I can’t imagine a yard without a bird feeder or two. At odd moments throughout the day, I glance out my kitchen window to see what the birds are doing. On one such day, I noticed the birds were fussing and flitting about. Uh-oh, something very hairy was creeping down a limb to get to the feeder.

One of my bird feeders is “house-shaped” with a trapdoor in the roof. As I watched, a squirrel eased down the hanger and opened the trapdoor. Quickly, he climbed inside the “house” and sat in it with his arms folded, leaning on the roof. Periodically, he reached down for a pawful of sunflower seeds, then popped back up to lean on the roof and eat. The birds didn’t like this “jack-in-the-box” and fussed and flew at him. But I thought he was cute and clever! He was certainly as much fun to watch as the birds.

This was a tree squirrel. The species of tree squirrel we have here in South Texas is the Eastern Fox Squirrel. Fox squirrels are named for their yellowish-red coloration, like that of foxes. They are relatively large rodents with long and bushy tails. Yes, rodents, as in “rats and mice”. This fact alone may influence your attitude towards them. Many people instinctively dislike rodents. And then there is the fact that they eat up a lot of your birdseed.

As a naturalist, I rather like squirrels. To me, squirrels are cute. They have boldness and a charm that I find entertaining. They are a species of wildlife that is easy to observe. If you don’t have them in your yard, then I know you’ve seen them in parks. Some people, especially city-dwellers, make trips to the parks just to feed the squirrels. Squirrels can become so habituated to humans that they will take food from a person’s hand! That has got to be pretty appealing.

In the wild, Eastern Fox Squirrels eat primarily acorns and other tree nuts. They also take insects, green shoots and buds and some fruits. Typically, in the fall, they bury excess nuts and seeds for winter food. Of course, many of these are never recovered, and the nuts and seeds sprout. Thus, squirrels have a “huge impact on the ecosystem of their range, helping many plants survive.” The squirrels themselves are important as prey items for many small predators, including owls, hawks and foxes.

Eastern Fox Squirrels have two breeding seasons: January to February, and then again in May to June. “Old females usually breed twice a year and yearlings but once” according to David Schmidly in The Mammals of Texas. After mating (and the males and females are both pretty much promiscuous), the squirrels live more or less independent lives. Den and nest sites are most often tree hollows, but if these are not available, the squirrels build leaf nests. The young are born “blind, nearly naked and helpless.” Squirrel babies are slow to develop, and their eyes don’t open until they are five weeks old. Even so, at about eight weeks, they begin to climb about in the nest tree. At 10 weeks, they venture to the ground and, soon thereafter, may start to visit your bird feeder.

As adults, squirrels are not very social. Most live independently from other squirrels, but sometimes they will form small colonies. Usually, these are made up of the female parent and her young. I like the name for a colony of squirrels: a scurry!

No matter how you feel about them, squirrels are watchable wildlife. You can let them eat some of your birdseed, or you can buy whole ears of dry corn for them to work over. Special squirrel-excluding bird feeders are available; the squirrels’ antics as they try to defeat these devices are entertaining as well. So invite a scurry of squirrels to your yard today. They will repay you for their dinner with their entertaining behaviors!

Texas Master Naturalist Columnist: Brush Country Backyard