I grew up in Fishtown, Philadelphia, an inner city grid of red-brick row homes, corner bars, candy shops, and barely-breathing factories. Fishtown was not known for its wildlife. There were birds. A wide variety, if two counts as a wide variety: big birds (pigeons) and small birds (sparrows). There were cats and an occasional dog that escaped out of someone's yard.
On rare occasions, I'd see a squirrel scampering about on the telephone pole in my backyard. This was an occasion to call all the neighbor kids and we would stand there like we were at the zoo. The squirrel stared right back, Philly-style.
Moving out of Fishtown and into a new apartment complex, I had a neighbor who owned a very large, very ruthless cat. It terrorized the squirrels and chipmunks at the complex. Every morning I listened to the squirrels chattering in disgust at the robust tabby and it fueled my loathing of felines. And my appreciation of squirrels.
I thought everyone loved squirrels, so much so that I incorporated the squirrels and the evil cat into a short story I wrote in graduate school. I learned how wrong I was when my professor tossed my story on her desk and said, "Squirrels are rats with fuzzy tails. I hate them." She continued about how the squirrels near her house ruined her garden and vandalized her bird feeders. "They're a bunch of thugs."
So much for assumptions. Many years later, I turned to a developing self-professed expert in the field of squirrels: Mira Campbell, my five-year old daughter. She had to write a report about squirrels for her kindergarten class last term, and learned all she could:
What do you know about squirrels?
They eat nuts and berries.
They live in trees in the forest. (thinking) That's their habitat.
I'm impressed you remembered the word habitat.
I know things.
They hibernate. Can I have more lemonade?
I still like squirrels. A lot. They served as a reminder of a larger world on a small city block. And I am glad that Mira knows a little about them, about their habitat, and about how to con me out of more lemonade. Now as I watch them with my own children, in my own front yard, sampling the seeds from Halloween pumpkins or scampering up the loblolly pines, we are reminded that we are not the only ones who live here.
In observance of Squirrel Appreciation Day (yes, it's a thing), SciStarter offers a variety of citizen science projects to encourage people to become better acquainted with the squirrels in their neighborhoods. Project Squirrel, for instance, relies on volunteers to help track squirrel populations across North America. Squirrel Mapper aims to understand how natural selection affects coat color in eastern grey squirrels – which, despite the name, can range from grey to solid black.
What's great about these programs is that anyone can do them. Something that I've learned over the years is that nature is not relegated only to the woods or fields, but exists in backyards everywhere -- whether that's in rural North Carolina where I'm raising my daughters today, or in the heart of a city neighborhood. I like to think that today, some other kid in Fishtown is doing just what I was as a kid: looking up, looking around, and rallying the neighborhood in search of wildlife.
SciStarter contributor Russ Campbell is senior communications officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in Durham, N.C.