The stated purpose of the squirrel count and the White Squirrel Research Institute is to monitor the abundance and distribution of Brevard’s unusual color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel. That sounds very academic. But why should we expect the community to embrace and participate in this annual event and other related studies? Why should you care?
Most of us think of our white squirrels as a curiosity. Certainly they bring us recognition and are the source of civic pride. For some, they bring more tangible benefits. As a tourist attraction they are a direct (souvenirs) and/or indirect (food and lodging) source of revenue. Wouldn’t it be a shame if while we were celebrating our unique critters, they were diminishing in number before our very eyes. That alone is reason to monitor their well being.
But there is a more fundamental reason for monitoring not just the white squirrels but squirrels in general. Squirrels live very intimately and harmoniously with humans. One reason for that is that we both share a preference for woodland/woodlot habitats. Not dense forest, but not open prairie, either. Anthropologists have demonstrated that humans prefer a shaded, park-like environment; one with scattered trees through which they can see distant objects approaching. We can speculate on why this should be so but the point being made here is that this preference is exactly the type of environment tree squirrels occupy. Their whole lives center on mature trees for food, shelter, and refuge from predators. When foraging on the ground, they are wary, always alert for possible threats. The further they can see, the further they will forage from their arboreal retreats but never more than a couple hundred yards. They are more abundant in such woodland habitat than dense forest.
Thus, a healthy squirrel population indicates a healthy park-like habitat, the kind of environment that attracted most of us to Brevard and Transylvania County in the first place. Squirrels are indicator species for forested ecosystems in the same way that certain fish and aquatic insects are indicators of good water quality. Economic and social pressures gradually impinge on this environment in ways that are often difficult to detect in the short term. However, decline in our squirrel population could be viewed as an early warning of habitat degradation giving us time to implement remedial action. As can be seen by comparing the city and surrounding forest in this aerial photograph, there has definitely been habitat fragmentation. The forest has given way to woodland/woodlot, our preferred habitat. But do we wish to “progress” further toward a treeless urban landscape. Squirrels can tell us how far we have traveled in that direction.
Over the last twelve years most of the fluctuation in squirrel abundance can be accounted for by variation in food (hard mast). That is a positive observation. On the other hand, the fact that the percent of the white variant differs widely over different parts of the study area, indicates that there are barriers to mobility. Instead of one large interbreeding population, we have a series of semi-isolated sub-populations. Conservation biologists claim that such subdivisions are unhealthy for species preservation. Are we on the verge of impacting our preferred habitat? Monitoring our resident squirrels, both white and gray, is more than just a curiosity and should be promoted.