After stealing a quick glimpse of an adult squirrel carrying its young across the road, I realised how little I knew about the everyday life of squirrels.
I have always enjoyed seeing squirrels as they frantically climb trees; or dart across the road ahead of you; or my favourite sightings, when they are basking in the morning sunlight, all huddled on top of each other as the sun rays hit their tawny coats creating a golden hue.
The particular squirrel species we find at Londolozi is the Smith’s Bush Squirrel or Tree Squirrel – Paraxerus cepapi. These squirrels are rather small (about 35cm) and only weigh around 200 grams. Although their name suggests that they only are found in trees, it is equally common to find them foraging on the ground eating seeds and nuts, especially at this time of year with long grass and fruiting Marula trees.
Tree squirrels are known to stash their food in a process known as ‘scatter-hoarding’ whereby they privately dig holes to place their seeds and nuts in then carefully pat down the soil on top with their noses in an attempt to prevent other squirrels from raiding their food stash. To avoid their entire cache of food stores being taken, they scatter their stash around their home range as squirrels are known to steal from one another. Although this hoarding behaviour occurs throughout the year there is a peak towards the end of the summer months anticipating the drier, food-scarce winter.
As well as scatter-hoarding, squirrels can also be scatter-brained, as they forget where a large percentage of their stashes are buried!
The name Tree Squirrel does however reflect where they flee to when danger approaches. When big predators pass by the squirrels generally alarm frantically from the outer branches and for danger like eagles they will usually duck into a cavity.
A tree territory is defended by a dominant male who will advertise his territory through his call. When a female comes on heat she will alert the nearby males who will then come to her. The territorial male then has to fend off these peripheral males and they are often seen chasing one another from tree to tree.
Once the squirrels have mated, after an almost two month gestation the female gives birth to 1-3 kittens – yes, baby squirrels are called kittens. These kittens are born in a tree cavity which is known as a drey, which is lined with fine grass and lichen to incubate the blind, hairless and helpless young. Both squirrel parents care for their kittens and they persist in family groups until the young have moved off to form their own bonds or find their own territories.
They are meticulous groomers and groom each other often, both morning and evening, whilst basking in the sun. This is how the ‘common scent’ is thus shared with all family members and any squirrel that does not share this ‘family scent’ is then recognised as an intruder. It is important for a small species as this to groom as parasites such as ticks would cause a great deal of harm and energy loss relative to their small bodies.
After about 10 months squirrels are then sexually mature and this is when they leave their natal group to start their own squirrel family. A squirrel’s life is roughly eight years which to me is pretty amazing for a small creature such as this.
All it takes is a little bit more information to gain a proper appreciation of a seemingly inconspicuous creature like a squirrel…