While stuck at home, how about some science to pass the time and help get an accurate picture of our red squirrel population? Islanders lucky enough to see red squirrels are being asked to take part in a citizen science project, which is the catchy name for public involvement in this type of data collection. If you have children at home this could help keep them busy and engaged in what is going on outside.
Helen Butler MBE has been monitoring red squirrels on the Isle of Wight since 1991, for local charity Wight Squirrel Project. The general public has played a huge part in this monitoring process by telling Helen when and where they see a red squirrel. Whether it is dead or alive an obvious red squirrel or an odd coloured squirrel which may look like a grey, all are of interest. There are currently no grey squirrels on the Isle of Wight and we must keep it that way for our reds to survive.
It helps if you are able to identify individual squirrels, which come in a variety of colours, anything from silver through to virtually black as well as shades of ginger or brown. This is just genetic variation and has nothing to do with age or gender.
They may have light or dark tips to their tails or even racoon like rings. Some have a dark line down their back or light ‘bleaching’ which is the guard (top layer) hairs. Eartufts range from whispy to magnificent, with most squirrels losing their tufts altogether in the summer.
Occasionally you will see a squirrel with a missing digit or other physical difference which makes it easy to identify. There are ‘stumpy tail’ squirrels on the Island which is a genetic anomaly, passed on to young. Some have shortish tails whilst others have unusually long tails.
Their personalities are as different as ours, ranging from dominant to very timid, and they are also right or left-handed. They also have different ways of accessing food.
If you manage to get a glimpse of their underside, it’s pretty clear whether they are male or female during the breeding season – look for the obvious! Young squirrels are harder to determine from a distance.
Look carefully at the shape of the head, it does vary slightly between animals. Even in fully grown adults there is a size difference, just as in humans.
Helen has drawn up a questionnaire which can be downloaded from our website here.
Results and the ongoing story on how our reds are getting on will be posted on the Wight Squirrel Project’s Facebook page. If you are not on Facebook, the page can be reached via the website – wightsquirrels.co.uk.
If you would like to join the survey please contact Helen on (01983) 611003 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Have fun and don’t forget to give them all a name!