CV is the Front Line of the Squirrel Wars
The Crescenta Valley is currently the front line in yet another battle between a native species and invasive species. In this case it’s the native western gray squirrel versus the invasive eastern fox squirrel. While the invasive fox squirrels occupy the valley, the native gray squirrels are waging a holding action from the edges of the mountains, slowly being pushed back by the aggressive invaders.
The native gray squirrel once roamed the oak woodlands and pine forests of Southern California unchallenged. But in the late 1800s, an “Old Soldiers Home” was established in West Los Angeles (today’s VA Hospital). Civil War vets were used to eating squirrels in their eastern homes, and when they retired to L.A. they brought their eastern fox squirrel “pets” with them for an occasional squirrel stew. By the turn of the century, many fox squirrels had escaped the menu at the Old Soldiers Home, and were spreading tree to tree in the orchards of the L.A. basin. As the oak woodlands were replaced with walnut orchards, and then housing tracts with fruit trees in the yards, the fox squirrels territory expanded with the spreading suburbia. It turns out that just like coyotes, raccoons and possums, the eastern fox squirrel was readily adaptable to an urban environment. The native gray squirrels are not, and as the city spreads they have retreated further into the hills. In just over a century the eastern fox squirrel has become the most common squirrel in Los Angeles, and their range now extends from Orange County to Simi Valley, and from Palos Verdes west all the way to the Crescenta Valley. Recently the expansion has accelerated as urban homeowners live-trap the pesky fox squirrels in “Have-a-hart” traps, and transport them to L.A.’s fringes for release.
Which squirrel do you have in your yard? Visually the two look similar. The western gray is truly gray with a white underbelly. They are found generally on the fringes of the valley, up against the San Gabriels on Briggs Terrace, or amongst the oak groves that line the edges of the Verdugo Mountains. The eastern fox squirrel has more brown in the fur, even slightly reddish, and is found in the built-out areas of CV. Behavior-wise, the two are slightly different. The western gray is shyer, whereas the eastern fox tends to be aggressive, opportunistic and, well, pesky. The western gray eats exclusively acorns and pine nuts, while the eastern fox squirrel eats almost anything, from acorns to fruit to old pizza crusts, making them well adapted to urbanization. Not only that, but the eastern fox squirrel reproduces twice as fast as the native grays, their continuing expansion being assured by sheer numbers alone.
So where is this war headed? I mean, why can’t they all just get along? Seemly they do in some areas. Fern Dell in Griffith Park for instance has gray and fox squirrels living in harmony side-by-side. The native grays have even been observed mating with the eastern fox squirrels, although no hybrid offspring have been seen. But research has shown that as resources become strained, the more adaptable and faster reproducing eastern fox squirrel will push out the native grays. And it’s not just here. All across the western states introduced eastern fox squirrels are gaining footholds and expanding their range, as human homes are being built further into once wild areas. It appears that the eastern fox squirrel’s territory will continue to expand as man’s continues to expand. There will probably always be native gray squirrels in our preserved areas – the Verdugo Mountains and the Angeles Forest.
Perhaps the squirrel wars will stabilize into a “cold war” with political boundaries that don’t move. And the consequences of this change in squirrel species? Probably little if any. It’s just another little-noticed chapter in the long story of man’s influence on nature.
P.S. to my column about the Ledger Newspaper – I should have mentioned that the Friends of the La Crescenta Library is providing the major funding for efforts to make the Ledger available on the county library’s computer system.