Getting Squirrely in South Dakota
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Whether you delight in their antics or find them pesky pests, the adaptability and work ethic of squirrels is inarguable. In November, SDPB premieres NATURE: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success, a paean to squirrels’ abilities.
South Dakota has 13 squirrel species, including chipmunks, marmots, woodchucks, four types of ground squirrels, flying, gray and fox squirrels, and prairie dogs.
SDPB sought squirrel data and lore from SD Game, Fish and Parks biologists Randy Johnson and Travis Runia.
Katy Beem: The Nature documentary shows how smart and adaptable squirrels are - they can outwit rattlesnakes and problem-solve obstacle courses. What is the secret to squirrels’ success in South Dakota’s extremes?
Randy Johnson: “As you mention, squirrels are very adaptable, and have learned to thrive in city environments, how to exploit food sources available in cities, while also learning to dodge people and vehicles in their day-to-day life. If they can learn to avoid the dangers that come with living among people, they benefit by having fewer natural predators around, such as fox, eagles, and bobcats.”
Travis Runia: “Woodchucks dig dens where they hibernate for the entire winter. They forage heavily through the summer and acquire a thick layer of fat. During hibernation, respiration, heartbeat, and body temperature decrease. During the 4-to-6-month hibernation, woodchucks don’t leave their dens and rely on their fat layer for energy. When they emerge in spring, they’ve lost 1/3 to 1/2 of their body weight. Similar behavior occurs with Franklin’s Ground Squirrel, Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, Spotted Ground Squirrel, Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Yellow-bellied Marmot and Least Chipmunk. Eastern Chipmunks are light hibernators and resort to hibernation-like behaviors during only the most severe winter weather. Others, like Red, Gray, and Fox Squirrels are active all winter. They either build well - insulated nests in trees or use natural cavities such as woodpecker holes as winter homes. They store food during summer and fall so less time is spent foraging during winter.”
KB: Urban squirrels eat a lot of carbs and scavenged human food. Any negative effects of this diet?
RJ: “Squirrels have very high metabolisms and require lots of food. They rely primarily on mast [fruit] like acorns, but naturally eat a wide variety of plant material, insects, etc. Urban environments provide a lot of these types of foods, so squirrels do very well in cities. Occasionally they can overpopulate in neighborhoods and have disease problems, but overall the urban environments are very beneficial.”
TR: “Squirrels, like birds, can become reliant on human food sources. If you choose to feed squirrels or birds, you should be committed to providing a consistent food source year-round. We aren’t aware of any effects of urban squirrels eating trash.”
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KB: What do squirrels contribute to SD’s ecosystems?
RJ: “Squirrels are known for eating and caching acorns, and they are fun to watch as they go about their business. But beyond that, this activity is an important way that acorns and other tree nuts get moved about the forest floor, helping maintain healthy forests.”
KB: We crowdsourced squirrel questions around SDPB. Here are some staff questions.
Why do black and albino squirrels exist in South Dakota?
RJ: "Black and white squirrels are the same species of squirrels that we are all familiar with, they just have a different genetic condition which expresses the different color phases. While the black version is uncommon, the white version is even more rare. Because it is a genetic trait, often when you spot one color-phase squirrel, there will be others in the same neighborhood or area that share that same genetic variation and color phase!”
KB: I’ve seen squirrels survive a long time without tails. How crucial are tails for the critters?
RJ: “Tails play a vital role in communication among squirrels. They also use them as a kind of ‘scarf’ during cold months to keep warm. While losing their tail fur isn’t exactly helpful, they have a bundle of blood vessels at the base of their tail which they can manipulate to control blood flow to the tail. This can help them from losing too much heat to a hairless tail. Eventually, when the squirrel goes through a molt in the spring, the fur will grow back in like normal.”
KB: How popular is hunting squirrel for culinary purposes in South Dakota these days? Any recommendations for squirrel recipes?
RJ: “Squirrel hunting can be quite popular, particularly in other areas of the country, but folks do enjoy the occasional squirrel hunt in South Dakota. Believe it or not, they can be very challenging yet fun to pursue! I don’t have any squirrel recipes, but I’m sure there is a wide variety of recipes available on the internet or wild game cookbooks.”
KB: Anything squirrel related you’d like to add?
RJ: “Squirrels have been known to make fake acorn caches, where they only pretend to deposit an acorn, before moving a bit farther and actually burying it! This helps keep other animals from spying and stealing their acorns.”
Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success premiered Wednesday, Nov. 14, 7pm (6 MT) on SDPB1. Watch online here: