Western Gray Squirrels

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Like most of us here, I think of winter as the true beginning of spring. The world turns vibrant green as storms roll in from the Pacific. My pulse quickens as the earth pops with life, even as the days grow darker. And there is another creature, common in my backyard, that feels exactly the same way. The western gray squirrel -- a most lovely tree rat if there ever was one -- is beginning its mating activities right now.

Several squirrels thrive in suburban California. The eastern gray squirrel and the fox squirrel are non-native rodents introduced from the eastern United States. They are especially common in Walnut Creek and Sacramento, among many other cities. We also have the California ground squirrel. As the name indicates, this abundant mammal frequents the ground, especially heavily grazed areas. The cute little Sonoma chipmunk finishes our Bay Area squirrel list. By the way, the Northern flying squirrel, the only nocturnal member of the group, is found north of Sonoma County and in the Sierra Nevada, not in the Bay area proper.

Santa Rosa was once covered with acres of planted walnut trees. Most are gone, but a few thrive in backyards like mine and provide a consistent diet for vibrant populations of squirrels. Right now the males are intensely competing for females in estrous. I have witnessed some amazing squirrel fights -- no actual contact, but much posturing, teeth chattering and tail flicking. After a gestation of 44 days, the females enter woodpecker holes and give birth to two or three kits. The young are blind for about five weeks. The female moves them into a giant stick nest called a dray. In 12 weeks the young are weaned, and after a year are sexually mature. Six or seven years is a long life for this squirrel.

I celebrate all the living things flourishing in my yard. The western gray squirrel, first described by Lewis and Clark, is now a threatened species in Washington State. But not here. I never tire of watching these acrobats wiggle along telephone wires, leap from flimsy tree branches to the roof of my carport as they claim my yard a perfect home to raise their families.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.