The Many Different Types of Squirrels
There are many kinds of squirrels besides the red and grey ones seen in British woodlands. They are found all over the world except in the polar regions, the deserts and in Australia and New Zealand, and they vary in colour, size and habits. Most, however, have soft fur and bushy tails at least as long as their bodies. All are rodents, or gnawing animals, feeding mostly on plant food such as nuts, although some are very fond of insects or birds' eggs and young birds. Most squirrels live in trees but there is a group of animals called ground squirrels which live in holes in the ground.
The true squirrel of Great Britain is the red squirrel, a dainty little animal with fur that is generally red-brown, although, as it moults twice a year, the colour varies. In winter it has furry tufts on its ears but it loses these in summer. It is about 40cms long from its nose to the tip of its tail.
Red squirrels were common in Britain, especially. in pine woods, until the beginning of the 20th century, when their numbers began to grow less. This may have been partly because they were driven out by the grey squirrels which had been recently brought to England from North America, but they also seem to have suffered from an epidemic. In some places their numbers are now increasing again.
Grey squirrels are larger than red squirrels- about 45cms from the nose to the tip of the tail - they have no ear tufts and they prefer living in wooded country. Grey squirrels eat fruits, grain, seeds and young birds, and so are regarded as pests. However, it is foolish to call them tree rats, as many people do, for they are as much squirrels as any others. Red squirrels also do damage in pine woods by eating the top shoots of the pines.
Red and grey squirrels are active during the day but are timid creatures, and if a person or a dog disturbs one it will usually run a short way up a tree trunk then dart behind it and disappear up the other side. Those living in trees near roads, however, are bolder, and may sometimes be seen sitting up nibbling at nuts or uttering scolding cries at passers by. They can run head first down the tree trunks and can hang head downwards by their hind legs while holding something in their front paws.
Squirrels make nests in which to bring up their young. They are called dreys and are built of twigs and bark. In autumn squirrels collect nuts and acorns and hide them, and it is then that they are most often seen on the ground. When the weather is very cold they hibernate, or sleep, but they do not spend the whole winter asleep.
Flying Squirrels, like all other flying mammals except bats, glide from tree to tree by means of the membranes, or thin sheets of tissue, that connect their front and hind legs. There are two groups of them. One group are true squirrels and live in parts of the northern hemisphere, including North America and Japan. They move about only at night. The best known kind is found in North America. It has a body of about 13cms long with a 10cm tail and its fur is thick, grey and silky.
The other group of flying squirrels are not true squirrels, and are generally called scaly-tailed flying squirrels. They live in Central and West Africa and most of them spend the day sleeping in hollow trees. The largest of this group is Pel's flying squirrel, which is nearly 45cms long with a tail of the same length and is black and white in colour. The smallest, Cansdale's pygmy flying squirrel, has a grey body less than 10cms long.
Ground Squirrels differ from their relatives in having fur that is bristly and harsh, especially in the case of the spiny squirrels of Africa. Other ground squirrels live in North America, and include the one generally known as the Gopher.
Tropical Squirrels. There is a great variety of these. Eight different kinds live in the forests of West Africa. Two kinds are found in the undergrowth and two in medium-sized trees, one lives high in the palm swamps and one lives on the ground. They vary in size from a little green squirrel, which is only 13cms long to the giant squirrel, whose body and tail are each about 32cms long.
The largest true squirrel is the giant Malabar squirrel of India, with a body up to 40cms long. The most striking one is Prevost's squirrel from Malaya, which is black, white and bright reddish-brown. Both of these do well in zoos.