Cits!”