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The Gray Army

They're so ubiquitous that we hardly notice them, and when we do, we may love them or curse them, but our island clan of gray squirrels carry on in their thousands. Common throughout the eastern United States, gray squirrels were in fact first scientifically catalogued and described right here in South Carolina by a German naturalist, Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who bestowed the scientific name Sciurus carolinensis on the animal. (The darker, or even black, squirrels you sometimes see are all grays with a genetic mutation affecting coat color.)

A kit at about six weeks old

Gray squirrels share with their red and fox-eared cousins a prolific breeding capability, with females as young as six months able to bear young, although most females begin mating at a year-old and produce up to four kits, sometimes twice a year for older females. First litters are born in February or March, and a second litter in June or July. The kits who, as adults, have an average life span of two years, are nursed in nests built high up in live oaks or other leafy trees before living on their own after about twelve weeks. Active in early morning and early evening, squirrels retreat to their nests in the heat of the day during warmer months.

Squirrels are scatter-hoarders, gathering and burying a diet of acorns, walnuts, tree bark and seeds raided from bird feeders over a wide area, returning to them sometimes months later through smell and by remembering landmarks associated with each horde. They have actually been observed pretending to bury a horde when they suspect a rival is watching, going through the digging and burying motions but retaining their prize in the mouth until the competitor is safely away and another site can be chosen. This has led some naturalists to speculate that squirrels have developed the "theory of mind" (an ability to attach mental states to oneself and to others) observed in other mammals like dolphins, elephants and apes. Squirrels are also one of the few mammalian arboreal species that can descend from a tree head-down, reversing the direction of their rear claws to grab hold on the trunk.

They're certainly clever, as anyone who has done battle with them over a bird feeder has discovered; in some parts of the western United States, Canada and in Europe, they're considered an invasive species who threaten native squirrels like the red squirrel. But they do play an important role in reforestation, helping forests regenerate with new seedlings and keeping nature in balance.

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