Though the St. Olaf campus has changed dramatically over the years, campus squirrels have remained a constant and (mostly) beloved fixture on Manitou Heights.
St. Olaf's squirrel population is primarily made up of eastern gray squirrels, the most common type of squirrel in the United States. They have gray-brown fur, white bellies and bushy tails. The eastern gray squirrel has the highest survival and breeding rate in its genus due to its ability to adapt to various environments, its resistance to the common Parapox virus and its natural ability to store large amounts of fat before wintertime.
One would imagine that another of the eastern gray squirrel's survival tactics is to stay away from larger mammals, especially humans, who might prove to be a threat to their welfare. On the contrary, the eastern gray squirrel easily acclimates itself to human presence, and has even been known in rare instances to become domesticated by food-givers. When arriving on campus for the first time, some St. Olaf students are startled by the social nature of the campus squirrel population. However, most people become accustomed to the squirrels' antics, which range from the mundane to the bizarre.
Alex Robinson '09 recalled seeing a squirrel exhibit strangely human behavior. I saw a squirrel eating an apple, twirling it in its hand back and forth, like a corn cob, he said. This was about a year ago and I saw it happen again today.
For many students the antics of the furry rodents is an endearing part of their daily routine. I love the campus squirrels, John Walters '08 said.
Even professors are not immune to their squirrel antics. Professor Kathy Shea had a close encounter of the squirrel kind. I had one grab a sandwich out of my hand when I was sitting in one of the wooden chairs in the center of campus, she said. I think they have become more bold.
Campus squirrels have always been the subjects of a fair amount of online affection as well. Their popularity surged in 2004 when an anonymous student created a Campus Squirrel profile on Facebook.
In the past two years, Campus Squirrel has apparently acquired 435 Facebook friends, a girlfriend and a wall full of messages from admiring fans. He is tagged in 11 pictures, posing in different locations around campus.
Not everyone on campus is enchanted with the resident squirrel population. Some students are startled by how emboldened squirrels have become.
St. Olaf squirrels are very audacious, said Elyse Fenstermacher '09. If one's standing in my way [as I walk towards it], it won't move. I have to go around it.
They inspire me to make quick movements and yell at them, Julie Rolfes '08 said.
Other students simply consider them a garden-variety pest; I don't think they're dangerous, Mike Potter '08 said, just a nuisance.
No matter how students feel about their smaller, furrier counterparts, the squirrels aren't likely to disappear soon. Professor and Curator of the Natural Lands Gene Bakko has been employed on campus since 1972. In that time he hasn't noticed a significant change in the number of squirrels on campus. As long as there's habitat (mature hardwood trees) they'll be here. Couple that with an artificial food supply (outdoor garbage cans) and you end up with a high population, he said in an e-mail statement.
Bakko believes that the squirrels perform a vital service to St. Olaf's natural lands; Because they bury their nuts and there's always a certain amount of those that they don't find every winter, they do provide for natural propagation of our native nut producing trees, he said.
While the squirrels on campus may provide a valuable service to the trees on campus, not all of them are adjusted to a wild lifestyle. Assistant Professor of Biology Diane Angell has been involved with several student studies on the interactions between squirrel and human populations on campus. She noted the data indicates that there is a substantial difference in behavior between comparatively wild natural land squirrels and their neighbors on the developed parts of campus. Clearly squirrels on campus are very used to people and likely see people as a source of food, she said. Squirrels down on the natural lands show fear of people and flee even when people are rather distant from them.
The increased level of interaction between students and squirrels has raised concerns among students and faculty.
Angell recommends that students approach the campus squirrels with caution. I would be a little careful if you are feeding them out of your hand, she said. They will confuse food with good smelling fingers and take a nip out of you. On the other hand they are unlikely to bite and do not tend to carry any nasty diseases.
Bakko agreed, Things like rabies and other things that might be transmittable to humans are very rare in rodent populations so the main thing to worry about if one gets bitten is to be sure your tetanus shot is up to date.
Despite the risks associated with feeding and interacting with wild animals, campus squirrels have garnered quite a reputation at St. Olaf.
Why do so many students have so much affection for the oversized rodent? Is it because their playfulness makes us laugh while we walk back to our dorms after a long day of classes or an evening spent in the library? Or maybe it is because their daily activities of hunting, gathering, playing and sleeping represent a simple life envied by busy Oles.