La Grange's Special Squirrels Seek Food in Unlikely Places

Squirrels are in the midst of their most difficult season, which may prompt them to chomp on whatever they can get their paws on in search of a bite to eat.

The TV gave out with a flicker that started as a pixilated blemish on Ryan Seacrest’s face before spreading across the screen like a digital plague.

My cable service has weaved in and out of consciousness like that for the past few weeks, with flashes of clarity that dissolve into the electronic ether. I finally gave in Friday and called Comcast for help.

The cable guy came Sunday and knocked on my door clutching a thick, black wire.

“You see this right there?” he said, thrusting the cable toward me. “You’ve got a squirrel chewing on this line.”

A squirrel. I was not new to this game of squirrels that tangle with technology. One gave up his life by chomping into the transformer at my high school, setting himself and the building on fire in the process. Another knocked out electricity at Northwestern University while I worked in the admission office by teething on a power line.

But now I wondered: What possesses a squirrel to bite into something as unappealing as a cable?

For one thing, their teeth never stop growing, said Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and coordinator of Project Squirrel, which is monitoring squirrel populations in the Chicago area.

Having ever-growing teeth is actually a very serious situation for squirrels and other rodents, such as rats and beavers, he said.

“They’ll pierce through their brains or throats and kill them,” Sullivan said.

Gnawing on nuts, seeds and errant cables is how these small mammals keep their teeth in check. These animals just plain like to chew, he said.

The fact that it’s winter could also have played a role in my cable’s demise, he said.

“This is the hardest time of year for most animals,” Sullivan said. Autumn literally is the time of plenty for squirrels, when food is abundant and days are still warm.

But by mid-March, food stores have dwindled and started to rot. Desperate for nourishment, many emaciated squirrels starve or freeze to death. They'll test out all sorts of materials trying to find something edible, Sullivan said. Most don’t make it through their first year.

“Poor squirrels,” I said.

“Don’t feel too bad for them,” he responded. “They reproduce sort of like bunnies do.”

And before long, he said, the squirrels will begin nibbling on the fresh buds of reawakening trees and giving birth to the next generation.

It would take years of monitoring to accurately estimate La Grange’s squirrel population, Sullivan said.

There is something special, however, about our particular crew.

Fox and gray squirrels cohabitate in several Chicago suburbs—and particularly so in neighborhoods at La Grange’s center.

But travel a bit south on La Grange Road, and the fox squirrel population increases. To the north, there are more gray squirrels.

Why this is true is a question that Sullivan and his volunteer squirrel monitors are still working to answer. It will take thousands more sightings before he’s able to draw any substantial conclusions.

The squirrel population everywhere in the U.S. is trending higher than it has historically, he said. Hunger plays a role in that, too—just not the squirrels’.

“We were eating them,” Sullivan said.

But tastes have changed and now squirrels face a greater threat from the Emerald Ash Borer than your fork. Squirrels have disappeared from some neighborhoods shorn of their trees in response to the invasive beetle.

The bushy-tailed critters, however, adapt to the situation, and as Sullivan said, will be able to “persist without a problem” by finding alternative housing in some treeless blocks.

“They try to chew through shingles and live in people’s attics,” Sullivan said. “They need a place to live, just like us.”

Visit Project Squirrel to learn more about the local observations and sign up to become a citizen scientist.

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Rita McCabe March 26, 2013 at 02:36 PM
This was a great informative article. Would love to see more like them. Rita McCabe
Lauren Williamson (Editor) March 26, 2013 at 04:12 PM
Thank you so much, Rita! I had a lot of fun writing it, so I'm glad to hear you want to see more like this.
John O'Laughlin March 26, 2013 at 06:44 PM
I would be interested in how to tell the two varieties apart.
Lauren Williamson (Editor) March 26, 2013 at 07:25 PM
Great question. The most obvious difference is gray squirrels have white bellies and fox squirrels have orange bellies. Here's more about the differences from Project Squirrel: http://projectsquirrel.org/gray_fox.shtml


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