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Natural Lowcountry: Acrobatic squirrels are always hungry and not always so cute

When it comes to popular backyard animals, squirrels don't usually make the list.

They may look cute leaping from branch to branch, but not when they're feasting on our flowers and digging up the potted plants. Squirrels take over bird feeders and bird houses; they invade houses, cars, even barbecue grills. They chew through hoses and electrical wires while sharpening their fast-growing teeth.

In Hilton Head two years ago, damage from a single squirrel caused a temporary power outage for over 3,000 Palmetto Electric customers.

Still, I can't help being impressed by the traits that make them such a nuisance.

Take gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), for example, which are common throughout the Lowcountry.

They're opportunistic feeders with prodigious appetites -- adults must consume their weight in food every week in order to stay healthy. Depending on what's available, they'll eat anything from acorns, apples, and berries to corn and other vegetables, flowers and flower buds, bird eggs, fungi, carrion, and kitchen scraps from trash bags.

Sometimes squirrels prey on insects, frogs, or the nestlings of songbirds, and occasionally they're even cannibalistic.

Their familiar habit of burying nuts and other items provides them with stores of food to be savored days or weeks later. Squirrels have good vision (they see colors, aside from blue and yellow), and they use visual landmarks plus a keen sense of smell to recover their caches.

Females produce two litters per year, in spring and late summer, and raise the offspring on their own. The babies are born blind, deaf, hairless, and toothless. Gray squirrels typically nest in tree cavities, but they also build temporary shelters out of leaves. You can spot these leafy treetop nests in the winter, once the trees become bare.

Agile and acrobatic, squirrels can run twelve miles per hour, scamper headfirst down a tree trunk, hang upside down, and jump five feet into the air if alarmed.

They use their bushy tails for balance and for protection from sun, rain, wind, and cold weather.

And they are noisy -- with a wide repertoire of alarm calls and other vocalizations, often accompanied by tail-flicking.

Life can be hazardous and short for a squirrel, however.

Predators include owls, hawks, foxes, cats, and of course humans.

Moving cars also take their toll. Some squirrels get lucky and reach the ripe old age of five or six, but at birth, their average life expectancy is only a year or two.

Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University, lives on Hilton Head Island.