HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — In 2001, a wildlife rehabilitator named Christy Hargrove decided squirrels deserved a little respect. So she founded National Squirrel Appreciation Day.

To be sure, squirrels arouse a wide range of emotional reactions, ranging from “cute, fuzzy little nutkins!” to “filthy disgusting tree rats!” At times they can be a bit of a nuisance, raiding bird feeders and nesting in attics. And of course, there’s the whole rabies vector species thing to worry about.

But they also help the environment, even if it’s just by accident. We’ve all seen squirrels bury nuts for the winter, and since they usually bury more than they can eat (or forget where they buried them-there are experiments suggesting they don’t), they help renew forests and beautify parks and urban areas.

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And they’re worth having around just for the entertainment value. There’s also something simultaneously hilarious and inspiring about watching the efforts squirrels will go to while trying to climb up, climb down, and jump (as much as 10x its body length) to scarf some seed from a feeder. Humans have exploited the squirrels’ determination for their own amusement-just Google “squirrel obstacle course”, and prepare to laugh until you hyperventilate.

Squirrels are classified as rodents, in the family Sciuridae. This family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots (think: groundhog), flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. (Today we’ll just stick with critters that have “squirrel” as part of their names.) There are hundreds of squirrel species around the world and five in Pennsylvania:

  • Eastern Gray Squirrel
  • American Red Squirrel
  • Fox Squirrel
  • Northern Flying Squirrel
  • Southern Flying Squirrel

The Gray Squirrel is the one that we see the most-in fact, sometimes it’s hard to look out a window and not see a gray squirrel! They’re the ones most likely to be raiding your birdfeeder, outwitting a lot of “squirrel-proof” barriers along the way.

The Red Squirrel, as the name suggests, has reddish fur. It’s about half the size of a gray, and not as common. At least, we don’t see them as much.

Fox Squirrels are the largest tree squirrels in the state. They come in two subspecies, the western, Scriurus niger rufiventer, and the eastern, Scriurus niger vulpinus. A third subspecies, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger cinereus, once existed in southeastern Pennsylvania, but nearly went extinct. It has recovered, but only on the Delmarva Peninsula after which it’s named.

The flying squirrels might actually be the most common squirrels in the state. Or they might not. They live high up in trees and are nocturnal, so it’s hard to get an accurate count. Your chances of seeing one are small, but if you do, it’s a remarkable sight-especially when they launch themselves into the air. Flying squirrels don’t actually fly, but can glide for great distances, using a skin flap called a patagia that extends from wrist to ankle, and a flattened tail to help steer.

The reputations of squirrels have had their ups and downs. According to a Pennsylvania Game Commission pamphlet, “Once there were so many gray squirrels in Pennsylvania that they were considered nuisances by pioneering farmers. In fact, bounties were paid on 640,000 squirrels in 1749, and many more were doubtless taken for the table.” But by the 1840s, city residents were feeling a need to bring a little nature back in their lives and did it by reintroducing squirrels to urban areas, starting with Philadelphia’s Franklin Square in 1847.

Since then squirrels have demonstrated their ability to co-exist with humans-though human ideas of how to co-exist change from time to time. At one point children were encouraged to feed squirrels, to teach them kindness to humans and nonhumans alike. Now, feeding squirrels is frowned upon, since it might make them dependent on humans for survival and, oh yes, rabies.

So how best to celebrate Squirrel Appreciation Day? One thing you can do is learn more about squirrels-and with over 200 species across the world, there’s a lot to learn. And maybe, just once a year, it would be ok to put out a little food for them-or at least ignore their attempts to raid your bird feeder…