The Incendiary Attraction Between Squirrels and Power Lines

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The Western Gray Squirrel (Courtesy of Larry McCombs)

And now: the latest in Bay Area squirrel headlines. Squirrel causes power outage at San Jose State University. Also, Squirrel nearly burns down Menlo Park home. Do you notice a pattern? 

It can be incendiary news when squirrels do dramatic damage to human property. The attack on San Jose State last Wednesday shut down that campus for a day.

Should we be afraid of killer squirrels on the loose in the San Francisco Bay Area? No, says Captain Daniel Vega, Public Information Officer for the San Jose Fire Department.

Captain Vega assures us that squirrels aren’t trying to incinerate humans. In fact, it typically goes the other way 'round, with the little critters electrocuted after one bite. "But that is a fire concern, too. If the animal were to actually catch on fire, then wherever their body lay, there would be a fire risk," Vega says.

So why do squirrels chew through power cables? Animal behaviorists say rodents in general are always looking for new food sources or nesting material — and squirrels in particular often look for those goodies in and around trees. Which tend to be near -- you guessed it -- power lines.


"Squirrels are essentially parrots without wings," says Dr. Joseph Garner, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Garner adds, "We don’t do a good job of appreciating how human environments look to other animals, and how we might inadvertently attract other animals into the spaces we create."

In other words, it's our own darn fault squirrels find power cables attractive: they're naturally curious, adaptable and keen for a challenge. The trouble is, they don't grasp the inherent dangers they face living in proximity to people.

Along those lines, here's an ad for a Canadian beer that shows a squirrel demonstrating impressive agility and mental flexibility traversing a human-designed obstacle course: