Black squirrels are unique enough to catch our eye and make us wonder about nature. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 8, 2011 12:35AM
‘‘Yesterday, I saw a squirrel laying in my yard. He looked strange the way he was laying there. When I got close to him, I realized what he was doing. He must have caught a bird and was eating it. I never heard of that. Have you?’’
— Frank Girardi,
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That kind of question puts me on a quest.
There’s something about squirrels.
I mean, far more than they are cute and bushy-tailed or, as I prefer to think of them, thieving bastards of the backyard.
Point being, they are noticed.
More to the point, I think they epitomize modern outdoors.
Two Sundays ago, I wrote about squirrel hunting, which opened Aug. 1, like it has for decades in Illinois. On one level, that continues a tradition of squirrel hunting in America stretching back to the Pilgrims. But the number of squirrel hunters in Illinois is unlikely to touch 50,000.
On the other hand, millions of Illinois residents — virtually all of us from the city to the farthest boondocks of southern Illinois — have contact with squirrels.
There are two primary types of squirrels in Illinois: fox and gray. Black and white squirrels are variants of grays. There also are some protected red squirrels in select areas of Kankakee and Iroquois counties. Red squirrels are much smaller and rust-colored. I love red squirrels.
Girardi’s question gave me an excuse to drop a note to Steve Sullivan, the curator of urban ecology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Sullivan has lots of interesting thoughts about urban wildlife. He also has taken on Project Squirrel, once the work of Joel Brown.
Project Squirrel is a joint project between the Notebaert museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Project Squirrel enlists citizen scientists in the study of modern squirrels.
As I expected, Sullivan had a quick answer.
‘‘It’s rare but normal,’’ he e-mailed. ‘‘Though they focus on nuts [beechnuts when they can get them, acorns because of abundance, all the way down to horse chestnuts when they have to], squirrels may eat just about anything [cambium when they’re desperate in the late winter, corn when it’s the most available food, though it does little to ensure survival], and when they come across a convenient protein packet, they’ll go for that too: eggs, chicks, carcasses [including road-killed squirrels], hamburgers pulled from dumpsters, cicadas, etc.
‘‘Such food is nutritious and their GI tract can handle it, but it is rare in the environment, they are not physically equipped to pursue it and it is not catchable.’’
The bottom line is, squirrels are opportunistic eaters. That’s something anybody who has watched squirrels pillage bird feeders already knows. I had heard of squirrels eating birds but never have seen it.
While I had Sullivan, I asked another squirrel question left over from Roger Rollo, who noticed a black squirrel in his backyard in West Chicago. In my small-town neighborhood, black squirrels were unseen until three years ago. Now we have at least six.
‘‘Black squirrels do seem to be more common now than in the recent past,’’ Sullivan e-mailed. ‘‘They are a normal color morph and were apparently relatively common throughout the country in the 1700s. We have moved them around a little because ‘different is more appealing,’ so the black squirrels in D.C., for example, are brought from Canada. White squirrels pop up with regularity, too, but are killed sooner. Both, of course, are gray squirrels.’’
For white squirrels, I highly recommend a side trip Downstate to see the white squirrels of Olney.
To learn about Project Squirrel, go to projectsquirrel.org.