The red squirrel, that charming champion of survival, plays a key role in various ways in all the mixed forests of the Greek mountains. It is a rodent of the Sciuridae family, and its scientific name is Sciurus vulgaris, that is, “common squirrel” and in Greek “skiouros”. In the near past, biologists believed that the red squirrel is divided into a big variety of subspecies (more than 40). Until recently, red squirrels that live in Greece, were considered to belong to two subspecies, the Sciurus vulgaris subsp. lilaeus and the Sciurus vulgaris subsp. ameliae. Today the two subspecies are considered synonymous. In Greece their distribution includes almost all the mountains and forests of northern Greece and Pindus mountain range reaching up to Parnitha in Sterea and Mainalo and Taygetos in the Peloponnese. It is absent from the islands. In Greece there are two other species of squirrels, the European ground squirrel (Spermophilus citellus) that lives in the fields in some areas of northern Greece and the Caucasian squirrel (Sciurus anomalus) that lives exclusively on the island of Lesbos. The red squirrel in Greece is protected by the Berne Convention, from P.D. 67/1981 and from CB-IUCN.
The red squirrel is a small, agile, animal with a slender body, long tufted tail and dense fur. Its colors in Greece vary as in summer it has a bright red-brown color and in winter a chocolate-brown color, while its chest remains white throughout the year. Generally the red squirrels that live in Greece are darker, almost melanistic, than those of Northern Europe and rarely have the bright red-orange color of the latter. During winter its ears grow long erect hairs and its soles are covered with hairs. A special feature, that gives its common and scientific name (skia+oura trnsl. shade+tail) is the large tufted tail that often reaches almost the same length of the body. The long tail plays a crucial role in the balance of the animal as it jumps from branch to branch and the role of a "blanket" during cold weathers. The length of the red squirrel ranges from 18 to 24 centimeters and the length of its tail from 14 to 20 centimeters, while its weight varies between 250 and 350 grams. It has two pairs of incisors, like all rodents, covered with enamel which keeps them always sharp by rubbing them against each other. Red squirrels have an excellent vision with great focusing ability and a wide range of view.
Key role in reforestation
Red squirrels live mainly in coniferous and broadleaf forests in places bordering with mixed vegetation of trees, such as oaks, walnuts, chestnuts, poplars, hazels, maples, and others. They are not afraid to make their territories around villages or settlements, and they even found inside parks, as they are attracted by various domesticated fruiting trees. The habitat of each squirrel is spread over 7 hectares with a density ranging from 0.2 to 10 squirrels per hectare. They can not digest cellulose and rely solely on foods rich in proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Their diet includes a wide variety, such as pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, wild cherries, blackberries, blueberries, wild strawberries and other forest fruits, as well as flowers, mushrooms, insects, even chicks or birds eggs. If food is scarce red squirrels will eat seeds from crops, such as barley, oats, corn, apples, pears, etc. They also eat soil and wood to obtain the necessary minerals. They store large quantities of nuts to eat them during the winter, in the soil and in the holes of the trees. Red squirrels, along with jays, are considered the most important species in reforestation. The hardest period for them is early spring, as the buried nuts begin to sprout and are no longer available for eating.
The red squirrel is a solitary species that comes out of its nest half an hour after sunrise. The main hours of activity are about 3 to 4 hours after sunrise and stays out up to 3 hours before sunset. Their nest consists of branches and dry leaves stacked in a spherical shape with a diameter of 25-30 cm, high on the trees. Each squirrel can use several nests, while some individuals make their nests in tree hollows. Red squirrels do not hibernate, but they may stay several days inside the nest when the weather is cold. They are generally calm animals and the only fights between them include small squeals and jerks of the tail. The hierarchy seems to be determined by females. The courtship involve a frantic chasing by the males. They mate mainly from January to March and give birth twice a year (May and August) to 1-7 cubs (usually 3 cubs) each time. Cubs become independent after 4 months. Their care is undertaken exclusively by females who carry their young from nest to nest in case of danger. Red squirrels live about seven years. They are a favorite prey for many animals such as birds of prey (mainly nocturnal predators, such as eagleowls and tawny owls, but also goshawks, levant sparrowhawks, common buzzards), pine martens, weasels, foxes and wildcats.
The great threat
A great danger to their survival is the coexistence with other alien related species such is the case of the introduction of the American gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) from North America to England, and more recently to Italy. Within a few years the grey squirrels have brought the native species of red squirrel, the same that lives in greek forests, close to extinction. The prevalence of the grey squirrel was because it has a bigger size, it is much more adaptive but also because when the red squirrel is under pressure it does not reproduce as often as the grey squirrel does. Gray squirrels also carry a deadly virus that decimates red squirrels. Nowadays, a lot of money are spent to protect the species in the affected areas. This is another example of the irresponsible behavior of many "animal lovers" who believe that they do good if they release their pet, while in fact they cause almost irreversible alteration on local habitats and the extinction of many native species.