Thursday, June 10, 2010

Entertaining Strangers

Well!” I thought. “He sure doesn’t belong here.” How long he had been coming we had no idea, but from the looks of things he was sure making himself at home. A stranger - too big, too aggressive, too gray...... Grabbing the binoculars, I homed in on the pole feeder and the large shape occupying it. After observing carefully and checking a field guide, I pegged him as an Eastern gray squirrel. No, he does not belong here.

Numerous in the eastern half of the U.S., this now-common denizen of city parks is not native to our part of the country. First introduced in Washington in the early 1900s, they have since been repeatedly released in parks, campuses, estates and residential areas. To say they have adapted well would be an understatement.

20 inches long, from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail, this tree squirrel is nearly twice the size of the average 12 inch long Douglas squirrel or Chickaree that is native here. The little guys have reddish- or brownish-gray upper parts and orange to yellowish under parts. The big gray is clearly gray-colored with reddish overtones above; its under parts are whitish. A full half of its body length is the prominent, bushy gray tail bordered with white-tipped hairs.
Noisy little Chickarees are found in stands of fir, pine, cedar, and other conifers throughout Washington. Although particularly fond of Douglas fir seeds, like all tree squirrels they eat a variety of seeds, nuts, tree buds, berries, leaves, and twigs. The grays prefer deciduous hardwood or mixed forests with nut trees, especially oak-hickory forests. They feed heavily on hickory nuts, beechnuts, acorns, and walnuts. Grays are well-known for their nut-burying skills, and a great many new trees have sprouted because of them. In recent years I’ve found quite a few hazelnuts as I’ve dug about the yard. I moved several that had sprouted and they are now small shrubs. Both of these squirrels are opportunists and will eat fungi, insects, and occasionally birds’ eggs, nestlings, and frogs.

They both construct nursery nests in hollow trees, abandoned woodpecker cavities, and similar hollows. Where these are unavailable, they will build spherical or cup-shaped nests in trees, attics, and nest boxes. Although they sometimes invade buildings, generally speaking the Chickarees do little harm and provide great pleasure to those attuned to watching them. The grays, on the other hand, have a nasty reputation for gnawing and nesting in buildings. As I said, they are adaptable.

In some areas where the number of Eastern gray squirrels has increased, the Chickarees have decreased and it is easy to put the blame on the grays. However, given that these squirrels have different food and shelter preferences, it’s more likely that increasing housing and other development, and loss of coniferous forest is responsible of any decline in the Chickaree populations.

It’s easy to distrust the stranger - to take a quick look and not like what we see; to catch whiff of the rumor or the reputation and look no further. The unknown is always suspect; time and effort breed familiarity - and who knows what we might discover?

Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:1-2

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