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Stanford Report, March 13, 2002

Cute, cuddly and criminal: Furry scamps invade dorm rooms, damage property

BY JOHN SANFORD

Squirrels. They forage through rustling leaves beneath the oaks of Kennedy Grove. They bask in the morning sunlight around Lake Lagunita. Tails curled into a question mark, they perch on garbage receptacles and bicycle tires.

Squirrels. On campus, they're everywhere. But more than a few of these bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rodents have turned to a life of crime, sneaking into students' dormitory rooms via open windows in search of food (pizza crusts, cookies) and nesting materials (Kleenex, paper towels, pillow fluff).

To defend against the small intruders, university residence officials are moving to install screens in Manzanita Park dormitories ahead of scheduled Capital Improvement Program upgrades.

Screens currently are being installed in Toyon Hall, another dorm where squirrel-related incidents have been reported, said Imogen Church, who manages undergraduate housing operations.

Rogue squirrels have been particularly active in Manzanita's Kimball Hall. On a weeknight not too long ago, third-floor resident Claudio Storelli, a junior studying economics and philosophy, pointed to scatological evidence that had been left, like a trail of footprints, on a small ledge beneath his window. The ledge runs along the outside of the building and, according to students, provides easy room access for the fuzzy burglars.

"They will take advantage of open windows," said Storelli, who has documented squirrel intrusions with a point-and-shoot camera. He said it was a particular black squirrel that had repeatedly targeted his room. This reprobate -- which, for the record, Storelli said he was rather fond of -- had stuffed its stolen merchandise into the mouth of a roof gutter, where the squirrel lived quite comfortably until it was deported, allegedly, by some Manzanita Park residents who cornered it, put it in a cage and released it into less inhabited environs.

Kimball resident assistant Erica Grijalva, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, estimated that about 75 percent of all third-floor residents in the building had either witnessed the furry bandits in their rooms or found evidence of their trespass, e.g., droppings, decimated paper towels and chewed stereo wires.

Grijalva recalled her own close encounter with a squirrel that jumped onto her desk and, coming to face-to-face with a human, made a quick exit. Another time, Grijalva said she returned from a class to find droppings and paw prints on her desk.

"They're an annoyance, but it's been better in the Winter Quarter," she said, hypothesizing that the colder weather might have something to do with the recent reduction in squirrel activity.

Moroni Benally, a Kimball resident and junior majoring in international relations, said he and his roommate had forgotten to close the windows of their room when they left campus for Thanksgiving break. They returned to discover a paper towel roll "just torn up to pieces everywhere" and damage to some electronic equipment that looked as though it had been the work of "some kind of mutant squirrels," Benally said. Then, as if to guard against casting aspersions, he added: "It may have been the wind." (Yeah, right.)

It's hard to say when tree squirrels, which belong to the family Sciuridae, began inviting themselves into campus buildings. But it may be less a mystery how they acquire the cheek to do so.

"In a nutshell -- no pun intended -- there's probably occasional squirrel feeding," said Peter Ozorio, a university contractor with Crane Pest Control who deals with pest issues in academic buildings. He compared it to a "bears at Yosemite" phenomenon.

Ozorio said that, on occasion, he's been called to deal with a squirrel on the loose in an academic building. "They're not a real nuisance," he said. "We usually just boot them out."

Squirrel incursions are preventable in Manzanita Park, whose dormitories are equipped with double-hung windows -- that is, they can be opened from the top as well as from the bottom. But students tend to open their windows from the bottom, making squirrel access easy, Church said. To enter through a window opened at the top, however, the rodents would have to be capable of the kind of aerobatic prowess exhibited by one of their animated family members, Rocket J. Squirrel of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Sciuridae

The eastern gray squirrel and eastern fox squirrel are the most ubiquitous species on campus, but they are, as their name implies, not native to California. In fact, there are several legends surrounding how they came to find themselves on the Farm. Some speculate that the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869, may have had something to do with their migration.

"I think we can safely rule out ideas such as Leland Jr. brought them from Europe, they escaped from lab studies, etc.," said university archivist Margaret Kimball.

Gray squirrels have lived in North America for millions of years and have readily adapted to life with humans. "They love towns, suburbs," said campus biologist Alan Launer. Fox squirrels, their close cousins, are also good at co-existing with humans.

Both species have a miraculous instinct for planning in advance. They spend their autumn days gathering seeds and nuts and then burying them in hundreds of different locations, a process called "scatter hoarding." They will generally hide much more food than they actually need, and it is probably this flurry of fall activity that makes them inclined to visit students' rooms.

Despite their walnut-sized brains, squirrels are relatively ingenious and unabashedly opportunistic. "They're smart little buggers," Launer said. "They'll figure things out."

Squirrels generally build their nests in trees, although attics and spaces beneath porches are occasionally co-opted by the little squatters. Squirrels in the area have several predators, most notably hawks and owls, but automobiles also take a toll on the population, Launer said.

In any case, Stanford ranks high in the Campus Squirrel Listings, which can be found on Jon's World O' Squirrels (http://www.gottshall.com/squirrels). Jon Gottshall, who maintains the site, writes that the "quality of an institution of higher learning can often be determined by the size, health and behavior of the squirrel population on campus." On a scale of 1 to 5, Gottshall gives Stanford a 4+.

Despite their walnut-sized brains, squirrels are relatively ingenious and unabashedly opportunistic. Photo: L.A. Cicero

 

A squirrel was invited into this Kimball Hall dorm room with the promise of junk food. Photo courtesy of Claudio Storelli