Squirrels. We see the frisky, playful animals almost everywhere, but how much do scientists know about them? Apparently not enough. That's why a University of Illinois at Chicago professor hopes you'll give him some of your time to help him learn more.
Joel Brown, a UIC biologist and squirrel expert, says many questions about squirrel life and behavior remain unanswered. That's where the public can help contribute to Brown's research.
Just over a year ago, Brown and his UI colleague Wendy Jackson set up an Internet site called "Project Squirrel." Modeled after a successful bird-watchers site, "Project Squirrel" provides a checklist of things to note about where squirrels live, which species of trees they use and questions about the dog and cat population of the neighborhoodtwo animals which are often eager to chase and attack squirrels.
Few data exist on squirrel population distribution, so Brown and his student assistants are eagerly soliciting contributions. So far, data from the "Project Squirrel" site are scattered. Some neighborhoods are well surveyed, while many others remain untouched. With the mild weather of early spring upon us, yet complete tree foliage still a few weeks away, now is a good time to spot squirrels.
"Anyone can do this, from backyard naturalists to the kids who feed squirrels" Brown said. "Most squirrels in Chicago treat humans as vending machines, so they're likely to come up to you."
Inner-city, suburban, park and forest-preserve habitats all need to be surveyed. In addition to the specific questions, the survey allows space for comments and information about such things as squirrel color variation and unusual behavior.
"One woman," Brown said, "happily shared with us that her squirrels look both ways before crossing streets."
It's too soon to speculate on what contributed observer data may suggest about squirrels overall, said Brown.