31 July 2011
Sure, squirrels count.
But people counting squirrels might very well add up to something even more valuable.
In the Chicago area, an initiative known as Project Squirrel has harnessed the astute observations of several hundred volunteer observers to monitor and record the activities of these locals at various places throughout the city's grid.
No, this isn't a case of sane researchers gone nuts: The Chicago Academy of Sciences has taken this project seriously since its inception in 1997. There is a lot to be learned, after all, about a region's changing ecology from the way its citizens of nature live and the patterns of their days.
This is not a Census in the true sense of the word: No notebook-bearing stranger comes knocking on tree trunks interrupting the squirrels' day to ask how many adults and youngsters are legally living in those branches. No one with a clipboard is taking notes about their annual income in acorns or asking about their ethnic origins - whether their native language is Squirrelspeak or some other Rodentian dialect.
In fact, federal funding for tree-improvement projects or drawing new district lines for Rodent lawmakers' turf doesn't even hang in the balance here. It's all in the name of science, not politics, with findings recorded on a survey form.
Putting squirrel-watchers to work is a good thing. It's not hard, after all, to toss a few nuts with one hand and take a few notes with the other.
Feeding squirrels, after all, is a pretty noble enterprise. But what they can feed us, in exchange, might prove to be so much better.