Are squirrels little creatures that make us chuckle, or are they destructive, thieving critters that drive us nuts? A little of both, it turns out.
Those large almond eyes and bushy tails are attached to determined, hard-core rodents. Squirrels - sometimes called rats with cosmetic enhancements - scamper about innocently enough, but also clean out bird feeders, run off with apples and break into homes.
When I asked readers to share their squirrel stories, I received lots of "love 'em" letters, but also tales of frustration with squirrels and squirrel lovers alike. As one reader put it:
"Many people think that squirrels are cute, almost pets and they provide food for them, enabling them to multiply, spread disease and damage property."
Squirrels have a long history. Aristotle dubbed them "skiourus," or "shade tail," which eventually became "squirrel."
Today, they thrive in near paradise - the mature trees, vegetable gardens and backyard bird feeders of city and suburban neighborhoods, where the duality of being cute and aggravating produces the obvious results.
Some people love squirrels. They feed them and laugh at their antics, give them names and shoot pictures of them. Others hate them for the destruction they can wreak on house and garden. They'd just like to shoot the varmints, period.
Few readers offered solutions to squirrel problems, probably because there aren't many. Squirrels are legally protected animals, and they are smart. The part of their brains responsible for remembering details regarding food is well developed, researchers say. They also have well-honed survival skills, including how they raise their young.
"The mother squirrel carried her babies across the street to bird feeders and showed them where the food was," wrote reader Beverly Carlson of Brooklyn Park, Minn. "She brought them over, one at a time, hanging from her mouth, like a cat."
Most peoples' frustration concerns bird feeders, especially how brainy squirrels bested even the most exotic "squirrel-proof feeder." But when the critters branch out to a bigger menu - tulip bulbs, tomatoes and backyard fruit - they can really rile.
Every year, squirrels spend two or three days picking clean the fruit trees in Bill Ferrell's yard in Excelsior, Minn., and burying their booty in the woods across the road. He laments that about 200 pears and hundreds more apples will just rot in the ground this year.
More troubling is the incessant, destructive chewing. Squirrels gnaw on lawn furniture, clothes drying on the line, even chain-link fences. Like other rodents, squirrels' teeth grow continuously. If they don't chew, their teeth will get too long to eat. (Pregnant or stressed squirrels chew the most and favor metal, naturalists say.) They'll munch their way into homes, even cutting through window screens to break and enter.
After Leah Lawrence of Minneapolis shooed away a squirrel from a kitchen window one morning, her 17-year-old son called her at work, hysterical. "The squirrel had gotten into the house and had come into his room, climbed up on his bed, walked across his back (while he was sleeping) then onto his head, and then ran out of the room."
These are the behaviors that create a sputtering Donald Duck-like frenzy in people as they reach for their shotguns. But they should stop. In most parts of the country, they need a license, they need to wait for the hunting season to open and they need to remember that it's illegal in most cities to fire a gun.
Most people don't want to kill little creatures - no matter how naughty. So they humanely trap problem squirrels and drive them 5 miles away to release them. Not a good idea, experts now say. The squirrels are taken from their nest and family and dropped into new, unfamiliar territory. Not only is their survival threatened, but they also put pressure on the new area's resident squirrels. It's just shipping the problem elsewhere.
Victims of squirrel mischief shouldn't try for a squirrel-free life (only Hawaii and Australia fit that bill, I'm told). Even if every squirrel in the yard is trapped or killed, the offspring of neighboring squirrels will soon fill the void. So the advice of Marian Ziebell of Minneapolis is to forget trying to solve the problem and just watch them.
Even after giving into peaceful coexistence, you can try to prevent or at least minimize squirrel damage by blocking their access to your home and garden goodies. But don't be surprised if you're not entirely successful.
Starting early last century, Bell Labs tested deterrents to prevent squirrels from chewing through telephone lines, which cost millions annually to repair. According to a news report, the company tried metal, paint, weasel scent, rabbit repellent and shock devices, everything nonlethal. After 50 years of trying, research stopped. The squirrel always won.
SideBar: At Tail's Length
Prevent squirrel entry into buildings by sealing gaps and holes. Install a mesh cover on the chimney. If they get in, trapping will get them out. You can release them outdoors, but don't transport them to another area and release them. Consider employing a pest-control company.
A trail of peanuts or almonds also works, readers said.
Use fences and covers to keep them out of gardens, but you might need to be creative. Place metal mesh in the ground to keep them from digging up tulip bulbs.
Use squirrel repellents, available at garden stores. Or sprinkle areas with cayenne pepper or hot sauce. Repellents need to be renewed regularly.
Some suggest offering food, such as corncobs, so they'll eat that instead of your crops. Supplying a water source limits garden thievery, some say.
Don't feed birds in summer. Add a squirrel guard or use a squirrel-resistant feeder at other times of the year.
Short of tying a dog to the trunk or nailing a metal baffle on the tree, there's no way to protect fruit on trees. Some say mothballs in pantyhose hung in trees will keep squirrels away. (The neighbors, too, probably.)