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Squirrel Wars in England - 02/19/10

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Dear Bird Folks,

As I prepare for another year of trying to keep those nasty English Sparrows from evicting or killing my bluebirds, I started wondering if any species from this side of the Atlantic has ever been brought over to England. And if so, is it causing headaches over there like the English Sparrow is here?

- Diane, Cooperstown, NY

Oh yeah, Diane,

We've sent them a doozy. One of our creatures has found its way over to England and the Brits hate it. A British friend of mine gets so enraged when he talks about this creature that you can almost see color in his face. Before I tell you the name of this creature, I need to make sure that I go on the record by stating that introducing any species into a new ecosystem is a bad idea and while it may seem like I'm enjoying telling this story, I'm not. The only thing I'm enjoying is the irony. You'll see.

Let's see if you can guess the creature in question. Here are a few hints: It is only native to the Eastern half of North America. It's not a bird, but it is associated with birds. Got it? Here's some more info. Everyone reading this has seen this creature before and 99% of you have cursed about it at least one time in your life. If we were going to send one creature to England to pay them back for sending us the House (English) Sparrow, this would be the perfect choice. Did you guess it yet? The creature in question is: Sciurus carolinenis, aka, our old pal, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Yes, the gray squirrel has found its way to England and it's driving them nuts. To which I say: Ha! Welcome to our world.

No one is exactly sure how our squirrels ended up in England but most people believe they arrived in the 1800s. Some think they were brought over as pets or perhaps for an exhibit in the London Zoo. The zoo? Can you imagine paying money to see a squirrel? Now there's a showstopper. As you may have guessed, it didn't take long for the squirrels to spread throughout the country. This, of course, was bad news for Britain's resident squirrel, the European Red Squirrel. The red squirrel is the only native squirrel in England and the Brits love it. Can you imagine? I never thought I'd hear the words "squirrel" and "love" in the same sentence, but it's true. It seems the author Beatrix Potter wrote a story about a red squirrel and ever since everyone over there gets all mushy at the sight of one, just like everyone over here gets all mushy at the sight of a photo of skinny Elvis.

Obviously, it's an environmental tragedy when any native species is displaced by an introduced one, but I don't get the mushy part. The European Red Squirrel isn't the cutest thing I've ever seen. It basically looks like the American Red Squirrel except it has disturbing looking ear tufts that make it look like a cross between Don King and something out of a Steven King novel. Red squirrels are a lot shyer than the grays, and that's not a good thing. Gray squirrels are larger, more aggressive and lot more daring than the little reds. They are also a whole lot smarter. (That's not a slam against red squirrels; gray squirrels are easily the smartest creatures to ever walk the earth.) The grays will quickly consume any available natural food and they will also dominate birdfeeders. Yup, gray squirrels are a problem at British birdfeeders. Wow! I would never have guessed that one (snicker).

What are the British doing to combat the advancing gray squirrel herds? Well, sometimes people try to drink their problems away, but in this case the Brits are trying to eat their problem away. Restaurants and pubs all over the country are promoting gray squirrel dishes. Squirrel pie and squirrel kabobs have found their way onto local menus while butcher shops have fresh squirrels hanging in the window. And apparently the people are enjoying this new cuisine. They consider squirrel to be a delicacy. Funny. It wasn't too many years ago (only about 250 or so) when the British made fun of us backward Americans for eating squirrel. Remember that irony I mentioned earlier?

Another irony in this squirrel vs. squirrel dilemma is that I couldn't help but be a little offended when I read disparaging comments about "our" squirrel posted on British websites. I don't know why, I've certainly said my share of nasty things about gray squirrels. I think it's kind of a family thing. It's okay for me to make-wise cracks about my family, but it's quite different when someone else does it. Hmm. I just compared my family to squirrels. Maybe I should stop this analogy right now.

I don't know if the gray squirrel has caused as many problems in England as the House Sparrow has caused here, Diane, but it's safe to say that both countries would have been better off if neither species had ever left home. And as much as I really don't like seeing House Sparrows in this country, they aren't the worst creatures the Brits have sent us. Have you ever seen a Yorkshire Terrier? What's up with those things?



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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