Squirrels live in small areas of our neighborhoods year round and don’t hibernate, though they often go unnoticed as we humans carry on our daily lives.  However, you might say that squirrels and people have a lot more in common than any of us probably realize when we see one interrupting our picnics or scurrying across a sidewalk.  Like us, squirrels are creatures of habit, using the same sources of food, water, and shelter almost every day in order to survive.  By studying the appearance of squirrels, scientists also gain a lot more insight into our own habitats.  If squirrel populations fluctuate over the course of a year, this can tell a story about the changing ecology of a neighborhood.
Project Squirrel, a project sponsored by the Chicago Academy of the Sciences and the University of Illinois of Chicago, is trying to understand urban squirrel biology as applied to a larger “urban game park,” including everything from squirrels to migratory birds, nocturnal mammals, and secretive reptiles and amphibians.
To gain data on squirrel populations across the United States, Project Squirrel is calling all citizen scientists to count the number of squirrels in their neighborhood and report their findings.  Citizen scientists will also be asked, when possible, to distinguish between two different types of tree squirrels – gray and fox.  According to Steve Sullivan, the mechanism of co-existence between squirrel species can help tell an interesting story.  Depending on the levels of predation, housing, food, and other factors, the relative abundance of these two species will fluctuate.  This, in turn, tells an interesting story about ecological interactions affecting not just squirrels but many other local animals as well.
Project Squirrel is designed so that anyone of any age can participate, and could be incorporated into all of our daily routines without much disruption.  Squirrels are very easy to see and identify without extensive effort for citizen scientists.  More importantly, citizen scientists can gather data over a much broader region than what scientists alone could cover.
Also, Steve and his other scientists are not just studying squirrels – they will also be studying US.  The scientists at Project Squirrel are also going to use this project to understand the effect that participation in citizen science has on participants (this will be tested through an upcoming portion of their web site that is not yet published).  I have a feeling their conclusions are going to be very positive!  And so, getting involved and documenting your experience will also help provide information that can be used to recruit other citizen scientists to action!
Many thanks to Steve Sullivan for suggesting this project and contributing a tremendous amount of information to this article.  Again, I encourage all readers to contribute their citizen science ideas here.
Statistics from previous years:  Project Squirrel was founded in 1997 by Wendy Jackson and Joel Brown, and since then has had over 1000 participants provide observations.  This is a large number, but not large enough – I challenge our Science Cheerleader community to double this number in the next two years! Simply because of Project Squirrel’s resource constraints, this project is focused on the Chicago Wilderness biogeographical region – Chicago and its the surrounding suburbs in southern Wisconsin, northern Indiana, and southern Michigan.  However, it is a useful project anyplace there are tree squirrels.  People from all parts of the United States are encouraged to submit their observations, even if they aren’t from the Chicago region.

  • Topics: squirrels, ecology
  • Location: at home or close to home
  • Duration: a few minutes, whenever you can
  • Cost: free or low cost
  • Gear: no equipment needed
  • Level of Difficulty: Easy

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