In our backyard Environment

The ‘cute’ rodent

Northern Palm Squirrels

Northern Palm Squirrels   | Photo Credit: Gaurav Chopra

The Five-striped or Northern Palm Squirrel is our friendly-neighbourhood creature we tend to take for granted

The February of 2013 was an eye-opener for me. I was still trying to make it as a credible birdwatcher and was given an opportunity by a female Shikra to observe its theatrics with a bunch of squirrels, for a month. The terror that it used to instil in the squirrels was fascinating. However scared though, these rodents are bold and inquisitive, and I would often see them invading the Shikra’s private space just to get a sniff, while the vigilant Shikra preened.

The Five-striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus pennantii), as the name suggests, has five pale longitudinal stripes set against a dark brown saddle patch on its back. The three middle ones are longer than the two lateral ones, and the central stripe extends to the tail. The head to body length is about 130-150 mm and the tail is the same length as that of the body or slightly longer and is quite bushy. This number of stripes on the back of the animal separates them from a few other squirrels found in other parts of the country.

This species is found from the foothills of the Himalayas to northern Karnataka, and from Pakistan in the West to Bangladesh in the East. The Northern Palm Squirrel has also been introduced on the Andaman Islands and in some parts of Iran, Israel, and Western Australia.

The species is commonly seen across all city habitats, from orchards and plantations to built up areas. They are active diurnally, and their activity peaks in the morning and late afternoon-evening periods as they need to feed before retiring for the day. These squirrels are omnivorous, where they relish a menu full of ‘dishes’ like bark, buds, young shoots, fruits, seeds, insects, eggs of insects and birds; they relish tree sap. They sometimes do resort to scavenging, feeding on the remains of termites, beetles, moths and wasps.

Being friendly creatures, most city folk look upon them benevolently, as harmless creatures, but they can be pests. They may cause severe damage to fruit orchards especially mango, guava and other seasonal fruits. Because they are sociable, people try and hold out their palms for them to feed off. One does need to be careful as squirrels are rodents and may carry the same diseases.

Although these animals look quite cute and clean, they certainly do not display the same behaviour when it comes to building nests. They build their conspicuous spherical shaped nests on tree limbs and in hollows, and also in holes and niches in walls and buildings, inside air-conditioning units and wherever else they may find space. Their nest are untidy, made up of grass, twigs, leaves, paper, cloth, hair and anything soft that they might be able to get their hands on. Sadly, I’ve also seen them add plastic glasses to their nests. These nests bring them comfort during the breeding season and they use them throughout the year for sleeping as well.

I live in one of the most concretised parts of the city and there are several trees I’ve seen them nest on: eucalyptus, mulberry and more. The squirrel is likely to be territorial, but this is only restricted to the vicinity of their nests and trees that they use as shelter.

Now that it’s spring, we see them in abundance — they’re less visible in winter, unless they’re basking in the sun or foraging for food. A lot of their time goes into shielding itself from predators like the Shikra, owls, crows and sometimes black kites.

When I started off as an amateur birdwatcher, the shrill, bird-like calls of the squirrel used to throw me off. Although I do not mistake one for another now, it is still fun to play along with kids before someone can give me the answer I am looking for!

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 3:37:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/the-cute-rodent/article30870213.ece

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