The name ‘squirrel' is an unusual word which has its origins in Latin and the Greek ‘skiouros' meaning shadow-tailed. At this time of year we begin to see them busily collecting nuts for their winter store.
There are more than two hundred species of squirrel all over the world, ranging from the pygmy squirrel (five inches long) to the Indian giant squirrel (three feet long!). Our own grey squirrel is very common and widespread. They can be seen in woodlands and gardens, often stealing food from bird feeders.
Squirrels are omnivores, eating mainly nuts, acorns, and tree seeds. They will also eat flowers, buds, pine cones and, occasionally, young birds and eggs. They breed during the spring and summer, producing a litter of three or four young in a nest called a drey. By two months old, the young are ready to leave the nest and be independent.
Squirrels are incredibly agile and fast, as my dog has discovered on her attempts to chase one! They have the ability to descend a tree head first because of their double-jointed ankles which allow their feet to rotate and grip the bark. It also allows them to perform some amazing acrobatics often seen on bird feeders.
There are an estimated 2.7 million grey squirrels in the U.K. They are a type of rodent and are not loved by all. However, they are very attractive creatures with their beautiful, bushy tails. Unfortunately, they have had a disastrous impact on the native red squirrel with whom they compete for food. They also carry a virus known as squirrelpox, to which they are themselves immune but when transmitted to red squirrels is fatal.
Squirrels do not actually hibernate but are less active in winter when food is scarce. When it is cold, they use their bushy tail as a blanket – a sort of duvet tail!