Squirrel on the Desk: Urban-Wild Research Gone Too Far

I’ve talked a little about the new manuscript I’m working on–an urban bestiary.  As part of this project, I’ve been studying urban squirrels in depth.  I don’t feed birds much, but I do keep a tiny sunflower seed feeder suctioned to my study window just above the window box, which brings chickadees, nuthatches, and finches within inches of my face as I write.  I love it.  Naturally a squirrel began to visit the feeder, and I chased him away by knocking on the window.  But during the height of my squirrel study, I stopped discouraging the persistent squirrel, so as he raided the sunflower stash I could observe and sketch his habits and physical characters at great length and in amazing detail.  He also liked sipping the nectar from my window hummingbird feeder.  I got to sketch a squirrel tongue!  That was well enough, and I should have stopped there.  But though I strongly advise against such taming in my book, I rationalized that “purely for research,” I would try feeding this squirrel, who by this time I had named Worthington, unsalted peanuts through a crack in my study window.  One day I heard Claire scream from upstairs–“Worthington’s on your desk!!!”  He was sitting there, she reported, nonchalantly eating the peanuts I kept in a little bowl.  Later, Tom caught him in the act with his Canon.

What a terrible squirrel!  I am no longer feeding Worthington…

The main reason I advise against the time-honored tradition of taming squirrels is that bold squirrels, habituated to being hand-fed by humans, can frighten some people and children in our neighborhoods, increasing perceived human-wild conflict.  It’s also a good way to get a squirrel-bite.  Though they are relatively uncommon, nearly 100% of squirrel bites that do occur happen during an attempt at hand-feeding.  Squirrels do not bite the hand that feeds them out of aggression, but in error.  Think about it–squirrels are prey animals, and like many prey animals (robins, snipe, rabbits, mice…), their eyes are on the sides of their head, providing good peripheral vision (to see the hawk or coyote swooping in from behind), but poor binocular vision.  A squirrel’s vision is at it’s worst when attempting to focus on something right in front of its nose.  And have you looked at a peanut?  They look very much like a human finger, right down to the “knuckle” in the middle of the shell.


  1. Gayle

    I walked in to the kitchen one summer day when the boys were small and found a squirrel up on the kitchen counter with her head in a plastic container of peanut butter. She saw me, grabbed the peanut butter and made off through the doorway. I followed her and she turned and stood on her hind legs and scolded me fiercely. I then saw that she was a mamma probably with recent babies in her nest and thought, heck, I know how hungry you feel when you’re nursing, keep the peanut butter.

  2. I know it’s dumb to feed squirrels by hand but I used to do it every morning. In my old apt. there was a family of three who visited my fire escape every day, and one (I think it was just one but they all look alike . . .) would happily take nuts from my hand. They were all named Pita. Sometimes I’d give them mixed nuts in the shell and one morning I heard a rasping sound coming from the window. One of the squirrels was on top of my air conditioner, rubbing a big, tough Brazil nut on the grates on top, washboard-style . . .

  3. Mary Schmidt

    Such a wonderful picture! My city (Wichita) had one of the hottest summers on record. I noticed squirrels would lie on the damp ground after I filled the pans of water I keep for birds, squirrels, and rabbits. I got in the habit of watering down areas for my squirrels to cool off on. As soon as I’d go inside, I could see squirrels lying on the cool(er) wet ground. Now I’m in the habit of putting a pile of birdseed on a bench in my yard just for the squirrels. Sometimes the squirrels don’t even wait for me to leave the area before they start dining. Interesting creatures and we’re lucky they share our world.

  4. Maurie

    Great shot! i laughed my way through this post and the comments! Squirrels – so darn cute and they know it, too. I recently was sitting on a bench at Hiawatha Park across from our local PCC, it was the last day of summer and glorious. I had got myself a sandwich from the PCC deli and finding the crust (whole grain) really dry I (spoiled human, that I am) peeled it off and tossed it behind me , figuring the crows and squirrels would find it. Sure enough, a little while later one of the numerous squirrels that were running about and up and down the oaks came up and grabbed a piece of crust, and proceeded to eat every last bit of the inner bread that was left on it and then tossed the remaining crust aside. (Spoiled Squirrel.) Then the little bugger had the gall to come onto the bench next to me and stare at me, moving his jaw around in a chewing motion to make sure I got the drift before giving me the best imitation of puppy eyes I have ever seen not on a puppy. Thankfully with four begging cats at home, I am immune!

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