Watch out for the inquisitive intelligence of squirrels this winter

Feeding time for this squirrel in the park. Picture: Steve Plastow

Feeding time for this squirrel in the park. Picture: Steve Plastow - Credit:

Dextrous forepaws along with high intelligence means these creatures can seek out food sources even in difficult to reach places, says Bob Gilbert.

I have a beautiful small rose in a pot on the patio that has moved with me from house to house. Last week it was decorated with a mass of lipstick-red hips. Today, walking into the garden, I found the bush was bare. Every hip had gone, leaving behind just a collection of neatly severed stems.

I suspect the squirrels. Their ability to identify and exploit a new food source as soon as it appears never ceases to amaze me.

Walking beside Morecambe Bay a few weeks ago I twice saw a squirrel out on the tidal flats. The bay is a famously dangerous place, the tide rushing in at a frightening speed. The squirrels seemed to have a sense for when this was going to happen for I saw them, just before the turn, making their way the considerable distance back to the shore, including crossing several channels. I was not even aware that squirrels could swim but I can now attest that not only can they do so, but that they can do so very efficiently. I can only assume that it was some new food source that they had found out there that was making all this effort worthwhile.

The inquisitive nature of the squirrel, as well as its versatility, are signs of its considerable intelligence. I remember, a few years ago, a rash of ingenious experiments involving more and more complex obstacles that squirrels were required to surmount before reaching a protected food source. They were invariably successful. In my garden they have worked out that a large chest, made of toughened plastic, contains a stock of bird food and have managed to gnaw through the lid in order to reach it.

I sometimes watch one of the squirrels sitting on its haunches on the garden wall holding a nut in its forepaws. The great 13th Afghan poet, Rumi, describes a squirrel holding ‘an acorn in its praying hands, offering thanks’. Sometimes I see the animal turning an object over and over in its ‘hands’ whilst working out how to tackle it. Squirrels are, when you stop to think about it, almost unique amongst small animals in the extent to which they use their front legs for purposes other than movement and support. Could there be a connection between this and their high intelligence?

The author and scientist Stephen Jay Gould, one of the best of all science writers to my mind, once wrote an essay suggesting that the opposable thumb was the key to human intelligence. In enabling all sorts of manipulatory tasks it created the conditions for the expansion of the human brain. In other words, the increased dexterity of the hand had preceded the growth of the brain. Is it possible, I wonder, that something similar has happened with the squirrel; that this increased use of the forepaws has led to their inquisitive intelligence?

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It’s a pity, however, that it hasn’t led to any form of communication between the species. I would happily negotiate with the local squirrels and put out more food if they’d only agree to leave my rose hips alone.