Where have all the squirrels gone?



Youre welcome, little fella
Well, this is awkward.

Ever since I advocated eating squirrels last week in order to protect tomato plants from the little terrorists, I've received lots of advice from readers:

Plant rosebushes around your tomatoes.
Put out rat poison.
Get a watchdog.
Get a guard cat.
Get a wrist rocket.
Squirrels are just thirsty. Put a bowl of water under your plants and they'll leave your tomatoes alone.

Turns out, this year it hasn't been a problem at all. Last week, I sustained my first—and so far only—squirrel attack, on a small green cherry that might never have ripened anyway this late in the season. You're welcome, little fella.

That went against all my expectations for this season. I'd been carefully watching the squirrels throughout our mild, practically springlike winter with growing trepidation. They were everywhere, in terrifying numbers, grotesquely fat, furry little plumpers swarming the naked parks and alleys unblanketed by snow.

On the morning of June 1 I looked out the window and saw seven squirrels lurking about in the small area encompassing my postage-stamp backyard, the top of the garage, and on the light poles in the alley. But these seemed different—gaunt, rawboned, weaselly little things that lacked any of their typical mischievous purpose.

And then over the next few weeks the heat came down, the tomatoes ripened, and the squirrels seemed to vanish. I'd see them here and there in the parks and in the alleys, but they lurked around in isolation, and they were always scrawny.

And then came the reports. Yep, squirrel numbers must be down, maybe because of the mild winter, maybe because of the drought. Steve Sullivan, my go-to guy on squirrel behavior, was quoted in both of these stories, but he fears the reasons for the alleged squirrel disappearance may have been oversimplified. It's possible that any decreases in squirrel numbers might be limited to specific localities, and any overall decrease in squirrel numbers might in fact be negligible.

The squirrel disappearance is "really just conjecture," he says. "Not even really a hypothesis." But here it is anyway:

"In midwinter my initial hypothesis was, yeah, it was a warm winter and so the babies that were approaching their first birthday—born last summer—were not going to die from freezing. And then all the adults last summer that would have died might not die. But I wondered if starvation was gonna become a factor. I was assuming last year's adult squirrels would outcompete last year's younger squirrels. We were gonna have three generations of squirrels living together when typically a huge proportion of those earlier two generations had died over the winter. Initially, it did seem like that was happening. In May, maybe early June, I could go out into Lincoln Park in one spot and see 14 or 16 squirrels every time I went outside. Throughout the city I was getting similarly large numbers of squirrels where you would normally see four or five."

Then came the drought. "This throws new issues into the mix. Squirrels overheat really easily. That's part of the reason squirrels seem to disappear. They're just hanging out in the shade and not eating. When we had those several days of really elevated temperature with no standing water either—and because it was in midsummer—that was the worst time for squirrels as far as diet goes. They've got no water, no food, it's really hot, the predators are still gonna be as active as they can be. But that's also locality-dependent. Your neighborhood is different from your friend's neighborhood several blocks away, and these differences have a profound effect on the total biodiversity. Did we have a population-wide change or did we have a bunch of localized changes that in the long term don't really mean anything? That's why it so important to have people submit real observations."

What Sullivan means by is that he'd like you to go his Project Squirrel website and log your squirrel sightings, because that's the easiest way for him to figure out what's going on.

In the meantime, I apologize to any gardeners who have been unable to make burgoo. One thing is certain: the easy winter was good for other urban rodent species, and the drought doesn't seem to bother them either. If you're hungry, try some rat. They're everywhere these days.

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