Cute furry creatures or foreign rats with fluffy tails?

By Janis Ringuette

Squirrels are plentiful in Beacon Hill Park in 2005. This large population is a recent phenomenon. Parks Department staff report there were zero squirrels in the Park in the 1980's but that several individuals appeared in the early 1990's.

Squirrels delight many visitors. Others consider them foreign rats with fluffy tails. All squirrels in the Park are Eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), an introduced species. Colour variations of the so-called “grey” squirrel include brown, red, black and occasionally, white.

Eastern Gray Squirrel Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern grey squirrels were first introduced into Beacon Hill Park in 1945 by Park Administrator W. H. Warren and the Parks Committee. Some residents opposed the introduction of non-native animals at the time; they wanted to protect and promote native wildlife such as the native Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). The animals released in the Park in 1945 completely disappeared.

Grey squirrels living in the Park and throughout the Victoria region today are most likely descendants of squirrels acquired from Ontario in the fall of 1966 by the Vandermeer Game Farm in Metchosin. These animals “escaped accidentally shortly thereafter,” according to a 1975 article in the Provincial Museum publication Syesis by C. J. Guiguet. In August 1974, several families of grey squirrels in widely separated locations in the Metchosin area were reported and a specimen was donated to the Museum.

Grey squirrels have continued to spread across southern Vancouver Island. They are extremely successful generalist foragers and can survive in a variety of habitats.

Though not present in Beacon Hill Park, native Vancouver Island squirrels--noisy Red squirrels with distinctive ear tufts--are still seen and heard in many areas of southern Vancouver Island. Little research has focused on whether or not introduced grey squirrels have displaced native squirrels on the Island.

Research on the spread of Eastern grey squirrels and possible effects on native Douglas squirrels in the Greater Vancouver Regional District could be relevant. University of Guelph Masters degree candidate Emily Gonzales reported:

In the five years that I have been studying squirrels, I could not find anything but anecdotal evidence that Eastern grey squirrels are displacing native squirrels in B.C. All three species [Flying, Grey and Douglas squirrels] have coexisted in Stanley Park for over 90 years. Distribution data...shows that native and non-native squirrels coexist in municipalities where native squirrels have their preferred habitat and sufficient resources.

Andrew I. Maher, also of the University of Guelph, concluded: “Douglas squirrel displacement is the result of urbanization and, contrary to popular belief, not related in any way to the invasion of the Eastern grey squirrel.”