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Inside the Outdoors: Wild critters have the personality we give them

Where the red squirrel is considered quarrelsome and a bully, its close relative the chipmunk is considered so cute and universally lovable it’s been immortalized in cartoon characterizations.

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It’s questionable if we’ll ever know for sure the level of personality that some non-human creatures can have. Primate researcher Jane Goodall, who worked for decades with chimpanzees, would say emphatically that her subjects—though a rung or two down the evolutionary ladder from us—do have individual personalities. On the other hand, we’d raise our eyebrows if someone said the same was true of a snail or a northern pike.

When it comes to the animal kingdom, we’re more likely to think of personality as something that applies to an entire species, rather than an individual. And, as social creatures who have a value system that guides our lives, when we observe some wild creatures’ behaviors we make judgments about them—good or bad, accurate or off-base—just as we sometimes profile others of our own kind.

Sometimes our judgments influence more than just our attitude. My late father-in-law, Pat, kept a single-shot Stevens .410 shotgun in a convenient corner of his cabin, and was known to use it from time to time to thin the local population of red squirrels. It’s unlikely that he had a long term effect on the population, and in the short term his occasional successes created an opportunity for a young red squirrel to take the place of the one that was recently deceased. Nature abhors a vacuum, the saying goes.

Knowing my father-in-law as I did, I suspect it was satisfying to him in a perverse sort of way. He was convinced that the red squirrels that inhabited the cabin’s neighborhood, would—if given the chance—chew their way into places they didn’t belong; maybe chew through electrical wires and burn the place down. Or maybe build a nest somewhere above the cabin’s false ceiling, or in its uninsulated walls, and make scampering noises in the night that would keep him awake as he plotted revenge.

Red squirrels seem to have acquired a reputation as being not just destructive, but nasty. Every so often I'll see one chasing a much larger gray squirrel up a tree or across the lawn. I can think of no sensible reason why the much larger gray squirrel couldn’t stand up to its smaller relative, but that never seems to happen. The red squirrel inevitably bounces the gray squirrel out of its territory. In a recent encounter, I watched the red squirrel chase the gray cross the lawn and up a neighbor’s oak tree. After spiraling up the trunk several times, the red squirrel left the gray somewhere up in the oak’s topmost branches, properly “schooled.”


Red squirrels have even had a certain bizarre mythology grow up around them. Outlandish as it may seem, they’ve been accused of castrating—neutering—gray squirrels. Squirrel hunters, so the story goes, have occasionally harvested gray squirrels and found that part of their anatomy damaged or missing. They attributed it to the aggressive pursuits of red squirrels.

The real explanation, supported by science, is a parasitic fly. Given the opportunity, the fly lays eggs in this unprotected area of a squirrel’s anatomy. The eggs hatch, and the larvae consume the squirrel’s reproductive organs. Because red squirrels so often chase gray squirrels, the mistaken conclusion was reached that they suppress gray squirrel numbers “surgically.” In this case, the red squirrel definitely was given a bad rap.

Red squirrels are certainly not alone in being tagged with personalities or attributes we’ve given them. Where the red squirrel is considered quarrelsome and a bully, its close relative the chipmunk is considered so cute and universally lovable it’s been immortalized in cartoon characterizations like Alvin & the Chipmunks and Disney’s Chip & Dale. Chipmunks show little fear in scampering between the legs of our deck chairs, even when we’re in them. Even our Labrador tolerates and refuses to chase them.

There’s more. We consider the bald eagle majestic and a symbol of power, while the turkey vulture is generally considered a foul and ugly opportunist feeding on the dead. Yet both birds scavenge to survive. Besides hunting live prey, our national symbol will steal a meal from other predators and routinely subsists on dead fish it finds on the waters in whose proximity it nests. I’ve watched them harry and capture wounded ducks, and even swoop down to heist a dead duck floating in among the decoys. So much for majesty!

An adult loon is a consummate diver and underwater swimmer, and will eat roughly two pounds of fish per day. We accept this competition for fish, perhaps because of the loon’s great beauty, as well as its haunting call that speaks of wilderness. But the cormorant, another exceptionally efficient fish-eating water bird, is not so revered. It’s less handsome, nests in dense, raucous, colonies, and we are extremely jealous of the fish it eats. So much so that the cormorant has been the object of occasional extermination programs. So much for even-handedness!

Certainly there are other examples of personality and character that we bestow on wild creatures, sometimes out of human prejudices that have rhyme and reason only to us. These creatures just go about their business as Nature has programmed them to, oblivious to what we think and how we might judge them.


Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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