FOCUS: Three kinds of tree squirrels – gray, red, and flying squirrels – occupy our forests, often competing for the same foods and shelters. Each kind has a special niche – particular habits and habitat preferences – which helps these squirrels live side by side. All are hoarders of food, hiding a supply for the winter, though each uses a different technique. Looking for signs of squirrel activity outside gives us a window into the lives of these busy animals.
Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about squirrels.
Give small groups of children photographs of the three types of squirrels. Ask them to make observations about similarities and differences.
Materials: Squirrel Pictures (one set per group).
HANDS-ON SQUIRREL SETS
Objective: To examine different parts of a squirrel’s body, its tracks and sign, and consider how these relate to a squirrel’s daily life and its role in the ecosystem.
Set up three stations with items from the Squirrel Set and have children work in small groups, visiting each station and discussing the items on display with an adult. Use the Squirrel Set Questions and Squirrel Set Guide with Answers to guide the exploration.
Part A: Skulls, skull diagrams, food items
Looking at the Skull Diagram first, do the children notice differences between the two skulls pictured? What are they?
Why would a carnivore have sharp, pointy teeth? (To catch its food and tear the flesh.)
Why would a gnawing herbivore have chisel-like front teeth? (To chip away hard shells like nuts.) What about flat molars? (To grind hard food like seeds and nuts.)
Now looking at the real skulls, can the children guess which one is a squirrel skull? Why?
Look at the stripped cones to see the work of squirrel teeth. Was this more likely done by a red squirrel or a gray squirrel? (Red squirrels eat more cones; gray squirrels eat more nuts.)
Part B: Squirrel pelt and/or tail, picture clues
Have children look at and feel a squirrel’s pelt and/or tail. Consider color and size to determine the species, comparing measurements to the Squirrel Size chart in the set.
Look at the Squirrel Tail Use cards. What are some ways that a squirrel uses its tail? (Balance; warmth; parachuting – slowing its descent; communication.) Which picture clue would not be correct for a squirrel’s tail? (Not used as a toothbrush!)
In what special way does a flying squirrel use its tail? (Stabilizing its flight like the tail of a kite.)
Part C: Prints and track patterns
Looking at the Red Squirrel Print picture first, ask children what they notice about the footprints. (Size, number of toes, presence of claws, pattern of placement.)
Point out that squirrels have four toes on the front feet and five on the back feet and claws.
Why would squirrels need claws? (For holding onto branches and climbing up trunks.)
Which way is this squirrel moving? (Upwards on the page.)
Now look at and compare the Gray Squirrel Track Pattern and Cottontail Rabbit Track Pattern.
What differences do they notice between them? (Squirrels place front feet side by side, while rabbits place front feet one ahead of the other.)
Ahead of time, make three copies of the gray squirrel tracks. Tape them together lengthwise, inserting a blank page between every two track pages, to make a 5’ long track sheet. Do the same for the rabbit tracks. Now lay out the track sheets on the floor for children to study. Have them take turns hopping like a squirrel and hopping like a rabbit. It may help to say, “ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum” for a squirrel and “ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum, ba-da-dum” for a rabbit.
Materials: Squirrel Set including squirrel and mink skulls, diagrams of carnivore and gnawing herbivore skulls, squirrel pelt and/or tail, Skull Diagram, Squirrel Chart, Squirrel Tail Use cards; stripped cones, Red Squirrel print, Squirrel Set Questions and Squirrel Set Guide with Answers; to make track sheets: three photocopies each of Gray Squirrel Track Pattern and Cottontail Rabbit Track Pattern, four sheets of blank paper, tape.
PUPPET SHOW “A Tree Party”
Objective: To meet three kinds of tree squirrels and learn about their different food and habitat preferences.
Perform the puppet show, or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the play. What are three kinds of squirrels that live in our forests? (Gray, red, flying.) What do all these tree squirrels like to eat? (Seeds, nuts, mushrooms.) What kind of forest does the gray squirrel prefer? (Deciduous, with nut trees like oak, hickory, and beech.) What about the red squirrel? (Conifer forests.) What time of day is the flying squirrel active? (Night.) What about the gray and red squirrels? (Daytime.)
Materials: puppets, script, props, stage.
Objective: To look for patterns of similarities and differences in the characteristics and behaviors of three squirrel species.
Have the children sit in a semicircle. Place the three squirrel photos on the rug so all can see them. Read out the clues on the Squirrel Clue cards one by one and have the children decide which squirrel each card describes, setting it next to the squirrel’s photo. How does each of these squirrels store food for winter? What are some characteristics shared by all the squirrels? (Furry; all rodents – gnawing animals; eat seeds, nuts, fungi; live in trees, agile; active all year.) What are some differences?
Tape a large photo of each squirrel at a different location in the room. Hand out a Squirrel Clue card to each of the students. Each card has two pictorial clues on it, like dominos. Now, ask the students to decide which squirrel their clues describe and stand by that photo. If they don’t know, they should try to find another student with one matching clue. After everyone has joined a group, they may line up their clues like dominos. Have each team introduce its squirrel and that squirrel’s unique characteristics.
What are some traits shared by all the squirrels? How might these differences help the three squirrels to live near each other and share the resources of the forests? (They might help to reduce conflicts over food and shelter.)
Materials: Squirrel Clue cards, Squirrel Pictures – large photos of each kind of squirrel.
Objective: To look for squirrels, squirrel sign, and other evidence of squirrel activity.
Take the children outside in small groups. Look for squirrels or evidence of squirrels on or near the school grounds. Have the leader or a child in each group keep a list of findings and afterward share discoveries with the rest of the group. Ask what evidence they found that squirrels live near the school grounds. Did they find evidence of more than one squirrel? More than one kind of squirrel? Why do they think so?
- Squirrel tracks (hopping patterns that begin and end at tree trunks) – Look for signs that tell what the squirrel was doing.
- Drey (large leafy nest in the treetops) – Why would a squirrel build a nest so high off the ground?
- Signs of feeding such as:
- Midden pile (pile of collected cones and discarded cone scales)
- Nipped twigs (small evergreen twigs on the ground)
- Stripped cones, nut shells
- Cones or mushrooms lodged in branches of shrubs
- Food trees (nut trees or conifers) – Can you count the cones or nuts?
- Hollow trees (tap them for flying squirrels) – Anybody home?
- A squirrel! Which species is it? How many do you see? What type of squirrel probably lives here? Why?
Materials: for each small group: Squirrel Search card, science journal or clipboard and paper, pencil; optional: binoculars.
WHERE’D I PUT THAT ACORN?
Objective: To model squirrel nut-burying behavior and consider its effect on the ecosystem.
Give each child ten “nuts” (e.g. dry pasta pieces, acorns, pasta, popcorn, dried beans) to hide around the playground. Review strategies for seed storage used by the different squirrels. What are the advantages of larder hoarding versus scatter hoarding? Acting like squirrels, children should now try to hide their tokens without others seeing the hiding places. Explain that they will have a chance to retrieve their hidden tokens in a while.
Move on to the Squirrel Highway or Squirrel Search activity to allow some time to pass before children can collect their food tokens. Afterward, give the students 5 minutes to try to find their pieces. Ask each child to report the number of tokens they retrieved, record their results and add up the total for the group.
How many did the whole class recover? Count up and tally.
How does this compare to gray squirrels in real life? (85% success for individual squirrels.)
Did anyone steal seeds from another child? Do squirrels sometimes steal food? (Yes.)
What happens to the seeds that are forgotten? (They may grow into new trees.)
What happens on a year when squirrel numbers are very low? (Very few nuts will be planted and fewer new trees will start growing.)
How are squirrels important to the forests of tomorrow? (They plant seeds of trees.)
Optional alternative: use a timer to see how long it takes the children to hide their food, and then again to see how long it takes them to collect it.
Materials: small items like acorns, popcorn, pasta, or dried beans to hide outside, 10 per child in bags; paper, pencil, clipboard or whiteboard and marker; optional: timer.
Objective: To model the challenges that squirrels face as they balance on thin branches while trying to fulfill their basic needs.
Outside in the schoolyard, use gym cones to represent five or six tree trunks. Lay out a grid of ropes on the ground to connect the trees. Tell the children they will pretend to be squirrels and will need to travel from tree to tree to collect supplies. Like squirrels, they need to walk along the trees’ skinny branches without falling off. Divide up the class so that equal numbers of children are starting from each of the trees. At your signal, children can begin carefully walking along the ropes to get to another tree. If they step off the rope, they must go back and start again.
Place a small container (e.g. coffee can) with colored tokens of four colors at four of the “trees” to represent food, shelter, water, and nest sites. Designate a fifth tree to be the “Home Tree.” Children must follow the ropes to collect one of each colored token and then navigate along the ropes to reach Home. If two squirrels meet on a branch, one must back up to a cone where squirrels are allowed to pass each other. Continue until every child has collected four tokens and reached Home.
Materials: 100-150 feet of rope or laundry line; 4-6 gym cones or other markers, 4 containers marked “food,” “water,” “shelter,” and “nest site” containing tokens (paper, pasta, or other) in four colors.
Objective: To model how far a flying squirrel can glide.
Pace off a distance of 150 feet, marking the start and finish line. Have children stand in a row, behind the start line. Have the adults stand at the finish line, representing tree trunks. At your signal, the children should open their arms like flying squirrels (holding their jackets open if weather permits) and run to the finish line where they turn and hide behind an adult (tree trunk). What factors might affect how far a flying squirrel can glide? (Wind, rain, height above the ground for take-off.) Why do flying squirrels move around to the back of a tree trunk when they land? (To escape from an owl that might be chasing it.)
Optional: Make a flying squirrel slider: tape a three-inch piece of drinking straw to a flying squirrel cut-out. Thread this model onto a ten foot string. Two children hold the ends of the string so it is very taut, and then raise one end to make the squirrel slide.
Materials: optional: measuring tape, gym cones; for slider: flying squirrel cut-outs, drinking straws, string, scissors, clear tape.
UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Glide Ratio (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To notice the relationship between height and gliding distance in flying squirrels.
As a group, look at the Glide Ratio Diagram, noting that a flying squirrel glides forward about two feet for every one foot of drop. To glide four feet, it must start from two feet higher than the landing place. How high up would it need to climb to glide to a tree six feet away?
Working in small groups, have the students measure and calculate answers to questions such as: Could a squirrel glide across your classroom? How high up the wall would it need to climb? Could it glide across the school playground (parking lot, baseball diamond, etc.)? Is there a perch high enough to allow this? Discuss other factors that could affect a flying squirrel’s gliding ability? (Wind, temperature, size of the squirrel, obstacles, etc.)
Materials: for each group of 2-3 students: measuring tape, Glide Ratio Diagram, clipboard, paper, pencils.
GLIDE RATIO DIAGRAM
A flying squirrel’s glide ratio is about 2:1, meaning it goes forward about 2′ for every 1′ of drop as shown below. To go 4′, it must start from 2′ higher than the landing.
How high would a flying squirrel need to climb to glide 6′ away? (3’)
SIGNS OF SQUIRRELS SLIDESHOW
Objective: To view examples of squirrel tracks and sign as preparation for outdoor exploration.
Show slides or photos of squirrel tracks and other squirrel sign to prepare children for an outdoor squirrel search. These might include nipped conifer twigs, stripped cones, chewed and stripped acorns, a midden pile, squirrel nests (dreys), red squirrel tunnels, or squirrel tracks in snow. Afterward, generate a list of squirrel sign with the students to look for outdoors.
Materials: Squirrel Slide Show with photographs of squirrel tracks and sign, Squirrel Slide Show Script, projector, screen.
JOURNAL ACTIVITY and CLOSING THOUGHTS
Objective: To reflect on squirrels and their role in the forest.
Ask children to picture their favorite squirrel in its habitat. Have them draw in their journals a picture or write a short narrative about a squirrel doing one of its typical behaviors (e.g. gliding from tree to tree, burying acorns), without saying what kind of squirrel it is. In small groups, have the children show their drawings or read their entries, and the others can guess the kind of squirrel.
Materials: science journals, or clipboards and paper, pencils; optional: Squirrel Pictures to draw from.