Editors: Possible April 22 "Earth Day" peg
UIC'S SQUIRREL COUNT IS ON!
Squirrels. We see the frisky, playful animals almost everywhere, but how much do scientists know about them? Apparently not enough. That's why a University of Illinois at Chicago professor hopes you'll give him some of your time to help him learn more.
Joel Brown, a UIC biologist and squirrel expert, says many questions about squirrel life and behavior remain unanswered. That's where the public can help contribute to Brown's research.
Just over a year ago, Brown and his UI colleague Wendy Jackson set up an Internet site called "Project Squirrel." Modeled after a successful bird-watchers site, "Project Squirrel" provides a checklist of things to note about where squirrels live, which species of trees they use and questions about the dog and cat population of the neighborhood-two animals which are often eager to chase and attack squirrels.
Few data exist on squirrel population distribution, so Brown and his student assistants are eagerly soliciting contributions. So far, data from the "Project Squirrel" site are scattered. Some neighborhoods are well surveyed, while many others remain untouched. With the mild weather of early spring upon us, yet complete tree foliage still a few weeks away, now is a good time to spot squirrels.
"Anyone can do this, from backyard naturalists to the kids who feed squirrels" Brown said. "Most squirrels in Chicago treat humans as vending machines, so they're likely to come up to you."
Inner-city, suburban, park and forest-preserve habitats all need to be surveyed. In addition to the specific questions, the survey allows space for comments and information about such things as squirrel color variation and unusual behavior.
"One woman," Brown said, "happily shared with us that her squirrels look both ways before crossing streets." It's too soon to speculate on what contributed observer data may suggest about squirrels overall, said Brown.
"I get lots of calls from people wanting to know things such as 'why did our backyard squirrels disappear?' or 'how can I keep squirrels out of my attic?'" Brown said. "The data may help me be better prepared to provide answers, both to the general public and for scientific journals."
One thing is certain. Brown said a leafy neighborhood, void of squirrels, usually suggests the presence of rats. "Where rats tend to be super-abundant, you will not have squirrels, and vice-versa, simply because they are competitors," he said.
Squirrels, especially in Chicago with its abundance of nearby forest preserves, also face attack from foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls - not to mention the ever-present challenge of crossing streets and highways without getting run over.
For the moment, however, squirrels are perhaps the most common wild mammals in cities. They co-exist peacefully with human beings, unlike a half-century or more ago when squirrels, which raided gardens and crops, often ended up in the dinner stew pot.
- UIC -
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