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Get to know the squirrels of Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / May 17, 2014

toronto squirrelForget raccoons, squirrels rule the wildlife scene in Toronto. The ubiquitous little rodents, currently in the middle of their spring breeding season, are so common that it's possible to see at least one of the critters dancing along on a telephone line or eyeing something from a tree branch almost anywhere, or so it seems.

Though Toronto's squirrel population appears to be diverse, the grey, black, white, and tan creatures that populate Trinity Bellwoods and High Park are all simply Eastern Grey Squirrels, a name that is somewhat misleading and restrictive when it comes to varieties of colour.

"A grey squirrel will always be a grey squirrel - it won't go through a colour change, like some animals have a winter white coat and a summer brown coat," says David Sugarman from the Ontario Science Centre, who likens the various fur colours to variations in human hair colour.

"A grey squirrel is always a grey squirrel and a black squirrel is always a black squirrel, but they are the same species - it's just a colour variant."

Toronto's black squirrels are an example of adaptive melanism, a natural phenomenon that sees wild animals develop high levels of melanin, a natural pigment. As a result, the squirrels have darker fur and are better camouflaged. Melanism has been observed in wolves, guinea pigs, and jaguars, to name just a few animals.

The famous white squirrels of Trinity Bellwoods Park are a product of the opposite phenomenon, a lack of melanin associated with albinism, which in hairy rodents leads to brilliant white fur and pink eyes.

However, red squirrels, with their bushy ears, shorter tails, and copper-coloured fur, are a different species of squirrel, as are ground-dwelling chipmunks and groundhogs. "They are very, very territorial compared to grey squirrels," says Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre. "You will never see a bunch of red squirrels grouped together feeding like grey squirrels ... it will usually just be one or a family group in a particular area."

toronto white squirrelThough they are not as territorial as their red cousins, Eastern Greys can also get antsy when they perceive a threatening intruder, squawking and flapping their tails. The distinctive chasing, which often involves running dizzying circles around the trunk of a tree, is behaviour associated with play or mating.

As for numbers, no one is quite sure just how many squirrels are roaming the city, but you can bet that it's a lot. Mary Lou Leiher, Toronto Animal Services, confirms that no one is tracking the number of squirrels in the city. "Often, when you see a high number of squirrels in one area, that could mean they have got an artificial food source."

Toronto is a popular city for squirrels for the same reason raccoons like to live here: there's an a ton of grub. Studies have shown squirrels with access to a plentiful food supply have bigger litters and breed more often, up to twice a year. As a result, the city's wildlife department advises people to keep snacks to themselves.

"It's an important message for the public because they are fine, they can forage and survive on their own," says Leiher. "When they are offered an artificial food source that will raise the population in that one concentrated area."

The perception that there are a lot of squirrels in Toronto may be somewhat skewed by the fact the animals are active during the day, don't hibernate in winter, and are well suited to small pockets of green space.

"There are so many wild animals in the city. There are some that are more visible, like squirrels, but we admit over 270 different species of wildlife here at the Toronto Wildlife Centre," says Karvonen.

"You just have to be looking in the right place, and there's tons of wildlife in Toronto."

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Oleksiy & Tetyana Kovyrin, Aaron Forster/blogTO Flickr pool.

Discussion

24 Comments

Alvin / May 17, 2014 at 07:58 am
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Squirrels are nuts! Just ask by brothers Simon and Theodore.
ROB FORD ON CRACK / May 17, 2014 at 10:50 am
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No King Ford posts this morning? Like me this weekend you people are slipping.
David Seville replying to a comment from Alvin / May 17, 2014 at 11:46 am
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AALLLLLLLLLLLLLLVINNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!
squirrlehater / May 17, 2014 at 02:38 pm
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The city needs to cull the squirrel population. The little fu@ers are everywhere!
B. Ross Ashley / May 17, 2014 at 06:41 pm
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Leave the squirrel cull to the hawks! They do a fine job.
SQUGLIFE / May 17, 2014 at 07:34 pm
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SQUIRRELS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF LIFE. #JESUS4MAYOR #SEAPUNKGIRLS #RAVE4EVAR #MALLPIZZA #CHOPSTICKS #VASELINE #ROBOTJESUS #KARATECHOPABABY
supermon replying to a comment from squirrlehater / May 17, 2014 at 07:38 pm
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How 'bout I cull your face.
The Ripper replying to a comment from squirrlehater / May 17, 2014 at 07:46 pm
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Can we start by culling you?
cathie / May 17, 2014 at 07:54 pm
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My idiot neighbour feeds them. They bring the old, crusty pieces of bread that he puts out for them to my house where they proceed to dig up my flower pots to bury it. We are overrun with them. Squirrel cull? Yes, please.
Rocky & Bullwinkle / May 17, 2014 at 08:12 pm
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Boris & Natasha at Frostbite Falls admitted they love squirrels just yesterday.
Gary replying to a comment from squirrlehater / May 17, 2014 at 08:42 pm
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You leave my little squirrels alone Fu@er or I'll cull your ass!
Boris & Natasha replying to a comment from Rocky & Bullwinkle / May 17, 2014 at 09:55 pm
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We must catch Moose & Squirrel!
squirrelhater replying to a comment from Gary / May 18, 2014 at 09:11 am
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Easy there tough guy.Everyone thinks they're so cute, but in reality they're just another nuisance rodent when the population gets out of hand.. Fu@er
squirrelhater replying to a comment from supermon / May 18, 2014 at 09:12 am
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How bout you come over and try.. :)
squirrelhater replying to a comment from B. Ross Ashley / May 18, 2014 at 09:14 am
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I wish! It's obvious even the hawks can't keep up with the squirrel population.
squirrelhater replying to a comment from The Ripper / May 18, 2014 at 09:16 am
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Sure! come on over! :)
Rigid Belief System / May 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm
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A rat with a bushy tail is still a rat.
sean replying to a comment from squirrelhater / May 18, 2014 at 02:13 pm
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agreed. we can't have outdoor plants on our deck because the fucking rodents dig up the pots. can't grow herbs or veg because the squirrels eat them. a mange-filled nuisance,nothing more.
squirrelhater replying to a comment from Rigid Belief System / May 18, 2014 at 04:54 pm
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Best!
I also think they should cull the pigeon population. They're nothing but fucking disease infested flying rats.
STOP FEEDING THEM!!
Rigid Belief System replying to a comment from squirrelhater / May 18, 2014 at 08:15 pm
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Agreed. I always tell pigeons in my way that we call them squab when we eat them!
Rick / May 19, 2014 at 12:04 pm
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Shoot them with an air gun, kill them and eat them.
Mr. Peabody & His Boy Sherman / May 19, 2014 at 05:37 pm
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We have gone back in time and changed the furure so that squirrels are on top of the food chain. Humans are the rodents-never stopped living in trees.
squirrel lover / August 3, 2014 at 07:55 pm
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I love squirrels and feed them all the time
peckpeck / September 20, 2014 at 08:11 am
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Just leave them alone. We humans created this environment for them. Then we blame the animals. I love watching them runaround and climb.

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