Spike in SC squirrel population leads to birth-control experiment outside Beaufort County

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Spike in SC squirrel population leads to birth-control experiment outside Beaufort County

By BO PETERSON
The (Charleston) Post & Courier
Published Sunday, November 11, 2012   |  497 Words  |  

If it seems like your trees are swarmed with squirrels right now, it's because they are.

It's the time of year when acorns and other nuts have dropped, and predator hawks are in transition from summer to winter haunts rather than lurking.

So lots of squirrels are scampering, stocking up for the cold months.

A good "mast" crop -- basically nut foods -- last year has spiked the population somewhat. And more urban squirrels, with more and more bird feeder-y food sources, now tend to hang around in good numbers.

That means more squirrels chewing on ornamental plants, tree bark, house siding or exposed rubber wires. It means more pecan trees getting robbed. Joe Maffo of Critter Management said he has seen local homes where squirrels have chewed straight through gutters.

Maffo estimates that getting rid of squirrels are the biggest part of his business.

"Holy cow, we're inundated," Maffo said. "They're just so destructive." 

The ubiquitous squirrel "is one of the top nuisance calls we get," said Billy Dukes, S.C. Department of Natural Resources small-game project supervisor.

Take heart. Even if the toothy, gnawing critters were launching an end-of-time battle, besieged humans might soon have a nonlethal defense -- birth control.

Really.

Work is under way at Clemson University, where the squirrel-pestered campus is now largely roamed by rodents on The Pill, so to speak.

With the university's mix of urban environs and forester-furnished landscape trees, the squirrel population is 15 to an acre, about three times more than most other places. And the gnawers have wreaked about $13,000 in damage on at least 100 landscape trees.

Something had to be done, and at a school with an emphasis on animal health, .22 rifles weren't an option.

Five years ago researchers launched an experiment injecting squirrels with contraceptives, said Greg Yarrow, chairman of the university's Natural Resources Department.

The injections worked, but the trapping was labor-intensive and the $50-per-squirrel cost was prohibitive. So researchers turned to The Pill.

They now are coating sunflower seeds with DiazaCon, a long-lasting hormone suppressant that already has proven itself on birds from crows to monk parakeets. Yarrow said the experiment has been a success.

Not that homeowners should get their gnawed-over hopes up: Acquiring DiazaCon would take a restricted-pesticide license or a federal agency.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

Allison Stice contributed to this report.

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