Bushy-Tailed Rats


Field Notices
Squirrel at work
Luther College Chips
October 4, 2007

          Luther students crush on campus squirrels.  I ought to learn to do that too.

        Squirrels are the poster children of the Luther animal community: cute, busy, visible all over campus, seemingly pretty friendly.

            But for the last few years I’ve been calling them “bushy-tailed rats.”

            I used to feed birds in my back yard.  Then the squirrels moved in.  They’d settle in at the feeder and eat until they could barely waddle away.  Imagine a chickadee trying to screw up the courage to take on one of the beefy neighborhood squirrels for the sake of a sunflower seed.

            Squirrel traffic to the feeders was so heavy their little claws wore the bark off trees and knocked shingles off my garage roof, so I’ve quit feeding the birds. 

To heap on the indignities, in a frenzy when their first litter is born every spring, female squirrels kill the limbs on my sugar maples by tearing off their bark.

            Don’t imagine the Luther squirrels your roommate calls “sweet” are any better behaved.

            When Decorah used to have aerial phone lines, Luther College was the only place the cables were chewed to pieces by squirrels.  A car parked with its windows open on High Street once had its vinyl seat covers gnawed away by bushy-tailed vandals.

            Res Life staffers and the security guys dread the days when they have to chase a renegade squirrel out of a dorm hallway.

            Still, I need to quit calling them “rats.”  Squirrels are rodents about the same size as a rat.  But the comparison ends there.

            Rats are human parasites.  They thrive where people thrive, carry nasty diseases and do a lot of damage.

            Squirrels, on the other hand, were doing fine on this hilltop long before well-intentioned Norwegians started digging the basements for a college.

            A nineteenth-century geologist said the two most populous animal species in this part of the world were passenger pigeons and squirrels.  While the last passenger pigeon died in 1929, the squirrels are still more than holding their own.

            In part that’s because lots of Luther’s campus sits in an oak canopy.  Oaks are food, home, protection, and recreation center for squirrels.  You won’t find squirrels regularly running interference on the open turf of the football field, but if you can see a white oak tree, you are probably also used to seeing squirrels out your dorm window.

            Consider them an ecological reminder of where you are: in the remnant of a pre-settlement oak savanna, where the nearest forest hillsides are dominated by oaks and hickories. 

That kind of terrain is squirrel heaven. 

The frantic nut-burying of squirrels this time of year is the efficient mechanism by which an oak and history forest propagates and spreads.  The cute hop-hopping of that squirrel outside your window is an oak tree suddenly finding its legs.

            So I need to get over my annoyance.  I’m a bit like the people who move into a pretty Colorado canyon and then resent the threat cougars pose to their peace of mind.  The cougar isn’t the source of disruption; it’s the people.

            Luther College has a current ad campaign where four leafy photos of the college are accompanied by the text, “Get away and think.”  If that’s our mantra, it’s time I accept the Eastern Gray Squirrel as our perfect animal poster child, a necessary aid to philosophy. 

And really, when it comes right down to it, in my heart of hearts, I’m glad those annoying bushy tails haven’t gone the way of the passenger pigeon.