There’s a reason I shy away from the squirrels in the Diag. It’s not their unusual size, though even a sharp-eyed expert would have trouble distinguishing the Ann Arbor garden variety from a slimmed-down mountain lion. It’s not their daring grit either — I watched one stare down an oncoming Chevy Tahoe, poised on hind legs, undaunted ‘til the tragic end. They’re bold little critters, but that’s not what gets me.

Jess Cox

To better understand, imagine, for just a moment, returning from winter break to learn your bedroom held host to what may have been the rowdiest rodent rock party of the century — two weeks of sunflower seed bingeing, honey-roasted peanut feasts and God knows what sorts of squirrel-on-squirrel debauchery. The room was ravaged. Hidden under a blanket of empty shells, the carpet and the once-orderly food corner were barely recognizable. Other traces of foul play — from my comforter to my keyboard — spread far and wide. Squirrel pellets, the last vestiges of the lavish banquet, had been peppered about the room.

How they got in was unclear. The room, equipped with four walls and a ceiling, had always appeared closed off to the outside world. What mattered was that they wouldn’t be coming back. No squirrel in the right mind, I was told, would chance a break-in with the space re-occupied. It made sense. We were, after all, 30 times their size. But as luck would have it, no more than a week of tranquility passed before the intruders recovered their nerves.

It started with petty theft. A pretzel stick here, some Cheez-Its there, nothing we couldn’t make light of. But the food raids were quick to intensify. Our food supply was thinning, and the more measures we took to protect it, the more ambitious the little demons became. They gutted Ziplock bags and gnawed through cardboard boxes. Their motor skills, which I’d bet the bank would exceed those of the average kindergartner, were simply stunning. No container was too strong to puncture, no packaging too thick to penetrate. Their appetite seemed to grow by the day, but as I learned while shuffling bleary-eyed through my underwear drawer at eight one morning, they weren’t eating everything they stole.

A neat mound of pistachio nuts next to my favorite pair of boxers. A carefully hidden stash of miniature cookies below my undershirts. A week-old, half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich lodged between my sweaters. My dresser, which apparently resembled the hollow of a tree, had become a personal pantry for our stash-happy guests. That did it for me.

Pest control came with traps of all shapes and sizes. Industrial-strength storage bins were rolled in to fortify the food supply, and the room was rigged with metal cages and rectangular sheets of super glue. It may have looked like a war zone, but it was squirrel-proof, and we slept easy.

Cut off, the invaders grew sloppier and more aggressive by the day. Worse, our presence in the room was no longer enough to keep them out. As you can guess, this brought about some close encounters (including an early-morning incident on my roommate’s bed that left him possibly warped for life, but certainly forever terrified of anything with fur). After a few more traumatizing run-ins, we finally found the entry point. What had begun with an open bag of sunflower seeds ended with a two-by-four piece of plywood.

It all got me wondering: What drove these guys indoors in the first place, and why, in the face of unmistakable danger, did they insist on coming back? So I sucked it up and did some homework. It wasn’t the most interesting research, but I think I found some answers.

Did you know squirrels don’t hibernate? It’s the truth. Much like us, they spend their winters relatively inactive, though never completely dormant. Activity during cold months is usually limited to the gathering of previously stored nuts and seeds. It’s the harsh winters that make the foraging and hoarding periods, which typically take place in mid-to-late fall, so critical. A successful foraging season will strongly correlate with a squirrel’s capacity to accumulate body fat during the winter. It’s a survival strategy, and in an urban ecosystem like Ann Arbor’s where provisions are scarce, it’s one that requires total optimization.

Enter the Squirrel Club. Founded in 2002, the organization boasts a membership of more than 350. It convenes weekly (in groups of about 50) during warm months and less often over the winter, to feed on-campus squirrel populations.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: the act of feeding a squirrel, in-and-of itself, is harmless. The problem comes, however, when the process is streamlined — in this case, when fifty kids walk around campus every week showering squirrels with food supplements. Though undoubtedly well intentioned, club gatherings may have profound impacts on the behavioral patterns of our local squirrels, each of which run the risk of developing a dangerous reliance on student generosity.

A squirrel even marginally dependent on weekly donations will inevitably devote less energy to foraging and hoarding. Those lucky enough to avoid the appetite cushion will be that much better acclimated to the realities of resource scarcity, and in turn, that much more efficient come time to forage. It is a squirrel’s ability to recover food in the winter, not its feeding patterns in the spring and fall, that will ultimately determine its prospect of survival.

In this light, the Michigan Squirrel Club may be doing for campus squirrels what decades of inefficient and mismanaged welfare payouts have done for our nation’s poor: dampening incentives and confining recipients to destitution. Ann Arbor squirrels don’t need a safety net, they need a reality check.

If anything, complacency with an artificial, but by no means reliable feeding regimen will keep recipients foraging into the dead of winter where they are left to scour for by-and-large nonexistent provisions. Perhaps this could explain why instead of lying cozy in his nest, our little friend was sifting through my bag of Snyder’s Pretzels.

To members of the Squirrel Club, let me say this: Yes, convening to feed is a kind-hearted gesture. Yes, it’s probably a nice social outlet as well. And yes, everyone loves a novelty T-shirt. But please, next time you’re out there, think of the squirrels.

 

Singer can be reached at singers@umich.edu.

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