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UL research reveals about 1,300 squirrels call campus home

A squirrel runs down a tree in the quad.
A squirrel runs down a tree in the quad.

Approximately 1,387 gray squirrels reside on UNC’s campus. The fact was revealed through the Undergraduate Library's Research Challenge of the Week, in which librarians strive to find the answers to questions students pose throughout the semester.

“We have two ways that students can send us questions,” said Kelsey Hammer, a graduate assistant at the UL who found the information about the squirrels. “We have a physical board in the UL where students can write questions on Post-It notes, and we also have a Tumblr, so people can send them in via the Tumblr as well. We have this pool of really cool and silly questions. We just choose ones that we think are really interesting or really topical.”

Hammer said it was hard to find much information on the topic at first.

“I ended up searching all the databases through Articles Plus. I was just looking for information about gray squirrel populations. I was trying to find a situation that was as close as possible to UNC,” Hammer said. “So the article we ended up using in the research was done on Clemson’s campus with the same type of squirrels, gray squirrels. It’s also in a similar region of the country. I was looking for something that was comparable to UNC, and we ended up finding something really close.”

The study Hammer used to make her estimate, which came from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, describes Clemson University's campus as “characterized by gently rolling hills to flat open areas and is dominated by mature mast-producing trees such as pecan and oak with an understory of mixed ornamental shrubs, flowers and grass.”

Hammer used the number of squirrels on Clemson’s campus, divided by the number of acres of Clemson’s campus, multiplied by the number of acres of UNC’s campus to find an estimate of UNC’s squirrel population.

Tom Bythell, University arborist, said he thought a population of 1,300 squirrels sounded about right to him.

“It’s an extremely favorable environment for squirrels, obviously, with all the natural food and all the unnatural food, you know, being the stuff they pull out of garbage cans,” Bythell said. “So I would expect their population to be pretty high, and that’s pretty high for suburbia.”

Colleges are great places for squirrels due to the high numbers of garbage cans they can delve into. UNC in particular has nut trees that appeal to the squirrels.

“It’s squirrel friendly because of the abundance of food," he said. "We have a lot of oaks, and, as you know, acorns are very popular. We have many pecan trees, another very popular food for squirrels. As supplemental food for them, they love going into garbage cans and eating the rest of, you know, a donut wrapper or something like that. There is an incredible amount of food for them compared to similar areas.”

Bythell said he doubts the squirrel population at UNC is significantly higher than at other universities with similar natural environments.

“I had the same position at Princeton University in New Jersey, and it seems to me that there’s about the same number,” he said. “You’d see squirrels in about the same rate.”

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