Though most students were probably reaching for umbrellas and raincoats during yesterday’s torrential downpour, according to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Prof. Philip Myers, they should have been looking at the squirrels.
“Next time you’re out in a rain storm, watch the squirrels,” said Myers, whose research focus is in small mammals. “Watch how they use their tails; they use it as an umbrella. They are able to be active almost irrespective of the weather.”
The strange behavior of squirrels in Ann Arbor has become a source of fascination for both students and visitors to the city. And according to Myers and squirrel enthusiasts at the University, their chubby looks and friendly demeanor are largely due to the increased human interaction they experience around campus.
The city’s squirrels have grown accustomed to the rich source of food humans provide them, which to an extent increases their chances of winter survival, Myers said.
He added that humans’ behavior toward the squirrels affects their reproductive patterns as well. Squirrels have two breeding periods: one in the fall and one in the spring. When resources are scarce, they will only breed during one period. But given their abundent source of food, Myers said, Ann Arbor squirrels probably breed during both periods.
However, Myers said the townie squirrels consequently act a little differently from common squirrels due to their constant feeding and interaction with humans.
“It makes them act in a less natural way,” Myers said. “However, it doesn’t have any detrimental effects on their well-being.”
He said squirrels have also been known to make their disapproval of certain human activities clear.
“They’ve learned to expect people to feed them,” he said. “They’ll let you know that they’re annoyed if you don’t feed them.”
Myers added that since urban squirrels already live in unnatural conditions, it’s reasonable for people to feed them. He said squirrels, more than any kind of wild mammal, seem more comfortable around humans.
However, Myers said, there are some downsides to the constant attention given to the squirrels.
“From our perspective, squirrels can be pests sometimes and we encourage them too much,” he said. “You also don’t want to get too close to them, they could bite you.”
The food given to them also leads to “unusually high density” squirrels, Myers said. Larger squirrels have a higher chance of losing most of their fur as well as a higher probability of transmission of parasites.
Though these fatter squirrels are pretty easy to spot on campus, they’ve become a more visible part of campus culture partly due to the University’s Squirrel Club that was founded a few years ago.
Club founder and University alum Jason Colman said the group started as a late night dorm conversation and grew into a group full of squirrel enthusiasts.
“First of all, it’s fun.” Colman said. “Secondly, a lot of people enjoy feeding the squirrels because they miss their pets at home. The squirrels are the campus pets and they are cute and fuzzy. It’s also a stress reliever.”
He said the best way to feed and interact with the squirrels is to master the “squirrel noise” which he demonstrated by making continuous clicking sounds.
“It’s absolutely key that you have a good squirrel noise,” he said. “Practice. Practice in front of the mirror when no one’s around.”
He said that making the squirrel noise, crouching down and holding out a peanut will capture the creature’s attention, making it get on its hind legs and observe you curiously as it approaches you.
Current Squirrel Club president and LSA junior Peter Feng said the group is still around because it’s a curious novelty of the school and a source of pride for tour guides in explaining the wide range of campus groups.
“This legend keeps it alive,” Feng said.
He said there are over 900 members on the mailing list and speculates these students were attracted to the group because of how “small and chubby” the squirrels are. He added, “A lot of people think they’re pretty cute too.”
The 900 or so Squirrel Club members aren’t the University’s only fans of these furry critters.
LSA senior Evan Begun said he is “obviously a big fan” of the squirrels.
“I only like the ones in the Diag and the Law Quad though because they are receptive to human advances,” Begun said.
He also said he feels bad for the “scrawnier ones” in Ann Arbor.
LSA senior Scott Schwartz said the Ann Arbor squirrels are “fantastic.”
“They’re docile and they’re smart,” Schwartz said. “They know a lot and they’re not easily scared. I like that.”
However, LSA senior Honesty Lee said he likes the squirrels but doesn’t like the idea that they are constantly being fed.
“They become really fat and that’s why they become docile,” Lee said. “That’s why they’ve become, I’d say, unnatural. You know, squirrels aren’t supposed to be enormous.”
“I’d say they’re abnormal,” he added.
Medical student Tom Michniacki said he enjoys the squirrels despite their size.
“They’re entertaining,” Michniacki said. “I think there could be repercussions to feeding them but they seem pretty hygienic. I doubt they have that many diseases so it’s probably not that bad to feed them.”
Myers said the category these squirrels fall under is “tree squirrel” — more specifically known as fox squirrels — but there are two other types of squirrels on campus that one wouldn’t expect to fall under the squirrel category.
Chipmunks and woodchucks are also types of squirrels in the “ground squirrel” category, he said. The chipmunks zip around campus at their leisure during the summer months and the woodchucks are usually found on North Campus. Both of these animals hibernate, whereas the fox squirrels don’t.