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Devilish Varmints

Squirrels are one of the most successful animal groups on the planet, just check your yard

An Eastern gray squirrel keeps a sharp eye out for predators and food.

An Eastern gray squirrel keeps a sharp eye out for predators and food.

For some people, squirrels evoke a warm fuzzy feeling similar to the feeling we get around puppies and kittens, but for others, squirrels arouse a stress reaction akin to dealing with marauding thieves. What is it about these bushy-tailed, big-eyed, soft-furred, devilish varmints that splits popular opinion down the middle? Something happens between the childhood delight of a first wildlife sighting and adulthood for half the population that scowls and curses just at their mention. As with other animal groups, the more we know about them, the more we understand what drives them.

First things first, squirrels are rodents and in the spirit of “misery loves company,” so are their cute close relatives chipmunks, groundhogs and prairie dogs. Humans often despise them for their inclination to gnaw and destroy our stuff, but in reality it is a very rodent thing to do to maintain their continuously growing incisors. Counting only the squirrels, there are over 200 species worldwide except at the polar regions. In this part of Florida we have three of those species: two tree squirrels and one flying squirrel. The most abundant of the three and the one most familiar to everyone — from our feeders to our gardens to our oaks — is the gray squirrel.

Eastern gray squirrels are not just gray. Most have a bit of rufous, or reddish-brown, fur mixed in, some more than others. Characteristics that distinguish them from the others are the white tips on their tail fur and their white undersides. Elsewhere in their range they can be albino or the handsome black of a melanistic color variant. No longer than 19 inches from tip of their nose to tip of their tail, they are neither the smallest nor the largest of our locals, averaging about one pound.