Getting Squirrely: The Furry Friends of Northwestern


Picture courtesy of the "NU Squirrels" Facebook page By Jessie Moravek

While on a run the other day, I saw a squirrel drag an entire bagel across the street. I think it was blueberry, and he definitely forgot the cream cheese, but nonetheless I was impressed by his motivation to carry something three times the size of his head all the way across Orrington. It turns out Northwestern has a growing interest in squirrels on campus, both in their cuteness and their role in the environment.

For some, these furry rodents simply blend into the background.

“They’re there, I’m indifferent,” said Aarohi Shah, a senior in McCormick. Recently, however, squirrels have attracted more attention. A Facebook page called NU Squirrels was created in October of this year, and to date has 331 followers. YikYak occasionally produces choice squirrel jokes, and squirrels scavenging in the Plex garbage cans are a favorite subject for Snapchats.

Why the spike in squirrel enthusiasm?

“I think they’re super entertaining to watch, and I often get distracted on my way to class,” said Leena Vilonen, a junior in Weinberg.

It can even be therapeutic.

“[They] remind you that there’s still life around, even during the midst of midterm season,” said Weinberg junior Rui Chen.

Squirrels are actually pretty interesting, if not for entertainment then for their role in the environment. In urban areas like Evanston, squirrels generally eat nuts, seeds and garbage (like bagels), and provide food for predators like red-tailed hawks and coyotes. In a more natural environment, squirrels play a critical role in forest-regrowth, according to the University of Illinois extension office, frequently burying acorns and other nuts and then forgetting where they hid them. The forgotten seeds are a critical part of forest re-growth.

If you watch squirrels closely enough, you will see them bury acorns—or at least, pretend to bury acorns. Squirrels often dig a hole and cover it up again without hiding their nut. This tactic, called “deceptive caching,” is a sneaky technique to keep their food stash safe from scavengers. Reports from the National Wildlife Federation explain that squirrels also dig up and re-bury their stashes about every three days, possibly to help them remember where the food is located.

These fascinating squirrel behaviors are easy to see on campus, as long as you’re in the right place; you won’t them in the wide-open spaces of Deering Meadow.

“They [squirrels] are going to stay close to trees so they have an escape route,” said Teresa Horton, a research affiliate in anthropology and wildlife enthusiast at Northwestern.

Horton also said squirrels are not aggressive, and will actually avoid people at all costs. So if you want to see these furry rodents in action, you’ll have to watch from a distance.

And they are worth seeing: Northwestern squirrels are a crucial aspect to the Evanston environment, and they’re also pretty cute. Even if they do steal your bagel.

Correction 2/6/2015: This article previously stated Teresa Horton was a neurobiology professor.

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