Look out for that ‘cute’ rodent

Confused? We aren't talking about mice or rats. The 'cute' rodent in question is what we commonly refer to as the squirrel, with its unmistakable three stripes. Vikram Nanjappa tells you more.

The word ‘Rodent’ usually makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up. We associate the word with rats and mice which we occasionally encounter near our homes and makes us reach out for our rat traps and rat poison. In our minds they are unwanted pests that need to be dealt with severely.

The three-striped palm squirrel is a very adaptable species and have made their home in the urban environment. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

However there is one rodent that we find extremely cute and which lives in our close proximity. I am referring to the common squirrel which can be found in any part of Bangalore.

Rodent (order Rodentia): any of more than 2,050 living species of mammals characterized by upper and lower pairs of ever-growing rootless incisor teeth which must be kept short by gnawing. Rodents are the largest group of mammals, constituting almost half the class Mammalia’s approximately 4,660 species. They are indigenous to every land area except Antarctica, New Zealand, and a few Arctic and other oceanic islands. Common rodents include mice, rats, squirrels, porcupines, beavers, and voles.

Squirrels are a family of rodents distinguished by their large bushy tails. Their main characteristic besides their thick bushy tails are their short muzzles, large incisors and arboreal lifestyle.  Taxonomists divide squirrels into two sub-families, namely, Sciurinae and Petauristinae which in turn comprise of various tribes.

Our common squirrel or to give it its proper name – The Three-Striped Palm Squirrel (Funambulus palmarum) is from the Funambulini tribe within the Sciurinae sub-family. There are six striped squirrels in India out of which two have made their homes in an urban environment. The second one is the Five-Striped Palm Squirrel found in North India.

The Three-Striped Palm Squirrel is a very adaptable species and is endemic to southern India and Sri Lanka. It is diurnal (active in the daytime) and semi-arboreal (frequent trees but not confined to them). They are found in tropical and subtropical dry deciduous forests, mangrove forests, grasslands, scrublands, plantations, rural gardens and urban areas.

The three-striped palm squirrel feeds on nuts, fruits and even food consumed by humans. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

In urban areas they can be found in gardens, parks and near human dwellings, usually single or in pairs. They are frequently seen scampering among trees, walls, across streets and sometimes even enter our homes. They can be quite bold and some may even take food from our hands. We usually observe them chasing and grooming each other on the branches of trees. Being fairly vocal, their call is frequently heard. They give out a call that sounds roughly like “chip chip chip” when alarmed. Next time you come across them do keep an ear out for their call.

Three-striped palm squirrel

  • Bushy tails, short muzzles, large incisors and arboreal lifestyle
  • Fairly vocal. Their call sounds like “chip, chip, chip”
  • Feed on fruits and nuts. Now, they also eat food consumed by humans
  • Extremely active during mating season
  • Ability to survive in a human-dominated landscape
  • Main predators are domestic cats and rat snakes

While they usually feed on fruits and nuts they have turned opportunists in the urban environment, taking food consumed by humans. They are extremely active and their activity reaches a peak during the mating season. The females build soft and fluffy nests on tree branches using fiber from dead leaves and grass. The gestation period is a little over a month (approximately 34 days) and usually two to three young are born. The young one feed on their mother’s milk for a period of about ten weeks and then they take to solid food. They reach sexual maturity at nine months and then live independently of the parents.

The good news is that due to its adaptable nature and its ability to survive in a human-dominated landscape, their numbers are thought to be on the increase. However their main predators are domestic cats and rat snakes. Crows are known to snatch juveniles from nests too.

The species is not protected by any legislation because of its wide distribution which is expanding, presumed large population, occurrence in a number of protected areas and tolerance to some degree of habitat modification. This is one of our wild neighbors’ who seem to be thriving in our company and we can look forward to their continuing and increasing presence. Never have we had a more engaging neighbor than the Three-Striped Palm Squirrel.

There is a story behind those three stripes on the squirrel – they have been earned. Legend has it that our friend helped in the construction of the Adi sethu (bridge) across the Palk Strait to Lanka. As we all know the bridge was being constructed by Lord Ram and his Monkey Army in their attempt to invade the kingdom of Ravan, the Lord of Lanka. Our friend played his part by rolling in beach sand, then running to the bridge to shake the sand from its back, all the time chanting Lord Ram’s name. Lord Ram was so pleased by his dedication that he stroked the squirrel’s back in a show of affection. While stroking its back, the mark of Ram’s fingers were left on the squirrel ever since.

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