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The Neighbor Squirrel

These busy fluffballs have lost their fear of most predators - and they help plant pecan trees.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Have you ever watched an eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) bury an acorn or pecan? A nuzzle here, another there, then he hurriedly pushes the leaves and grass over the site before scampering up the closest tree. Minutes later, he's back with another nut. Over the course of three months, that industrious squirrel can bury several thousand pecans. Come winter, when food's scarce, he'll find them again with his excellent sense of smell. Some will escape his appetite, though, and sprout into saplings, which is how many native nut trees get planted.

Eastern fox squirrels - the state's most common and wide-ranging squirrel and a popular game animal, too - occur in forests and riparian habitats. They also easily adapt to cities and neighborhoods, where they've lost most of their fear of natural predators.

"Playing the call of a red-tailed hawk didn't phase squirrels on campus," reports Bob McCleery, a wildlife lecturer at Texas A&M University, who has studied urban squirrels in College Station. "When we played a coyote call in the Navasota river bottom, a squirrel immediately flattened itself in the crotch of a tree for a good five minutes."

When agitated, fox squirrels - whose fur closely resembles that of a gray fox - bark and jerk their long, bushy tails, which they use for balance when scampering on utility lines and other high places. Tails provide warmth and protection, too. "In the summer, I've seen them lying down with their tails over their heads to block the sun," McCleery says.

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