Falcons, weasels, plague? Theories on Morro Rock's vanishing squirrels

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJanuary 25, 2013 

A ground squirrel munches grass near Morro Rock in June 2011.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

The column on the vanishing squirrel population at Morro Rock produced a variety of theories from readers. Here’s a synopsis of some of their thoughts.

• • •

Steven Soenke:

“If the concerned citizens would look up above the squirrels, or around at the people with spotting scopes, they would notice the falcons nesting on the Rock. Nice buffet for the bird recovery program.”

• • •

Stewart Skiff of Morro Bay is one of those with a spotting scope:

“I am a birder, in that my friends and I go out in search of birds to photograph, and visit the Rock and other locations several times a week.

“Yes, there are peregrine falcons and other raptors including red-tailed hawks, and red-shouldered hawks at our Rock. The peregrines pretty much run off the other raptors around the Rock and nest on the south side, as you may know. They dine mostly on other birds and can be seen knocking them out of the air.

“I believe the decline in the population is partially because of the fresh water issue, which you say is fixed, and the lack of nutritious food.

“Their natural food, dandelions, pine nuts, seeds and other forms of food are in short supply, or on the wrong side of the road, and the squirrels must take their life in their hands (paws?) crossing the road (no one likes squished squirrels) and in order for the population to survive, feeding stations should be set up.

“As we are a tourist destination, the wildlife, including squirrels, are good for business.”

• • •

Jane Mallett introduces yet another possibility:

“My husband and I were canoeing in Morro Bay yesterday (Jan. 23) below Target Rock and saw a beautiful weasel running along about three feet above the waterline. He looked right at us and continued on his way. A very beautiful animal about 16 inches long and he literally scampered!

“Joe, my spouse, said, ‘Bet those fat ground squirrels make for a good dinner.’ I looked up weasels on Google and found that, yes, they are meat eaters.

“Here is what they say about the weasel’s appetite. ‘Weasels eat half their body weight every day. Most weasels are nocturnal (active at night), but sometimes they hunt during the day.’

“So, nature is re-balancing, right before our eyes.”

• • •

Norman J. Scott adds yet another possibility:

“I watched the ground squirrels disappear from my property near Creston in 1990, and from the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse where I worked in the mid-1990s. Plague is constantly going through squirrel populations when they get numerous (the feeding campaign may have brought on the plague!?). Here in Creston, the population seemed to fully recover in about 15 years, and it has since declined from the peak.”

• • •

Richard J. Lichtenfels, supervising environmental health specialist with the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department, had this to say about plague in our rodentia:

“How bad is the rabies and plague within ground squirrels in this county?

“The good news is that rabies isn’t a significant issue in rodents, including ground squirrels. Rodent species are rarely found to carry the rabies virus.

“On the other hand, the level of plague is always a concern in the rodent population. To answer your question directly, we currently do not know the level of plague in our local wildlife population, including the ground squirrel … without a funded vector control program.

“The normal protocol is to dust the squirrel burrows with an insecticide to kill the fleas that transmit the bacteria between squirrels.

“To put things in perspective, in recent decades, an average of seven human plague cases are reported each year in the U.S. So even though the plague organism is endemic to our wildlife in many areas of California, including our Central Coast region, the general inability of fleas to gain access to us is our saving grace.”

• • •

And, finally, this animal kingdom anomaly from Penny Villalba of Grover Beach:

“I read your squirrel article with great interest. We have an additional mystery for someone to answer, if possible. We have lived here for 15 years and this past year, 2012, my yard has been home to numerous, wonderful, small lizards. I have talked to longtime residents who do not recall seeing lizards and I wonder what special set of circumstances favored their appearance?”

Any herpetologists out there care to take a crack at this one?

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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